Interview: Unpacking Voter Suppression in Georgia
By Evelyn Li
Georgia may have been the birthplace of the civil rights movement, but it remains a hotspot of voter suppression. The state’s anti-democratic policies drew national attention during the 2018 midterm elections, when Secretary of State Brian Kemp oversaw the gubernatorial election in which he was competing (and would eventually win).
On June 9th, the state made national headlines again, holding primary elections that experts called disastrous. Voting machines malfunctioned, inexperienced poll workers were in disarray, and wait times were up to five hours long. Many are worried that what transpired this month would be a preview of the November general election — a terrifying proposition.
To investigate, Equal Citizens Fellow Evelyn Li spoke to voter protection advocate Sara Tindall Ghazal.
In February 2018, the Democratic Party of Georgia hired Ghazal to be the nation’s first year-round, full-time Voter Protection Director. She built the most comprehensive voter protection operation in the country, spearheading groundbreaking work to defend and advance voting rights across Georgia in 2018 and 2019. Indeed, during her tenure, Ghazal and her team’s program emerged as a national model to protect the vote across the country.
Before taking the role as Voter Protection Director, Ghazal worked for more than a decade for former U.S. President Jimmy Carter at The Carter Center. There, she supported peace efforts in countries such as Syria and Rwanda, promoted free and fair elections globally, and strengthened democracy in Liberia and beyond.
Ghazal is currently the Democratic nominee for state representative in Georgia State House District 45.
In February 2018, you became the first year-round, full-time Voter Protection Director in the country. Why was this role created and what were your obligations?
The Georgia Democrats had seen, year after year, how voting rights were being chipped away and how voters were being disenfranchised by government leaders and state laws. So the position was created in response to that. There were repeated lawsuits against the Secretary of State (who is now Governor) at the time trying to overturn policies that were then codified into law. It was such a systemic issue in Georgia that they needed someone focusing on it full time, not just at the height of election season.
The outlines of the position were really quite simple: do everything I could to make sure everyone who was eligible to cast a ballot was able to do so, and then make sure those ballots were counted accurately. It was a hell of a lot harder to actually do that, but the job description was straightforward.
Can you go into a bit of detail about the worst examples of voter suppression in Georgia in 2018?
Some of the laws that were on the books were specifically designed to make it difficult for certain communities to remain registered. We had an exact match law, that was originally a policy unilaterally put in place by Brian Kemp (it was struck down in court, but the legislature then codified it into law so it could remain in effect). Under the match law, if your name on the voter rolls did not exactly match the name that the State had on other databases — like the social security database or the drivers services database — your registration was suspended. This policy predominantly affected minorities — either Black voters or voters with foreign last names. I mean, really, it was systematically targeted to those voters. And it affected tens of thousands of people.
New Americans and voters of color are more affected by exact match laws for a number of reasons. Communities of color are more likely to be registered through registration drives and if you register on paper, there can be a data entry error. Moreover, they may have names that are transliterated or have unusual punctuation, which can display differently across databases.
In practice, you are supposed to be able to show up, show your voter I.D., and then be allowed to vote. But in reality, if they could not find your name in the voter registration database because of whatever error there was, you were essentially not registered, and you could not vote.
Worse still, if you showed up and they could not find you in the voter rolls, they told you to go away. Voters have a right to cast a provisional ballot. But unless you know that is your right and you affirmatively ask for it, you don’t get one. No one was actively offering it to these voters.
There’s more. Imagine you show up at the wrong polling place because you do not know how to check where your precinct is — which happened to voters in 2018. Poll workers would tell you to go away instead of letting you know that you could cast a provisional ballot. They just told you to leave, sometimes not even telling you where your actual polling place was.
Another huge problem in Georgia is loss of Election Day precincts. After the Voting Rights Act was gutted, Georgia closed more polling places than any other state aside from Arizona and Texas. Between 2013 and 2018, 214 polling places were shuttered due to polling place consolidation and elimination. Such a change predominantly affected Black voters. And these closings were deliberate. The Secretary of State’s office published a ten page guide on how to reduce polling locations while adhering to state and federal law. He even told counties who to hire to plan out these programs in ways that would be legal.
In 2018, there were lots of other little things that were difficult to determine whether they were errors of omission or commission. For example, lack of resources for predominantly minority precincts on Election Day led to lines that were hours long. It is impossible to know whether that was simply poor planning or a deliberate effort to suppress votes. But votes were suppressed.
