At least 20 people who showed up to vote were denied a ballot.
I spent 13 hours on Election Day serving as a poll watcher for the Georgia State Democratic Party. It was an invigorating and infuriating experience for someone who spent the last 22 years living under the warmth of Seattle’s progressive blue glow and Washington’s vote-by-mail efficiency.
When I reached my assigned polling place in Hephzibah, Georgia, at 6:30 on election morning, I was heartened to find a group of 25 to 30 voters (mostly African Americans) lined up outside a small multicultural Christian church, eager to cast their ballots.
They were the first of more than 1,000 voters who passed through our door that day, in a precinct of more than 3,900 registered voters. The process went smoothly by any election standards. There were no hiccups or issues of consequence from a technical perspective. The eight poll workers (all people of color) and one poll manager (a white man) conducted themselves with kindness and respect for the voters and the franchise. Everyone was a pleasure to be with, performing their jobs with grace and efficiency.
Over 12 hours of voting, however, at least 20 people who showed up to vote were denied a ballot. And each time it was because the individual had failed to cast a ballot in the last three years and/or in the past two federal elections.
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It was awful to witness the dejection and frustration on the faces of those who took time out of their day to go vote, only to be denied the opportunity. And the worst part? There was nothing I, or the poll manager, could do about it.
Those 20 voters were purged from the rolls by Georgia’s Secretary of State Brian Kemp — the same man whose name sat atop the ballot as the Republican nominee for governor. In a clear attempt to gain a competitive edge against his Democratic African-American opponent, Stacey Abrams, Kemp had purged the voters for “inactivity,” wiping their names from the voter file and stripping their ability to cast a ballot. Their only recompense was a sympathetic smile from the poll workers and a new voter registration card to fill out ahead of the next election.
For the record, what I saw was neither illegal nor fraudulent. In June 2018, by a 5-to-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s right to purge voters in this way. So by the letter of the law no wrongdoing of any form was taking place. The poll workers were simply upholding the laws they had sworn to protect.
The math and optics of what I witnessed in this small, working-class Georgia town, on the other hand, could not have been more telling. At least 20 out of 1,000 would-be voters were turned away. That’s 2 percent of the voters who came through the door.
The most startling reality is that every one of the voters who were turned away was black or brown. Each had gone out of his or her way to get to that polling place. And each of them was essentially told, “Sorry, but you have no voice here. You have no right to vote.”
Now replicate that same scenario in every precinct and polling place across Richmond County, then across Georgia as a whole. Shave away 2 percent of all voters in Atlanta, Augusta, Savannah, Macon or anywhere else. Then look at the margin by which Kemp appears to have defeated Abrams: 62,000 votes, or 1.6 percent. It’s not hard to see how 20 voters in one precinct multiplied by all those precincts, cities and counties add up.
The voting process in Georgia is deeply flawed. Suppression here is real and irrefutable. The barriers for citizens to exercise the franchise are onerous, inefficient and costly at best — racist and corrupt at worst.
It’s only been three months since I left Seattle and returned to my native Georgia. But it’s clear to me how I’m going to spend my civic energy in the years ahead. I pray that others might want to join me.