Just over a year since Georgia’s excruciating gubernatorial race brought in its ultimate results—former Secretary of State Brian Kemp securing just over 54,000 votes more than former Minority Leader Stacey Abrams—Rep. Bee Nguyen of House District 89 hosted a voting rights town hall at Welcome Friend Baptist Church in Ellenwood, Ga., last week on Nov. 7. The event received a considerable turnout for a frigid, rainy Thursday evening, and the bill was stacked with commendable speakers including Dr. Carol Anderson (author of One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy and professor of African American studies at Emory University), Hillary Holley (Organizing Director of Stacey Abrams’ nonprofit Fair Fight Action), and Teresa Hardy (president of NAACP DeKalb).
Rep. Nguyen began by introducing herself and telling a bit of her personal story and family background. A daughter of immigrant parents, Nguyen grew up knowing an atmosphere of fear and distrust of the government in the home. Her parents were refugees from Vietnam who came to America in 1979, under President Carter’s unpopular immigration policy at the time. Prior to their move to the U.S., Nguyen’s father was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for three years. What’s more, while her family was in transit to the U.S., their boat was stranded in the ocean and then raided by pirates; all the women in the boat were raped, except for Nguyen’s cousin who was 10 months pregnant.
This is one story of the trials and tribulations immigrants suffer as refugees migrating to the U.S.—and Nguyen’s family’s trauma from previous experiences with government were not eradicated upon their arrival.
“What I witnessed in my household was that my parents did not feel empowered in any way,” she explained. “They kept their heads down and they were afraid to speak out. They didn’t feel a sense of agency. They were afraid to participate civically, because they came from a country that didn’t allow them to vote for the people who represented them. And they had an intense fear of government, because everything they experienced in their own government was that it was supposed to be something that protected them, and instead it did the opposite.”
After laying down bricks of trust for the attendees, Nguyen moved on to explain the current state of Georgia’s voting rights and opened the door for the speakers to fill in the gaps. Following the introductions, Dr. Anderson stood to address the room. Out of the gate, she dove right into the history of voter suppression in the United States dating back to the 1890s, citing the Mississippi Plan as a prime example.
“The best way to understand this is that, when we think about disenfranchisement, when we think about stripping people of their right to vote, we often think about it in the terms of violence that has rained down on black people,” begins Dr. Anderson. “Now we think about that kind of disfranchisement in terms of the physical destruction and violence against black people. I want to talk about the kind of bureaucratic violence that creates this silent, civic death through these policies that eviscerate the right to vote. And the best place to start is Mississippi.”
Dr. Anderson swiftly broke down America’s history of voter suppression in a matter of about 20 minutes, discussing the poll tax (which is currently enacted in Alabama) and literacy tests that were major tenets in the Mississippi Plan. She then fast forwarded to the power of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protected states from systemic disenfranchisement of their voters. She then explained the effects of the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which removed Section 5 of the VRA and opened the door to countless assaults on voter rights protection in various states. Within two hours after the passage of the Shelby County v. Holder decision, Texas hit with its voter identification laws, which had been denied multiple times in the federal courts for being racially discriminatory.
“Texas isn’t the only one,” said Anderson.
This is where the focus shifted towards present-day politics in Georgia. Before the speakers began, each attendee was provided a one-sheet containing information on the Democratic Caucus’ list of bills proposed for legislation. Among them are House Bill 6, which would repeal the code section that enables the Secretary of State to purge voter rolls, and House Bill 117, which would level Georgia up with more progressive states, allowing voters to cast their ballot at any precinct in their respective counties. These are just two of eight bills proposed by the Democratic Caucus; the flip side of the sheet shows bills proposed by the Republican Caucus. None were listed except House Bill 316—the Republican party’s response to the faulty renderings of last year’s gubernatorial election. It was originally introduced to the state Senate in February 2019, not too long after Abrams delivered what Holley calls her “non-concession speech,” and then fast-tracked into enacted legislation by April 2, 2019.
Abrams delivered that speech 10 days after the 2018 election results came in. Holley spoke of the decision Abrams was faced with following the results of last year’s election, explaining that the Abrams campaign found itself at a crossroads.
“We had two choices on day nine after Election Day,” explained Holley. “Do we contest the whole election and ask for a redo, or do file a federal lawsuit? Me and some folks were like, ‘Let’s just do it again! We can beat ‘em.’ But Stacey, because she’s brilliant, said, ‘But, the system won’t change. I would rather put myself aside, file the federal lawsuit, fix the system… so whoever runs for office, Republican or Democrat, won’t have to go through this again.’”
Fair Fight Action is currently in litigation for a federal lawsuit against Georgia’s State Board of Elections, making the case that HB 316 (which is considered the Republicans’ “voting package bill”) doesn’t do nearly enough to address the systemic and racially discriminatory problems riddling Georgia’s voter registration and election systems. Rather than appealing the results of the gubernatorial election, Fair Fight uses data collected and testimony from that election as evidence in its case.
When considered in the context of the larger history as delivered by Dr. Anderson, learning about HB 316 carries a more complex framework. One that fits perfectly in voter suppression’s M.O.: “If this one doesn’t get them, that one will.” Instead of correcting issues head-on, HB 316 offers superficial tweaks and adjustments as if to say, “Here you go. Problem solved. Georgia doesn’t have voter suppression,” all while sounding fairly reasonable.
Unfortunately, a closer look reveals that HB 316 actually changes very little.
HB 316 replaces Georgia’s current insecure voting systems with new electronic systems, even though cyber security experts provided testimony that paper ballots are the most secure means of conducting elections and cost less than the new electronic voting machines.