What would you say were the most successful aspects of your tenure as Voter Protection Director? Were you able to block some of the worst suppression efforts?
Probably the biggest impact we had was our voter call log. Coupled with the Abrams campaign, we were able to reach tens of thousands of voters to find out what barriers they were facing. Due to that work, we were able to identify the systemic problems that needed policy changes.
Some of those policy changes were even successfully addressed in the 2019 legislative session through the passage of HB 316, a bill that changed the election machines. We were not really supportive of everything in the bill. But there were some incremental changes within the law itself that addressed a good number of the issues.
Do you think that we will see more state parties hire a Voter Protection Director? The Joe Biden campaign after all just hired a national director for voter protection.
That is what Stacey Abrams took on to make a national priority. Fair Fight Action [Abrams’ organization] was able to raise enough money to fund twenty state parties hiring Voter Protection Directors in battleground states across the country. I was incredibly proud to see that move forward. The DNC has a much more robust staffing structure, and they have since found staff for this type of work. The Deputy Director for Voter Protection at the DNC was actually my deputy in Georgia. I am incredibly proud and really gratified that the DNC recognized this issue and put resources there.
Having this position can make a difference in who is able to cast ballots. I do not know if we will see these positions last beyond 2020, but to be perfectly honest, a highly successful program will work its way out of a job.
This job should not have to exist. It should not be a partisan position at all. It should not be the role of a political party to make sure everyone can vote. But one of the primary strategies of the other political party is to prevent people from voting, so something needs to counterbalance it.
How are voting rights still threatened in Georgia? Statewide leaders in Georgia are currently hostile to expanding voting rights. But in an ideal world, what policies would you want to see implemented to address voting rights issues?
The very first thing I would do — taking it out of the context of 2020 and the unique chaos we are seeing now — is implement same day voter registration. There is absolutely zero reason to force voters to have to pre-register a month in advance. With modern technology and electronic databases, counties can easily verify someone’s registration and whether they are eligible to cast a ballot.
Voters should be able to show up on Election Day with documentation that proves they have a right to vote, and they should be able to cast a ballot. That way, if someone is wrongfully purged, they do not permanently lose the right to vote in that election.
Same day registration is a way of recovering from a mistake. It also is useful if someone has moved and did not know they have a limited amount of time to correct their information before they lose their registration. Under same day registration, these individuals would not be disenfranchised. Moreover, if there is a mistake in someone’s registration, they can change it, and still get a ballot.
Georgia can also expand their automatic voter registration. Currently, we have semi-automatic registration through the Department of Driver’s Services, where if you go and get your driver’s license you are automatically registered to vote (unless you opt out). There are increasing numbers of people who do not have driver’s licenses, though, especially as Lyft and Uber type services increase in urban areas. In Georgia, we also have plenty of rural poverty, so many people do not own cars. Automatic voter registration should therefore be expanded to include other government agencies.
Georgia should also adopt a single sign up for absentee ballots. This is critical for 2020. What I mean by this is: voters should be able to sign up for absentee ballots once, and then get them for each election in a cycle or, even better, always get them. In other words, you stay on the permanent absentee ballot list instead of applying for one separately for every single election. It makes everything more efficient, and it reduces the workload of the counties. It provides much more certainty for determining resource allocation because you know how many of your voters are voting absentee as opposed to in person.
How do you predict COVID-19 will impact voting rights in Georgia? Are you worried that turnout will be depressed without a major expansion of vote-by-mail?
I think vote-by-mail should be easier for everybody, always. It is a very convenient way to vote. And frankly, it allows voters to make more informed choices when they have their ballot in front of them at home and they have time to do their research on what they do not know enough about. More informed voters make better decisions for themselves.
Ideally, the state would just mail out ballots without applications. But an ideal world and Georgia elections? That is not even a Venn Diagram. No overlap exists.
There are ways of allowing an electronic submission that would really almost eliminate the paperwork burden counties have. The science is completely unknown with COVID-19. It is a brand new virus. We have no idea what it will look like in November. But we have to plan for the worst. Hope for the best, but plan for the absolute worst. We have to conceive of November being a mail-in election for most voters. But we also have to provide in-person voting opportunities. Because too many voters distrust the mail ballot system or do not trust that their applications will be processed or do not trust that their ballots will be counted. In a state like Georgia, they have a lot of experience with things going wrong. These are not unfounded fears. So to make sure they have the chance to vote, safe in-person early voting will be much more important.
