Georgia's Voting Law Adds to Our Country's History of Voter Suppression

Little in this country is romanticized like the right to vote. In the United States, voting is called "sacred," and referred to as a citizen's "duty." However, despite our deep-rooted love for the vote, it often becomes politicized and weaponized.

Most recently, Georgia, in the wake of an election cycle fraught with baseless claims of voter fraud, passed a law to "comprehensively revise elections and voting." Georgia's law is troubling even on its face; however, when read in the context of our nation's infatuation with voter suppression, Georgia's law is outright disturbing.

Following the end of the Civil War, this country embarked on what should have been a decades-long journey of reconstruction. Instead, after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the rise of Andrew Johnson's Presidency, reconstruction ended in 1877€”just 12 years after the end of the war. Also in 1877, Georgia ratified a new state constitution, which included a poll tax. Poll taxes were a common Jim Crow era voter suppression method, and were essentially "voting fees." Then, in 1907, Georgia's governor signed a law which would amend the 1877 constitution to require citizens to pass a literacy test in order to vote. Literacy tests were another common means of voter suppression, these tests required the voter to read a passage and answer a series of questions, and/or answer a series of convoluted and esoteric civics questions. Here is an example from a 1955 voter registration packet in Mississippi:

Write in the space below a statement setting forth your understanding of the duties and obligations of citizenship under a Constitutional form of government.

Of course, while these poll taxes and literacy tests disproportionately impacted African Americans, low-income and uneducated white voters were also affected. Therefore, states passed so-called "grandfather clauses," which specifically enfranchised people who either could vote before African Americans were given the right to vote, or if they were the lineal decedents of someone who could vote then.

Later in the 20th century, key reforms (specifically, the ratification of the 24th amendment, which outlawed poll taxes, and the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965) prevented states from being as overt in their voter suppression efforts. The modern practice of voter suppression is often couched as election security€”the new Georgia law is called the "Election Integrity Act." The first major push were so called "voter ID laws," which require voters to present some form of identification to vote. Critics of these laws analogize them to poll taxes, and point-out that ID requirements disproportionately impact minority and low-income groups.  As an example, prior to the Commonwealth Court striking down Pennsylvania's Voter ID law, The Philadelphia Inquirer analyzed Pennsylvania Department of Transportation data and determined that 9.2% of Pennsylvania's electorate did not have a state issued ID.

That finding is indicative of why masquerading voter supersession as "election security" is as transparent as it is problematic. Voter fraud is exceedingly rare€”incident rates of double voting are significantly less than %.05. Simply, if the goal is an accurate election, it is irrational to risk disenfranchising upwards of 9% of the electorate to prevent a problem that functionally does not occur. Again, it is important to remember the context of Georgia's new law€”it was passed in response to baseless claims of widespread voter fraud. So, while the statistical impact of the new law's suppressive measures remains to be seen, if even a negligible amount of Georgians are disenfranchised, the law will have done more harm than good.

All this history raises an interesting question, why have so many companies taken the passing of this particular law as their time to take a stand? There does not appear to be one simple answer to this question; however, one important rallying point has been the open letter signed by 72 Black business executives challenging corporations to "stand up" to the denial of the vote for Black Americans. Another motivation seems to be this law's particular context as Delta's CEO released a memo stating in part "[the] entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie."

Of course, this stand is not without backlash, particularly from politicians at the state and national level. In one very direct response, the Georgia's House threatened to revoke a jet-fuel tax break enjoyed by Delta Airlines.

However, companies should take note: the support is from the masses, the backlash is from a few politically-connected elite. The polling generally suggests Americans oppose laws that restrict the vote, and Americans greatly oppose specific restrictions they deem particularly problematic (like Georgia's new prohibition on handing out water and food in election lines, which just under 70% of thought should be allowed). With the majority of Americans against restrictions of the vote, perhaps companies and public officials should follow the lead of what their customers and constituents actually want.