In some states, the administration of elections is (relatively) uncontroversial. Not so in Georgia.
When the US Supreme Court gutted the federal Voting Rights Act in 2013, Southern states with histories of racist voting practices were freed from requirements that significant changes to elections and voter laws be subject to federal approval. What followed was a series of legislative initiatives in most of those states—including Georgia—that supporters call election integrity measures and opponents call voter suppression.
“We have in our state really been playing defense against a wave of voter suppression bills.”
In Georgia, which in 2020 emerged as a swing state and a key battleground in national elections, the tide of these measures—from “exact match” registration laws to voter roll purges—has been unrelenting.
“Frankly, the last two to three years we have in our state really been playing defense against a wave of voter suppression bills,” says Tamieka Atkins, executive director of ProGeorgia, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening democracy in the state.
For one election cycle after another, ProGeorgia has been at the forefront of registering Georgia voters and working to protect their right to vote, especially in the face of legal and logistical maneuvers that make it difficult to exercise that right. The organization serves as a kind of voter engagement clearing house for its partners, who consist of some 60 nonprofit organizations around the state.
“It was about 12 organizations when we started,” back in 2011, Atkins says. “And they said, ‘Can we do our voter registration planning together?’ . . . Because the money only goes so far, right?”
Led by its member organizations, ProGeorgia works to coordinate voter registration efforts across the state and provides resources—data, primarily, but also phone banking, poll-monitoring, and other services—to member efforts on the ground, which might consist of anything from food delivery to mobilizing residents around a particular issue, like reproductive rights or environmental justice.
“The goal is not to run a massive campaign. The goal is to embed the practice of voter registration and civic engagement work in as many organizations as possible.”
“We use our data to help them amplify their reach so that when they provide support and services, like dropping off food to people during the pandemic, they’re able to do that more expansively,” says Atkins. “Those same people, they then continue to reach out to when we get closer to the election to say, ‘Hey, do you have a plan for voting?’”
In essence, ProGeorgia indirectly supports a plethora of issues driven by its partners while focusing, first and foremost, on voting rights and voting access.
“So, we don’t do community organizing, but we provide a lot of the strategy or the systems and then the tools for our partners to be the most efficient organizers that they can be,” says Atkins. “The goal is not to run a massive campaign. The goal is to embed the practice of voter registration and civic engagement work in as many organizations as possible. We’re really shifting the culture here on participatory democracy.”
Countering Voter Suppression
In 2011, Georgia passed a voter identification law, followed in 2017 by what’s known as its “exact match” law. This required that voter registration information exactly match other government sources, such that a missing hyphen or misplaced letter in a voter’s name can result in their being denied the right to vote.
According to an analysis by the Associated Press, one effect of that measure was placing “on hold” more than 53,000 voter registrations, most of them belonging to Black voters. The law was walked back after a US district judge ruled it placed a “severe burden” on voters.
The state has meanwhile conducted various rounds of voter purges, resulting in hundreds of thousands of voters being removed from the lists. At the same time, polling places have been closed—resulting in notoriously long lines, as long as 10 hours’ wait, in recent elections— or moved at the last minute with little or no warning, Atkins says.
In 2016, she recalls, “Seniors who rely on senior transportation were getting dropped off at a location that they voted at for 30 years that was no longer a polling location . . . there were handwritten signs directing people to a new location.”
In the 2018 election, not enough voting machines were working. Atkins says, “There would be five machines in a precinct, but two would be working . . . People were being asked to vote provisionally.”
“In some ways, it feels like an uphill battle.”
Further complicating the picture, Georgia has over 150 counties, each with limited autonomy and resources for managing elections.
Just this May, the Republican-led Georgia legislature passed a measure, one of several in states around the country, to make it illegal for county elections boards to accept any outside funding, including grants—a move Atkins worries will hobble already threadbare elections operations.
“So, you can imagine, it’s a big project” simply to keep an eye on developments, says Atkins. “In some ways, it feels like an uphill battle.”
Mobilizing the Georgia Vote
Despite the challenges, there are signs that ProGeorgia’s approach is making a difference.
The 2020 presidential election—in which Georgia barely swung to the Democrats’ side for the first time in decades—saw unprecedented voter turnout, notes Atkins, as did the 2022 midterm elections.
“That is not happening by accident,” says Atkins. “Our partners have had conversations with the same 3.5 million [voters] every year for the last four, going on five years. And I think that matters.”
And even as the group continues to look out for threats to the right to vote—which continue to come, says Atkins—they also seek to further expand Georgia’s electorate.
One focus is on formerly incarcerated residents, who are eligible to vote under Georgia law once their sentence is complete and they fulfill various requirements to register to vote. “Georgia as a state I think has the most amount of people touched by the criminal legal system of any other state, and so that’s a lot of people that are disenfranchised. We have 4.3 million formerly incarcerated people living in Georgia alone,” notes Atkins.
They’ve launched a new polling project focused on BIPOC voters, who are historically under-polled: “Really being able to surface people’s priorities and needs allows us to better connect them to our voting process,” says Atkins. “The civic engagement work, it actually really matters.”
And as they prepare for the 2024 presidential election, they’re mobilizing to register a new generation of younger voters. “Issues like healthcare and reproductive rights, gender justice, student loan forgiveness, climate change—these are issues that matter to young voters,” points out Atkins. “And that means it’s going to require reproductive justice organizations, healthcare organizations, environmental justice organizations, economic justice organizations to be the vehicles of communication and relationship building with these young voters.”
“We want to make sure that we’re connecting a new generation of voters to election cycles, but in a way that’s not just [saying], ‘Cast your vote! Thanks! Bye!’” says Atkins. “Casting your vote is only the beginning.”