Voter Suppression Is Violence

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Jamil Smith
·9 min read
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As he prepared to make State Bill 202 law on Thursday, it seemed that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp was shielding himself. Six white men in suits flanked him, three each on his left and right, and a portrait of a plantation hung on the wall behind him. The only way to bear witness was through the livestream, or the photo that Kemp later tweeted out.

Park Cannon wasn’t invited. The Georgia state lawmaker, who represents a district in eastern Atlanta, stood right outside Kemp’s office, knocking lightly on the door as the governor prepared to sign off on the first of Georgia’s many current bills aimed at restricting voting rights. We also got to see what Cannon was doing, thanks to bystander video. Given that multiple analyses outline how Georgia’s S.B. 202 and other measures proposed by Republican state lawmakers will inordinately disenfranchise black voters, it seems Cannon only wished to bear witness to her own subjugation. And I suppose, in a different way, she did: State capitol police soon handcuffed and arrested the representative, literally dragging her away from Kemp’s office.

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Memes began circulating on social media showing the officers’ rough arrest of Cannon juxtaposed with images of white supporters of former President Trump overtaking the U.S. Capitol and, later, lounging in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. But what happened to Cannon was only a harbinger of the violence yet to come.

Yes, “violence” is a fitting term for S.B. 202, and not merely because it criminalizes the distribution of food and water to those voters waiting in Georgia’s traditionally interminable lines. In the essay published in The New York Times shortly after his death, the late John Lewis deemed voting to be “the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society.” I would agree, but there first needs to be a democratic society. Republicans understand better than most the threat that equal voting rights pose to their political survival, and neither they nor their supporters are responding with nonviolence to Joe Biden’s election and the Democratic takeover of the U.S. Senate. The deadly January 6th Capitol attack was merely the first salvo. The next one is here, in the form of S.B. 202, as well as bills like the one Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed earlier this month, cutting her state’s early voting period and closing the polls one hour earlier on Election Day. New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice has counted more than 250 bills like those proposed this year alone, in 43 states.

The act of suppressing votes may not draw blood as conspicuously as it did on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, for instance. Perhaps that’s why folks like Mitch McConnell think they can skate by saying, as he did last week, that “states are not engaging in trying to suppress voters whatsoever.” However, we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion, as a nation, that racism or the state violence that codifies it can only look like one thing or another. It looks both like Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd neck, and Kemp signing that bill into law. This neo-Jim Crow measure builds upon the mayhem that has already cost lives, not just at the Capitol, but also thanks to the malevolent governance of Republicans nationwide. After decades of working to erode the promise of the American experiment, or perhaps to simply reserve it for themselves, it appears that Republicans want to finish the job this year.

This is why S.B. 202, and the laws surely to be modeled after it, are designed to ensure that white men with regressive politics will continue to hold power. How so? It gives them the tools to do it.

As my colleague Tessa Stuart reported recently, bills such as Georgia’s S.B. 202 — already the subject of a lawsuit — simply builds on Trump’s fantasy of states overturning the will of their voters, which ran aground when confronted by the laws of the land. Should it survive its legal challenges and become actual policy, S.B. 202 would grant counties and the Georgia General Assembly undue influence over local officials administering elections. The next time someone tries to pull a Trump in Georgia, they’ll have help.

I imagine one of the first customers this law will serve will be the governor himself, whose own history of voter suppression tainted his election victory in 2018. He is up for re-election next year, and may possibly be opposed again by one Stacey Abrams. If you think Kemp and his fellow Georgia Republicans won’t take advantage of this simply because he rebuffed Trump’s attempt to overturn Biden’s victory there, I’d bet you have another thing coming.

That S.B. 202 erodes the power of the Georgia secretary of state, Kemp’s former office, is somehow fitting. Brad Raffensperger holds the position now, and his fellow Republicans by and large weren’t pleased when he, like Kemp, rebuffed Trump’s pressure to overturn the state’s election. It’s easy to see how the new law might be a form of retribution.

However, Raffensperger is busy defending S.B. 202, and drowning the discussion in a sea of false equivalence. In a bewildering op-ed published last Monday in the conservative quarterly National Affairs, the same man who said Trump’s voter-fraud claims were “just plain wrong” posited that the former president’s fictions recalled the (legitimate) doubts Stacey Abrams raised about how voter suppression swung her gubernatorial election to Kemp. Raffensperger claimed Abrams’ rhetoric represented “an all-too bipartisan willingness to undermine the integrity of our democracy — and the public’s confidence in it — for the sake of personal and partisan gain.”

