“Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the current US political climate, Roosevelt’s words could not be more accurate – though not in the way one might assume.
The United States has a long history of voter suppression, especially in the South, depriving millions of Americans – historically from poor and minority backgrounds – the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights. Additionally, many Democrats continue to underestimate the influence of Southern states, which are simply deemed a win for old-school Republican voters.
Intent on reversing this trend, Democratic Representative and prominent voting rights activist Stacey Abrams set out to combat voter suppression, enfranchising swathes of minority voters throughout the state of Georgia. This was not to be an easy task.
The right to vote is a core pillar of democracy. In the United States however, this foundational right is under serious threat. A plethora of structural obstacles litter the path to a free and fair election for many voters, in a system that continuously tries to deny people like Abrams access. Indeed, Black voters were found to be more than twice as likely to have experienced barriers to voting than their white counterparts. Such barriers include voter roll purges, the closure of polling sites, shortening windows of early voting, and strict Voter ID laws.
The redrawing of district lines to unfairly advantage one political party, a practice known as gerrymandering, constitutes another suppression tactic. Commonly known to be weaponised in the South to favour Republican candidates, gerrymandering is done deliberately to weaken the voting power of those districts with the largest Black populations, as they are more likely to vote Democrat. Such tactics have been used with almost surgical precision to suppress the Black and minority vote.
The Racist History of Voter Suppression
Voter suppression is not a new phenomenon, by any means. In fact, the right to vote was denied to Black people until 1870, when the 14th and 15th amendments were ratified following the end of the Civil War, allowing Black men, in principle, to vote. It wasn’t until 1920 that Black women obtained this same right.
However, these amendments had only a marginal impact on the enfranchisement of Black voters. Oregon, for example, did not ratify the 15th amendment until almost a century later, in 1959.
It was during this time, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, that progress was being made in challenging the systems and institutions of racism that had plagued Black people in America for centuries. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the movement was the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made many racially discriminatory and suppressive voting practices illegal.
Yet in 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated Section 5 of the Act, prohibiting “eligible districts from enacting changes to their election laws and procedures without gaining official authorization”. The decision drove a stake through the heart of the Voting Rights Act, paving the way for multitudes of restrictive voting laws. The effects of the ruling were immediate.
Within 24 hours, Texas announced that it would implement strict photo ID laws. Mississippi and Alabama followed, introducing strict photo ID laws that had previously been prohibited due to federal preclearance. In the three years following the decision, over 868 polling places closed, predominantly in African-American counties in the Southern states of Arizona, Louisiana, and Texas. Without Section 5, the protection of Black voters had effectively ceased.
Stacey Abrams, a former tax attorney and graduate of Yale Law School, initially ran for Georgian Governor in 2018, after serving as Minority Leader of Georgia’s House of Representatives. Her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, narrowly won the election, though his victory was marred by controversy. Kemp, Georgian Secretary of State at the time, was accused of using his office to purge up to 670,000 Georgian’s from the voter rolls. Many of these voters were not notified, and those that had attempted to re-register had their registrations cancelled.
As Secretary of State, Kemp was responsible for overseeing the election, and whilst he vehemently denied suppressing votes, preferring to claim “voter roll maintenance”, the disproportionate impacts of his decision on Black and minority voters were clear. Falling short by just 55,000 votes, Abrams refused to concede, instead condemning Governor Kemp’s “truly appalling” acts of voter suppression. “The erosion of our democracy is not right”, she said. Yet there is hope.
Battling Voter Suppression
Over the past 20 years, Georgia, which is known to be overwhelmingly white, has seen a huge demographic shift with an increasingly diverse population of Black, Latino and Asian people. This has largely been ignored by many Democratic candidates, who continue to prioritize the white Democratic voter of the South in their electoral strategies – demonstrated by their often centrist, catch-all messages. Abrams herself acknowledged that “electoral politics tends to lag behind demographic changes.”
Despite losing her campaign to be Governor, Abrams continued her fight against voter suppression, turning her gaze to those the Democratic Party has historically neglected and written off, namely Black, Latino, and young people. She founded the organization Fair Fight Action to tackle voter suppression in Georgia and Texas, aiming to “ensure every American has a voice in [our] election system.”
Since 2018, the organization has registered over 800,000 new voters, and with success. In the 2018 election, Abrams tripled the turnout of Latino and Asian voters, increased African-American participation by 40% and doubled the turnout of people under the age of 30. Better still, Democrats turned Georgia blue for the first time since 1992 in November. The role of Abrams and a whole host of Southern Black women in ensuring this victory should not be forgotten.
Indeed, the Black turnout in Georgia this year played a crucial role in electing Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, allowing the Democratic party to regain control of the U.S. Senate for the first time in over six years.
Though challenging the suppressive tactics of the Republican Party, Abrams work has also sent a direct message to the Democratic party. Her campaign has proven that Georgia is in play for elections, and that the potential power of Southern states should not be underestimated by the party. Democrats should and surely will take this into account when reassessing their future electoral strategies.
The Role of Southern Black Women
Of course, whilst Abrams’ work should be praised, we cannot forget the decades-long effort by Black activists, particularly African-American women, to enfranchise Southern Black voters, an effort that is often forgotten.
Tracing back to the Civil Rights Movement, pioneers such as Fannie Lou Harmer helped register Black voters across Mississippi, founding an organization to recruit women of all races seeking election to government office, while the late Rep. John R. Lewis forged the way for many through several initiatives, including the Voter Education Project.
For the past 5 years, Nsé Ufot has been the CEO of the New Georgia Project, a legal action non-profit also set up by Abrams back in 2013. Helen Butler (Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda), Rebecca DeHart (Fair Count), Deborah Scott (Georgia Strategic Alliance for New Directions and Unified Policies) and Tamieka Atkins (ProGeorgia), have all played a fundamental role in combatting voter suppression.
With Biden and Harris’ presidential win, as well as the remarkable victories of Jon Ossoff and Rev. Warnock in Georgia’s Senate race, the decades long efforts of Southern Black female activists such as Stacey Abrams have finally borne fruit. However, Abrams’ work is not finished, and the fight against voter suppression must continue. However, one thing is certain: with the efforts of activists like Abrams, the future looks bright for dismantling voter suppression across the United States.