New signs in Georgia expose our ongoing democratic decay

New signs in Georgia expose our ongoing democratic decay

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Brian Kemp, the Governor of Georgia, speaks during a virtual Memorial Day ceremony at Clay National Guard Center in Marietta, Georgia on May 21, 2020. Governor Kemp spoke of the ultimate sacrifice that fallen Georgia Guardsmen have made while fighting for the freedoms all Americans possess today. U.S. Army National Guard photo by Capt. Bryant Wine

Make no mistake. Democracy is under assault in the United States. The most recent evidence of this comes from Georgia, where Republican Governor Brian Kemp signed legislation Friday that will inordinately harm Georgia voters. The new state law:

  • shortens the time voters can request absentee ballots
  • adds voter ID requirements to absentee ballot requests
  • bans officials from sending unsolicited absentee ballot applications
  • limits access to ballot drop boxes
  • prohibits mobile voting buses
  • enables the state to take power away from local elections officials
  • reduces early voting for runoffs
  • criminalizes the distribution of food or drink to voters without exceptions.

Supporters claim the new law is about restoring faith in elections. Nonsense. Every justification offered to cast it as a harmless measure sticks in the throat like a hair on a biscuit. The law's true purpose is to suppress voter turnout and do so in ways not despite the disparate harms it will impose on voters of color but because of them.

Georgia's general elections were a democratic success in 2020. Georgians turned out in droves to cast ballots. As the state's elections officials reiterated for weeks, voters made their voices heard in a secure, transparent and fair process, under rules established by Republicans. But in the wake of two elections that upended the status quo, the first rejecting the GOP presidential nominee, the second sending a Jewish man and a Black man to the United States Senate, suddenly the rules were no longer acceptable. For no rational reason, the results were deemed suspect. And then, the solutions in search of problems began to take the form of legislative proposals.

The problem was never election insecurity. The problem was the voters themselves. After years of realignment in the growing and increasingly diverse Atlanta suburbs, and of grassroots organizers' efforts to register new voters, a new multiracial coalition emerged as a serious contender for power in the "Empire State of the South."

This demographic and partisan shift created conditions ripe for Black voting power to tip the scales. This renewed strength could not go unanswered, though. State GOP legislators labored to entrench their own power by undermining the ease with which voters could access the ballot box. Rather than adjust their policies to appeal to voters, legislators worked to adjust the electorate itself. A healthy democracy? Not so much.

The struggle that's now endemic in the United States is the delegitimization of multiracial democracy under the banner of restoring confidence in elections. The fear of political power and changing national identity is a recurring theme in American history. Indeed, the frantic responses to last year's surprise elections from some corners feel reminiscent of 19th-century Redemption politics in which white-power Southerners used baseless allegations of fraud and corruption to wrestle the franchise away from Black voters. However, while racist politics has been a constant threat to American democracy, our institutions have been acutely imperiled in recent years. The Georgia elections law is just one chapter in a longer story of democratic decay.

For the past decade, white grievance and nativist politics have been especially pernicious. It began with birtherism, which was a movement grounded in questioning the legitimacy of Barack Obama's presidency because of a perception of "otherness." In places like North Carolina and Wisconsin, GOP legislators overrode the will of multiracial coalitions that ousted Republicans from statewide office. There, Republicans disregarded defeat and stripped powers from incoming Democratic governors. In light of calls for electing presidents by popular vote, support for the Electoral College from the right galvanized around the idea that it gave a voice to "real Americans," which boiled down to equating good citizenship with rural whiteness.

Opponents to statehood for Washington, D.C., have invoked the same idea to justify unrepresentative government. Several states enacted laws constraining local governments from removing Confederate idols from public property, directly gutting Black political power. Donald Trump's trafficking in conspiracy theories and evidence-free allegations of fraud in diverse cities like Atlanta, Philadelphia and Detroit was just the most recent manifestation of this long-brewing anti-democratic movement. Some people were deemed more worthy heirs to the American project than others. Democracy by "others" was not entitled to respect because it was innately suspicious.

The danger of letting anti-democratic impulses continue to fester is all too real. That's the lesson of Reconstruction's first failures. That's the lesson we should draw from the January 6 insurrection. Those impulses will only grow more virulent if unchecked. The time is ripe for a great democratic awakening in the United States. Congress must enact federal legislation to safeguard access to the ballot box. Our government must end the disenfranchisement of American citizens in Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. The courts must seriously reckon with the reality of how corrosive racist politics undergird so many legislative pushes to change election laws. Voting rights organizations must redouble their efforts to register new voters and improve turnout. We have an opportunity for a Third Reconstruction in which America makes good on the unfulfilled promise of universal suffrage and a thriving multiracial democracy.

Let's not waste it.

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