This is rather desperate gaslighting coming from Georgia’s top election official. Echoing Mitch McConnell telling us to not believe our lying eyes — “States are not engaged in trying to suppress voters whatsoever” — Raffensperger claimed last week that “Democrats and national media outlets asserting that Georgia’s election reform will ‘restrict access’ to voting are just partisan talking points, not facts,” adding that “the cries of ‘voter suppression’ from those on the left ring hollow.”

This is provably false. While S.B. 202 ostensibly expands in-person voting hours, Georgians working outside their home precincts used to be able to vote where they were, not just where they lived. Now, even that’s prohibited until the arbitrary time of 5 p.m., depriving many voters stuck far from home of the choice of casting a provisional ballot. Those who are stuck in this predicament — perhaps because they work nights or simply don’t have the time to stand in those long Georgia voting lines — will now have to sign an affidavit attesting to why they couldn’t get home in time.

Hopefully, these voters will have hydrated and had a big lunch. Unless there’s a self-serve station available, there is that prohibition on receiving food or water from kind neighbors willing to ensure they don’t collapse.

That provision is particularly cruel — and surely good enough reason for Biden himself to forcefully condemn the law as “un-American” and an “atrocity,” as he did Friday. He added, “If you want any indication that it has nothing to do with decency, they passed a law saying you can’t provide water for people standing in line while they’re waiting to vote. You don’t need anything else to know that this is nothing but punitive, designed to keep people from voting.”

Nsé Ufot, the CEO of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, condemned both the law and the cowardice that marked its enactment. “Republican lawmakers pushed this bill through behind closed doors and amidst a cloud of secrecy,” Ufot said in a statement, “introducing a surprise 94-page addition to the bill without sharing a word with the community. This is not how democracy works. Lawmakers are elected to represent us, yet they are doing everything they can to take away our votes without our consent.”

So why is blocking access to the ballot violent? It’s important to note that S.B. 202 seeks to prevent black voters, in particular, from defending themselves against both insufficient and malevolent governance. The whole thing reeks of revenge for the massive black turnout for Biden last fall, especially in states like Georgia — and experts see S.B. 202 as having a discriminatory effect on those voters. The law shortens the period for Georgia’s runoff elections from nine weeks to four weeks, an unsubtle retort after two losses in runoffs cost Republicans the Senate. It adds unnecessary voter-ID requirements to verify ballots, a step meant to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Black voters were much more likely to vote by mail during last November’s pandemic-afflicted election, and this bill adds onerous voter-ID requirements for submitting absentee ballots. But even the newly restrictive access to drop boxes, mandating that they be inside early-voting locations, defeats the point of not having to go to early-voting locations — and potentially endangers voters during health crises like we’re experiencing now.

Since we’ve just endured the Trump presidency, consider his purposeful mishandling of a pandemic that disproportionately targeted black, Latina, and poor people. (And following the longstanding pattern of white-supremacist violence, we weren’t the only casualties.) Trump belittling protective measures, such as masks, and failing to create a plan to end the crisis cost hundreds of thousands of lives — and that’s according to former White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx, who told CNN that all deaths over the first 100,000 in the United States “could have been mitigated or decreased substantially.” If the willful failure to prevent deaths isn’t considered to be violent, what is?

Is there any doubt that electing the wrong officials can have as lethal an effect as them poisoning water with lead, or doing nothing as madmen shoot up our supermarkets? Even detached from the murderous Jim Crow violence and poll taxes that sought to keep black voters away from the polls, it is clear that disenfranchisement is violence, and is often lethally so.

The American public at large should consider abominations like S.B. 202 beyond weighing their moral crimes and unconstitutionality. These are potentially lethal actions. Desperate to hold onto power, Republicans have busied themselves since the election trying to manifest Trump’s delusions about voter fraud into policy. In Georgia at least, it appears they have succeeded. Even after getting stomped in a presidential election and losing control of the Senate, Republicans refuse to see their loss in Georgia and other key states as teaching moments. Instead, the empire is striking back, attempting to land a killing stroke upon both democracy and the heads of those who just want to vote.

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