Additionally, HB 316 extends the number of years a voter can remain on the rolls without voting before they are deemed “inactive” from three to five years. Under HB 316, the Secretary of State’s office is required by law to send notice to the voter if they are on the purge list, a courtesy that was not included in previous legislation. However, as the flier states, “The Democratic Caucus believes voters should not be purged for missing and/or opting out of elections” at all.
HB 316 also reduces the number of voting machines per person. Previously, there was to be one machine available for every 200 people; now under HB 316, one machine is to be made available for every 250 voters. Furthermore, the bill fails to provide specific timeframes by which the board of elections must notify voters that their provisional ballot was not counted.
Other changes included in the bill, such as fixes to Georgia’s erroneous exact match policy and “signature mismatch” on absentee ballot applications, only occurred as the result of multiple lawsuits filed against the state by various civil rights organizations, including the NAACP and Asian Americans Advancing for Justice-Atlanta (AAAJ-A). When these organizations challenged the exact match policy for disproportionately affecting minority voters with non-Anglo names, Rep. Nguyen herself testified against it, stating that her name had been misspelled multiple times by official government websites while she’d been in office.
In more or less words, HB 316 does little to protect Georgia voters—all while sounding fairly reasonable. As Dr. Anderson observed about legalized methods of voter suppression, “It has to sound reasonable to succeed, because you can’t outright say ‘black folks can’t vote.’” It’s not just African Americans who are affected, either; voter suppression legislation has what Anderson calls a “targeted hit list,” including African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and those in poverty.
Legislation and policies such as HB 316, exact match, and voter purges arrive in the guise of voter protection in response to what Republicans have called “massive, rampant” voter fraud in federal courthouses. However, data shows (and Kris Kobach and Greg Abbott themselves have testified to this) that, nationally, there have been 31 incidents of election voter fraud out of one billion ballots cast. That’s two cases of voter fraud a year. This justification of “massive, rampant voter fraud,” Anderson explains, is the lie upon which the artifice of voter suppression is based.
After situating current policies such as HB 316 in the much grander scale of U.S. history—explaining that while oppression no longer exists in the form of regular lynchings, it is still manifesting in other ways—the speakers brought the conversation back to the day most Georgians (and the nation) remember: Tues., Nov. 6, 2018. The speakers recapped the events of the gubernatorial election, and several statistics especially stood out.
Take the fact that, according to Dr. Anderson, Abrams successfully earned the votes of more black people in the state of Georgia than former President Obama earned among all Georgia voters in his campaigns. Holley noted that even when told to focus on white voters (a demographic that, as Dr. Anderson pointed out, the majority of has not voted for a Democratic president since 1964) instead of “black voters who were going to vote for her anyway,” Abrams’ campaign did more than any other to reach more people. They invested time, energy, resources, and funding into visiting all of Georgia—this includes rural counties that have more or less been abandoned by the state, such as Randolph County (House District 151), which has been a unique place for voter suppression efforts in Georgia. Because of Abrams’ campaign, Georgia had its biggest voter turnout since 1914.
Now, consider that Abrams lost last year’s election by a mere 54,000 votes. Then factor in the fact that 54,000 votes were suppressed via exact match alone, with 80% of those voters being people of color (70% of those being African Americans). On top of that, about 500,000 voters were purged in 2017, the largest voter purge in U.S. history, according to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.
The speakers collectively spoke to the importance of getting ready for 2020, with Anderson specifically noting that a “dying mule kicks hardest,” when speaking about the Republican party and its voter suppression tactics. With the town hall being two days after municipal elections in certain Georgia counties (including DeKalb County), Hardy spoke out about her frustration and disappointment with the turnout results—56,000 voters in DeKalb County, which is home to 573,253 people as of 2017—and called on the need for more work to be done.
While we can hear statistics all day long as proof of voter suppression—which exists in subtle guises not just in the South, but in states like Wisconsin, Texas, and Ohio—they somehow lose their effect as they start to compound with one another, dehumanizing the experience. Disheartening truths come in the form of numbers, yes. But the real power of these numbers lies in the individual stories behind them; these stories are told in countless affidavits of those who were not able to access their right to vote due to restrictions imposed by their own governments, bearing a slight resemblance to the story told by Nguyen of her family’s experiences in Vietnam.
The speakers shed some light on their experiences in the past couple years fighting against bureaucratic violence within Georgia. Nguyen spoke of her work in canvassing Randolph County in 2018, going door to door fighting against a poll closure proposal that sought to close six out of nine of the county’s polling locations. Nguyen noted that Republican and Democratic voters alike in Randolph County were against the closures and wanted greater access to voting, stating this is not a bipartisan issue. Holley shared her experiences going door to door for the Abrams campaign—endless work on the ground and learning others’ stories of being turned away from the polls, possibly alienated from ever going back. Poll watchers from that campaign have come forward since last year’s Election Day to tell their stories as Fair Fight continues to build their case and keep the stories alive. For every negative experience, there is likely one voter lost due to distrust of the system. Even that, as these women made clear, is a manifestation of voter suppression in itself: discouraging and depressing voters of color.
One thing that rings true in all these stories is that they are traumatic. You could feel the weight of them in the room as they were told by these four women—women of color, I should note. It’s important to remember that behind these staggering numbers—54,000, 500,000, 300,000, 70%, 80%—there are individual, human lives that carry a bit of the weight of this trauma. Perhaps that’s what’s missing in the conversation of voter suppression and voter protection, which these speakers provided in this town hall: a wide range of information met with an expansion of empathy.
Find more photos from the Voting Rights Town Hall by photographer Patricia Villafane here.