‘A scientific experiment’: Georgia run-off reignites voter suppression debate

In the early 1960s, Denmark Groover Jr, a Democratic state legislator in Georgia, led the push there for a two-round voting system as part of an unabashed effort to suppress the votes of African-Americans.

The segregationist argued that a run-off system, where a second round of voting was held if no candidate clinched at least half of the vote in the first round, would lead to white voters consolidating their support behind a single candidate.

Nearly six decades later, the racially motivated structure Groover designed remains in place. Georgia is just one of two states — alongside Louisiana — that requires run-offs if no candidate hits the 50 per cent threshold on election day.

On Tuesday, voters there will head to the polls once more in a run-off between US senator Raphael Warnock, the Democratic incumbent, and Herschel Walker, the former American football star and Republican challenger, that will determine the size of the Democratic party’s majority in the Senate.

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The contest is historic and in some ways a sign of progress — it is the first time in modern history that two black candidates in Georgia are facing off for a seat in the US Senate. According to state officials, more than 1.8mn Georgians have already voted, either in person or by mail, breaking the record for the number of ballots cast in a single day.

But despite this, the overall number of early ballots, and the number of absentee ballots in particular, have paled in comparison to the last US Senate run-off in Georgia in early 2021 — when control of the upper chamber of Congress was up for grabs — and Democratic activists say new laws designed by Republican state legislators are to blame.

“The story of this whole election cycle, and especially this run-off, is really in the fact that there have been so many hurdles thrown in front of Georgia voters,” said Vasu Abhiraman, senior policy counsel for the ACLU of Georgia.

The debate in Georgia has centred on the Election Integrity Act of 2021, also known as Georgia Senate Bill 202, or SB202, which was passed by the Georgia legislature and signed into law last year by Republican governor Brian Kemp.

The law overhauled the state’s election rules, including putting in place new voter ID requirements, limiting the use of ballot drop boxes introduced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and shortening the amount of time voters have to request absentee ballots.

It also cut the amount of time between the rounds of voting in a run-off from nine weeks to four weeks — something Democrats say puts undue strains on poll workers and limits voters’ access to early voting. The early voting period for this year’s run-off was just five days, compared to more than two weeks in the 2020 election cycle.

“With this ridiculous four-week run-off cycle, we are seeing something close to a scientific experiment in the effect of suppressive . . . voter policies in the state of Georgia,” said Abhiraman.

Senator Raphael Warnock waves to supporters
Senator Raphael Warnock waves to supporters as arrives to speak at a campaign rally at Atlanta’s Georgia Tech on Monday © AP

The condensed early voting schedule led to long lines at many polling stations — and has prompted organisers to warn voters casting their ballot on Tuesday that they could end up queueing for some time.

Christopher Clark, a 40-year-old who works for a medical software company in Atlanta, waited two and a half hours to cast his ballot for Warnock last Saturday.

“This is unacceptable,” he said. “I cannot think of anything that I invest two and a half hours into. I had to really, really want this. And that’s really ridiculous.”

SB202 has stoked controversy not only in Georgia, but also across the country, as Republicans in other state legislatures advance stricter voting laws in the wake of Shelby County vs Holder, the 2013 US Supreme Court decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Joe Biden, the US president, issued a statement shortly after the Georgia bill was signed into law last year, calling it “Jim Crow in the 21st century”, in a reference to laws in the late 19th century and 20th century that enforced racial segregation in the American South, and arguing that many of the changes would disproportionately affect voters of colour.

As one example, Biden said the law was unfair to shift workers because polling stations would close before they could leave work. He also blamed Republicans for closing polling stations in predominantly black neighbourhoods, leading to longer lines.

Republicans rejected Biden’s claims. Kemp said the president’s comments were “disingenuous and completely false”, while Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, said: “The cries of ‘voter suppression’ from those on the left ring hollow.” They argue that while the election laws restrict voting in some places, they have also expanded the number of drop boxes and opportunities for early voting in rural areas.

Black voters tend to overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates, while voters in rural areas tend to favour Republicans. In the first round of voting last month in the Senate race in Georgia, 90 per cent of black voters supported Warnock, compared to just 8 per cent who voted for Walker, according to AP VoteCast data.

Financial Times analysis of voting data released by the Georgia secretary of state showed that black turnout in the first round of voting last month dropped by about 12 per cent compared with the last midterm elections in 2018, while white voter turnout increased very slightly.

Democratic activists nevertheless struck an optimistic tone, saying they had largely focused their efforts on educating voters about the law and how to cast their ballots.

“Folks are . . . aware of the attempts to take our power that have happened over this past calendar year. They understand that sometimes it is hard and confusing to vote in Georgia, specifically for black folks, for young folks and for others who tend to vote for progressive,” said Elijah Grace, field director with the New Georgia Project Action Fund. “Regardless, we show up and we show out.”

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