by Valerie Morales
Two years ago when Stacey Abrams lost the governor’s race by only 54,000 votes it was an impressive showing for a woman of color in a state that still clings to Jim Crow values. But, it was hard to celebrate how eerily close she came because of the contemptible tactics used to stop her. The system built to paralyze people of color played its part perfectly in her defeat and for many, myself included, it was hard to accept.
The victims of voter suppression struggle with its depravity and consequences. That it’s been around for over a century isn’t a consolation prize either. At times like this, I think of Fannie Lou Hamer who was nearly beaten to death in jail because she had the audacity to register Mississippi voters. I think of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Scwherner who were murdered and buried in an earthen dam. That was 60 years ago and the culture has and has not changed.
Technology and modernity have shaped modern voter suppression and made it easier to pull off malfeasance without kidnap and murder. I suppose voter suppression has grown up. Poll taxes and literacy tests have long been buried and in their place are kissing cousins: shuttered polling places, ballots deemed “spoiled”, and indefinite holds on new registrations.
“Modern-day suppression has swapped rabid dogs and cops with billy clubs for restrictive voter ID and tangled rules for participation,” Stacy Abrams wrote in her memoir, Our Time Is Now.
For the self-aware, the obstacles were obvious in 2018. Republicans operated on the principle if you’re not cheating you’re not trying while Stacey Abrams followed the rules. She increased youth participation 139%, tripled Latino and Asian turnout, and brought white Democrats back to the party. But when the other side doesn’t care about morality or virtue and adopts Machiavellian tactics, you’ve entered a sword fight with a butter knife.
The last time Georgia electors voted a Democrat as President was Bill Clinton in 1992. Twenty-eight years later Georgia is a toss-up state because of demographics that have put Georgia on this stunning course. In 2016, Donald Trump won Georgia by 5.1 points and two years later, because of voter suppression, Brian Kemp beat Stacey Abrams by 1.5 points. Georgia Democrats in the midterms flipped a Republican House seat as they benefited from the groundwork Stacey Abrams started. Georgia’s population has surged to 10 million and foreign-born is about 10 percent. Reverse migration has put Georgia in a position they have not been in since fellow southerner Bill Clinton worked his charm.
University of Georgia political scientist Charles S. Bullock III refers to certain Southern states as “Growth South”. They include states like Georgia, Virginia, Florida, Texas, North, and South Carolina, states that have political changes because of migration. Racial and ethnic diversity have created a more inclusive population. It’s not just Latinos that find “Growth South” states appealing, but Indians, Koreans, and Chinese do as well. Of the “Growth South” states, Democratic candidate Joe Biden will lose South Carolina, win Virginia, and he has a realistic shot at wins in Florida, Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina.
Dr. Bullock notes that 60% of Georgia voters are white. Twenty years ago, 77% were white. Donald Trump won Georgia in 2016 but lost Cobb and Gwinnett counties. It should have been a wake-up call for Republicans but instead, they reverted to the same tired blueprint when threatened. Dig in and become more conservative as if it’s a flesh wound instead of a blood bath. Collectively, they manage their fall, as if there is honor in being the last one standing in a graveyard. With eyes half-shut, Republicans author more anti-abortion legislation, more blue lives matter rhetoric, more immigration jokes that do a piss poor job at hiding their fear. Their confederate culture is slipping away and by trying to hang on to the rim of a sinking boat they are alienating those that they need.
The white Georgia voter has a certain silhouette: older, and sicker (with Covid), thinning hair, confused about Civil War losses, afraid of the transplants who have moved into Atlanta and its suburbs. They are unforgiving and culturally isolated.
Atlanta and its suburbs are home to 6 million which puts it at 60% of the population of Los Angeles County. Living next door to the grits and okra crowd are those from New England, Chicago, Wisconsin, Ohio. Many have moved into the state because of tech jobs and they are inclined to be Democrats, care about inclusivity and climate change, have zero tolerance for institutionalized racism or those who won’t wear masks, and believe in voting.
The fastest-growing demographic group in Georgia are Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans. Winning within this new demographic means expanding your base to include more than the native Georgian who loves Confederate history. It’s a small ask but something the GOP is loathed to do. They prefer to stick to the old way of being: taxes, anti-abortion, military and cop fealty, racism denials. They pretend the world is colorless, the jar is half empty, June Cleaver is baking an apple pie, and Jim Crow is walking through that door.
But even the denial Republicans can’t dismiss what Atlanta and its suburbs have become. The nine counties closest to Atlanta voted for Stacey Abrams in 2018. What activists like Abrams have been focusing on in this election cycle are those who don’t vote. At all. It seems peculiar in such a polarizing climate that such a person exists but I know someone who isn’t voting because in his words “he doesn’t like the two candidates.” 100 million eligible voters stayed at home in 2016 and although the reasons vary the logic was paralyzing. Trump benefited.
Fair Fight Action which Stacy Abrams started in 2018 targeted 800,000 Georgia voters who are eligible to participate but have never voted. 49% of that specific cohort are people of color. 45% are under 30.
Non-voters have many gripes and a lot of them are selfish and lazy arguments that conflate voting with the worst of politics instead of juxtaposing voting with freedom and justice, as our ancestors did.
Change doesn’t happen overnight though, particularly not in a Southern landscape that is adverse to change itself. The bruised feelings of Southerners whose white way of life is drifting away, and who don’t understand who these newcomers are and what they want is low hanging fruit. The white and old who are declining as a population aren’t irrelevant but they just don’t matter in Georgia like they used to. Now more than ever it is easier for Abrams to embrace the long game.
Stacey Abrams will never topple voter suppression from the top-down or bottom-up; it’s too endemic to racism’s holy grail of exclusion and shame, too much a profound carryover of Jim Crow ideals. However, the tireless work Stacey Abrams put in on our behalf so marginalized and transplanted populations could see their legitimacy in the voting complex has the state of Georgia ready for a closeup and makeover. It’s a pivotal moment for the Spelman grad and Georgia native who came on the scene ready to shake things up.
Things are shaken.