Want to Save Democracy? Start with Georgia.

Republican-led efforts to restrict voting access in the Peach State speak to a larger crisis across the country.

Anoa Changa

The scourge of disinformation has risen from campaign tactic to major civil rights issue in Georgia. False claims of voter fraud are being used as justification to challenge existing voter protections, opening the door for voter harassment and intimidation. Even nonpartisan organizing efforts — such as line warming” activities, like passing out water to voters to encourage civic engagement— are being attacked. 

"Every other issue of social justice, from workers’ rights to economic and reproductive justice, connects back to voting rights and ballot access."

With the passage of Georgia’s SB 202 (which Republicans titled the Election Integrity Act of 2021) and similar bills underway in Missouri, Florida and other states, the GOP is clearly striving to suppress the vote. In this way, the Right is following its decades-long legacy of shoring up its declining support by preventing access to voting. I don’t want everybody to vote,” right-wing strategist Paul Weyrich said in 1980. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” 

The floodgates for these recent bills opened in 2013, when the Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder rescinded the parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that had addressed racial voting discrimination in the South. According to Cliff Albright of the Black Voters Matter Fund, today’s attacks against Black voting rights should be compared to the way Southern white politicians blocked Black voters after Reconstruction. New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie agrees, noting that Jim Crow laws did not explicitly ban Black people from voting but were more insidious — using a web of restrictions and regulations meant to catch most Blacks (as well as many whites) and keep them out of the electorate.” 

Now, those same strategies are underway in Georgia. 

Again.

The 98-page Georgia law launches a raft of provisions that will prevent Black people from democratic participation. In its sights is Fulton County, home to Atlanta and a large share of Black voters, which former President Donald Trump targeted in 2020 with false claims of ballot stuffing and fraud. 

Now, the state will be able to take over local boards of election as well as prohibit third-party funding for election administration (from nonpartisan grants, for example), among other measures aimed toward voter suppression. 

Conservative pundits insist the critics are exaggerating, cherry-picking examples to show that the law isn’t that bad. (They also use distractions, like attacking Major League Baseball’s decision to move its All-Star Game out of Georgia and into Colorado, as a smokescreen.) An April 5 editorial in the right-leaning New York Post even claimed New York has stricter election laws than Georgia — completely ignoring New York’s new suite of election reforms meant to expand voting access in the state. 

We cannot allow these mischaracterizations to gain ground. 

Georgia is a microcosm of a crisis of democracy across the country. Every other issue of social justice, from workers’ rights to economic and reproductive justice, connects back to voting rights and ballot access. All of the new momentum for justice for Black, Brown, Indigenous and other marginalized communities is at stake. Some of the same donors and entities that have led obstructionist fights against equity and justice— such as DonorsTrust and Susan B. Anthony List — are the ones now challenging the expansion of voting rights and democracy. 

While much of the recent liberal focus on saving democracy” has fixated on Congress and the presidency, it is the states that run elections and decide who does and does not wield the right to vote. Rightwing political movements have long recognized state-level power, with organizing efforts that have yielded GOP control in 23 states — where legislators and governors are attacking racial, gender, economic and social justice. 

Well-meaning liberals have rushed to declare boycotts against Georgia tyranny, but a boycott without a strategic economic objective will leave impacted communities in the lurch. In op-eds and social media posts, people continue to invoke images of famous boycotts, strikes and related actions — without engaging with the organizing behind those famous moments. Now is not the time to cosplay as our heroes; we must take the lessons from their work and lives in full. 

Organizers of color, especially, are fighting back against SB 202. So far, Georgia civil rights organizations have collectively filed four lawsuits challenging the Georgia law. In the meantime, local organizers continue their year-round work to expand civic engagement and counteract the stifling of the Black vote. At the federal level, the For the People Act of 2021 could alleviate many of the issues raised by Georgia law. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named after the late congressmember and civil rights icon, would help correct the injustice of Shelby.

Fighting voter suppression and protecting democracy requires more than virtue signaling and canceled baseball games. It requires listening to people directly impacted on the ground. A larger battle is looming that needs our collective attention. Free and fair elections, and democratic participation, are not partisan activities; there can be no common ground with those who restrict people’s rights through deceit.

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ANOA CHANGA is an Atlanta-based independent journalist, focused on voting rights and electoral justice. A retired attorney, she hosts The Way with Anoa podcast. Changa has bylines in Truthout, The Appeal, Essence, and Scalawag Magazine.

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