Poll workers are another concern. Right now [two weeks before the election ] my county, Cobb County, is 400–500 poll workers short for election day. So they are doing aggressive recruiting, but we still do not know how many people they will get confirmed and trained on a whole new set of machines by Election Day. I do not know how we will end up. I do not know how many precincts will be open. [Cobb Country ended up hiring only 1100 out of the 1400 poll workers they were seeking.]
There is no reason to believe the situation will be any better in November. So we need robust early voting, coupled with a very easy application process for absentee ballots.
One part about the pandemic’s impact on democracy that has gone under-reported is how it has already hurt voter registration efforts. After all, most Americans get registered at governmental agencies or during in-person voter drives. What is happening in Georgia to get voters registered?
That is a really good question, and I do not have a good answer to that. In Georgia we just joined the ERIC membership group. It is a coalition of various state governments that share information on voter registration lists to try to make sure states have better informed purge processes. They can compare, for example, the Georgia registration list and the Florida registration list and say “this person registered more recently here and it looks like they moved, so let’s make sure we reach out to this voter.” Part of this process also includes looking at data from Driver’s Services and finding out who is eligible to register but has not done so. They are going to be affirmatively reaching out to these people, giving them the opportunity to register on paper in September. I do not have great faith that it will be conducted in a way that is voter-friendly and that actively enfranchises people.
Our Department of Motor Vehicles has pretty much shut down. So I do not know when registration there will re-start. One of the lurches of COVID-19 is that drivers who had been driving on a learner’s permit for more than 12 months and who were at least 17 of age were allowed to get driver’s licenses automatically without taking the driver’s test. While there ended up being a huge outcry and they eventually will take their test, I have no idea whether these hundreds of thousands of young people were given the opportunity to register.
Another problem, by the way: Right now, you can pre-register to vote when you are 17 and a half. But, that does not align with the schedule by which most teens get their first driver’s license. So many people are not registered when they turn 18. But that is a feature, not a flaw, if you actually do not want young people to vote. So it is hard to tell. It seems sort of deliberate. It is very easy to move pre-registration back to 16. That would create no extra paperwork burden.
**Note: After the primary in Georgia on June 9th, Evelyn followed up with Ghazal to ask the following questions
How much of the failure on Election Day can be attributed to incompetence versus active malfeasance?
I am not sure that it is possible to draw a sharp line between malfeasance and incompetence. The rapid roll-out of the system was coupled with an absolute failure of the state to provide adequate training and support for the counties, and those inadequacies accounted for a large part of what we saw. It was entirely predictable; the state and counties were warned by numerous groups and experts; and yet it still happened. And afterwards, the Secretary of State’s office has declined to take any responsibility by saying that counties run elections in Georgia. Of course, this same office sued a county that had attempted to run its elections using paper ballots, because the county board decided they were not prepared to operate the new system. The Secretary of State cannot have it both ways. If that office dictates how counties will run elections, the staff has the responsibility to provide the counties the support they need to use the system that the state mandates.
Counties have their own responsibility as well — but those problems fall on the incompetence side of the equation. In both Gwinnett and Cobb, county staff did not even deliver all of the election equipment to precincts on time. By 7am on Tuesday, there were multiple locations in both counties that literally did not have the equipment and supplies to allow voters to vote. This is why both Cobb and Gwinnett counties (along with 18 others across the state for different reasons) had to get court orders to extend polling hours.
What are your takeaways about the election machines?
The complexity of the new voting system is definitely an enormous issue that caused a huge number of the problems on Tuesday. The costs were outrageous, and the rollout disastrous.
The bigger issue that I referenced when we last spoke is whether we should be using an electronic system at all. There is a huge debate between security specialists and election administrators. The former argue that no electronic system can possibly be secure enough to utilize for an election, and therefore only paper ballots should be used. Elections administrators argue that ease of administration should overcome the speculative security risk.
Ironically, because of the massive problems that occurred across the state, we ended up administering a hand-marked paper ballot election for at least part of the day on Tuesday, proving that it is not too much of a burden, at least on election day. For early voting, the issue is more complicated. Our large counties in particular have far too many ballot styles to make early voting practical with pre-printed paper ballots — — but this is neither here nor there. We have this system, and we have to make it work.
Do you think the state leadership will respond to make the right fixes before November?
The issues can be fixed. I laid out many of the solutions in the Twitter thread that I wrote. Whether the issues will be resolved depends on whether there is political will on the part of the Secretary of State. And that is an open question.
Evelyn Li is an Equal Citizens Fellow and an incoming student at the University of Chicago.