The activities of this past week — two Democratic Senate victories in Georgia that impact the balance of power in the U.S. government, followed by an insurrection at the Capitol motivated by the president to interrupt the Electoral College vote session, occurred in part because of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder.
The decision hobbled the Voting Rights Act and removed federal oversight of voting laws in states covered by the VRA and allowed the proliferation of voter ID and similar laws. These laws allowed the president to win the Electoral College in 2016, and the resulting atmosphere provided the foundation for the president’s ongoing “voter fraud” campaign, which is itself, a weapon of voter suppression.
It is ironic that the balance of power in the federal government came to turn on two Senate races in Georgia, a state long dedicated to racial voter suppression. Georgia was a leader at instituting voting prohibitions during Jim Crow and is a poster child for voter suppression today — requiring strict voter ID, wielding methods like exact match in 2018, thinning the Black electorate by purging voting rolls closing polling places and rejecting provisional ballots. At the June 9 primary in Georgia, voters in Black-majority areas had to wait up to seven hours to cast votes.
Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffsensperger have had to fight off attacks by the president (White supremacist militia entered the Georgia Capitol looking for him on Wednesday, too). However, as Anoa Changa explains in Truthout, the secretary of state did emulate his predecessor Kemp to suppress votes in Georgia, purging voting rolls, closing polling places and harassing third-party registration groups — it just didn’t work in 2020.
Georgians were able to fight back against voter suppression because of a number of factors. The state has become more progressive demographically and vote by mail was widely available, and used. Voters were stimulated too, by the president’s fostering of race division, the summer protests against police brutality, and by the strong ground game waged by organizations founded by Black women, Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight, Helen Butler’s People’s Agenda, LaTosha Brown’s Black Voter’s Matter Fund, and others, which got voters registered, informed and out to the polls.
The runoff elections were critical to the balance of power in the U.S. Senate and so millions in advertising and campaign funds rolled in, presidents stumped for candidates, and people nationwide got involved. Turnout from both parties reached historic highs.
But because of the Shelby decision, Georgia state legislators do not have to sit idly by and let accessible elections occur in Georgia. Changes they make to election law will not be reviewed or objected to pursuant to the Voting Rights Act.
In December, during preliminary meetings of the new state Legislature, legislators agreed to talk about methods to change voting laws in Georgia. House Leader David Ralston proposed that the secretary of state be appointed by the state Legislature instead of popularly elected. Raffsensperger and others have called for an end to universal vote by mail. These and other proposals to suppress votes will be discussed in the coming year. They are likely to gain traction.
It’s clear that voting rights protections killed by Shelby v. Holder need reviving and expanding. In 2019, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House. Now, because of the Georgia Senate elections, that bill and HR 1, which contains numerous voter protections, might pass the Senate. If we intend to continue to call this a democracy, Shelby must be overturned and protections of the right to vote restored.