Give Georgians the Right to Vote

By Takeo Spikes, Adalius Thomas and Michael Jenkins

The right to vote is perhaps our most fundamental. It lets you have a say in health care, in education, and in other key facets of public life. It lets you pick your elected representatives, who will determine the course of America’s environmental future. It lets you pick your senators, who will approve the judges who sit on courts for decades. Deny people the right to vote, and democracy crumbles. Keep people away from the ballot box, and they must depend on others to protect their rights, and hope that they elect officials who will do the same. In the history of America, that has not worked out well for people of color.

This year, thousands of black voters in Georgia may again find themselves unable to participate in an election that includes critical issues like who will be the governor. Recently, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is also the Republican candidate for governor, placed the registrations of over 53,000 newly signed-up voters on hold. Seventy percent of those affected are black. Kemp relied on a 2017 law requiring an “exact match” between the information on a voter registration form and that in Georgia’s Drivers Services or Social Security information databases. A simple discrepancy — a missed hyphen, misplaced apostrophe, or a “t” that looks like an “i” — can land your registration on hold. When the legislature passed this law, experts warned it would disproportionately harm voters of color. That prediction has been borne out.

Critically, Georgians with registrations on hold can still legally vote if they provide ID at the polls. But the confusion, misinformation, and intimidation generated by the exact match process could still significantly impact and deter would-be voters.

This is just the latest in a long history of our government keeping black people away from the polls. In 1870, the 15th Amendment gave black people the right to vote, but Jim Crow laws effectively took it away through the 1960s. Poll taxes existed here until 1945, which cut black turnout in half; other places had equally problematic literacy and property tests. And while Jim Crow ended with the Voting Rights Act in 1965, its vestiges remain. Black Georgians who reached voting age before 1965 are far less likely to be registered than those born after that year.

This state continues using government power to make it harder for black people to vote. In 2014, the New Georgia Project started a massive registration effort to sign up black voters. Kemp declared that he would “just not . . . put up with fraud.” His clear suggestion was that registering black voters leads to cheating — he had zero evidentiary support. Ultimately, the investigation that Kemp launched significantly hampered the group’s work. (Today, the New Georgia Project’s founder, Stacey Abrams, is Kemp’s Democratic opponent in the race for governor.) Kemp has launched other lengthy voter fraud investigations, again targeting minority communities, but he never produced evidence of illegal voting. Nonetheless, these allegations chill people from exercising their right to vote and warn away organizations seeking to register voters.

Georgia was also one of the first states to require a photo identification at the polls, which decreases black voter participation because many black voters simply do not have them. Until Georgia and a few other states pioneered strict photo ID laws in the mid-2000s, such laws were virtually unheard of.

Lawmakers justify laws like photo identification requirements or “exact match” rules in the name of protecting democracy from voter fraud. But according to one study, an American is more likely to get struck by lightning than to commit voter fraud. A Washington Post reporter found exactly four examples of voter impersonation in the entire 2016 election, in which around 139 million people voted. Other studies are consistent.

Voter fraud is a myth pedaled to justify restrictive rules that keep people, mostly minorities, away from the ballot box. These suppression tactics are inconsistent with this country’s foundational principles of democracy and equality. In elections that often come down to just a few thousand votes, these voter suppression methods can have devastating consequences that last for decades.

We must do better in Georgia. In an era where Americans have different and even irreconcilable views of what our collective future should look like, everyone must have a voice. If we can agree on one thing in this country, it is that everyone deserves an equal say. It is time to remove these horrific barriers to voting, and let our people vote.

About the Co-Authors

Takeo Spikes, Adalius Thomas and Michael Jenkins are Atlanta-area residents and supporters in the Players Coalition, an independent 501c3/501c4 organization led by professional athletes to impact social and racial inequality. Takeo Spikes is a 15-yr NFL veteran and NFL/College Football Analyst. Adalius Thomas is a 9-yr NFL veteran and Super Bowl Champion. Michael Jenkins is an 8-yr NFL veteran who played the majority of his career for the Atlanta Falcons. Visit www.players-coalition.org for more information and follow us at @playercoalition.