Voter Suppression: We Can Fight for (and Win) Fair Elections

Published Feb 15, 2022

Dr. Adrienne Jones, Assistant Professor and Pre-Law Director at Morehouse College, discusses efforts to limit voter access in Georgia, and how we can all fight back, no matter what state we live in.

In this episode

Colleen and Adrienne discuss:

  • the history of voter suppression and the Voting Rights Act of 1965
  • what Georgia is doing to limit the right to vote
  • the many ways people and fight back, no matter what state you live in
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:33)
Intro (0:33-1:59)
Interview p1 (1:59-11:07)
Break (11:07-11:55)
Interview p2 (11:55-23:05)
Throw (23:05-23:53)
Segment (23:53-28:08)
Outro (28:08-29:00)


"Don't Look Up" movie review: Dr. Pablo Ortiz
Editing: Colleen MacDonald
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth and Cana Tagawa
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

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Full transcript

Colleen: It might be hard to believe but we are already in a midterm election year... About a third of Senate seats and all 435 House of Representatives seats are up for election in November. And depending on what state you live in, you might be heading to the polls for primaries to vote on governors, secretaries of state, treasurers, mayors etc. During non-presidential election years, turnout tends to drop dramatically, and seats can be won by relatively few votes. So this year is a great chance to exercise your political power!

One of my colleagues, a recent college grad, gave me the great news that there are active groups of college students advocating for electoral participation, handing out stickers on campuses that say “midterms matter” and helping with registration drives... But depending on where you’re tuning in from, the electoral enthusiasm of the people around you may be a bit different. Some states, like Georgia, are actually pushing forward bills that would make it more difficult for folks to vote.

Joining me to talk about why midterms matter is Dr. Adrienne Jones, Assistant Professor and Pre Law Director at Morehouse College. We discuss some of the most pressing issues concerning the viability of a free and fair election such as voter access, redistricting, and how we can all do our part, no matter what state we are in.

Colleen: Adrienne, welcome to the podcast.

Adrienne: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

Colleen: So we've recently seen the passage of many restrictive election laws that are going to make it hard for people to vote in the midterm elections in November. So, I want to dig into what’s happening in GA, but I was hoping you could set the frame for us with some background on the voting rights act of 1965.

Adrienne: Certainly. So Jim Crow lasted from the late 1880s, when it gets started, it gets really popular and widespread by the turn of the century, and it's ironclad by the early 1910s. And so you have major voter exclusion from then until 1965. In 1957, you see the first Civil Rights Act in almost a century. Shortly thereafter, the Civil Rights Act of 1960 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And all three of these Civil Rights Acts were intended to help solve this problem of Black voter access. And they didn't really work. The main remedy that they provided was litigation. So they gave people the power to sue because they had been discriminated against at the polls. And they also gave the Department of Justice some power to take these cases and to bring them. Now, litigation takes a long time and it costs a lot of money, and elections are fast and furious. So you might be in litigation and then not get relief or suffer appeals and continue discussion until well past the election.

And in addition to some historical developments, you know, Bloody Sunday, in particular, and the creativity of the attorney general and President Johnson at the time, they developed the Voting Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act made it possible for people to litigate. So you can sue under Section 2. It also established this program called preclearance. Now preclearance has two parts. One is the Section 4 part And Section 4 had a formula that basically said... the first one basically said, if in 1964's presidential election, you know, less than 50% of your Black voting-age population was not registered and did not participate, then you are covered under the Voting Rights Act.

Colleen: So if the formula determines you need preclearance, then what happens next?

Adrienne: The coverage is in Section 5, and it is preclearance coverage. Any state or jurisdiction that satisfied that Section 4 formula was required to engage in preclearance. And this would mean that if I wanted to pass a new law like SB 202, Georgia's Senate Bill 202, which is a long slate of laws that arguably make it harder to vote in the state of Georgia, I would have to submit SB 202 to the Department of Justice, Voting Rights section, and I would have to request the review to determine whether or not the law was discriminatory. And then the Department of Justice would have three months to say that this law is fine, we pre-clear it. Or they could object to the law and give the state the opportunity to rewrite it or to scrap it such that provisions that would be discriminatory against voters would not get passed.

And this was not completely foolproof. It was not a draconian scheme where the Department of Justice would ride out on states and jurisdictions and, hold them up for these submissions, but it did create a habit where jurisdictions would submit laws. And I think it also provided a preventative for states and jurisdictions that weren't covered to act better than they might have in terms of passing fair laws that allowed everyone access to the polls. There were a number of states in 2020 that passed large pieces of legislation that included many different methods all in one bill that are designed to make it more difficult for regular folks to make it to the polls.

I think it's important that I say that we have a history of Black voter discrimination in the United States. Obviously, a history of gender discrimination, which at least began to be remedied in 1920. But, you know, historically, it's Black voters en masse, but it's minority voters generally often that sweeps in poorer voters. And today, because of the way that our demographics are, even where I'm telling you that a voter ID law, for example, is definitely a way to target Black voters, I gotta tell you that this impacts more than just Black voters, right? The new laws in Georgia, for example, which for one thing, severely limit drop boxes, right? This means that anyone Black, white, green, native, someone who has gained citizenship once they've already arrived here, but who has to work, for example, long, hard hours, doesn't have as much access to the polls as he or she would've in 2020 when, for example, in my county, Fulton County in Georgia, drop boxes were just about everywhere and accessible at all times. Now that Georgia has passed this new slate of voting laws, drop boxes are limited, and you can only access them during voting hours while the polls are open.

Colleen: What else is happening in Georgia? It’s a good window into what’s going on in many other states.

Adrienne: In Georgia, if you haven't heard, we were sort of one of the last couple of states to complete our presidential election. And it became clear that President Biden won the state. Now, this was, of course, unique because it's the first time that the Democrats have run the state in quite a long time. In addition to that the former president publicizing the big lie and activating, first of all, litigation in many states, , he's doing these rallies, talking to people about having his election stolen. And in the case of Georgia, he actually called down here to our Secretary of State and asked for 11,700 odd additional votes to ensure his win. He requested here and in other states that the election not be certified so that, , it could be granted to him.

We saw what happened at the Capitol on January 6th. I don't want anybody to forget that that activity was tied to the certification of the presidential election in 2020. So immediately, and when I say immediately, I mean that the state of Georgia's legislature, which I did not know has a pre-session in like December. And so this is between the presidential election and the Senate runoffs, which were in January. And I saw the legislature planning in that week the types of voter restrictions that they intended to pass in the session that has since come and gone where this new bill that I told you about SB 202 was passed.

Colleen: And what’s in SB202?

SB 202 limits severely the number of drop boxes and you cannot use them if do not go to the polls during working hours. It restricted vote by mail applications and makes it so that you have additional voter ID requirements required in order to get the ballot, and then to cast the ballot by mail, which means including information that is personal on your application.

Under SB 202, you must vote in your assigned polling place, which frankly sometimes is not clear for people on the state's website. And if you do not vote in your polling place or you show up at a polling place that is not yours, they will not give you a provisional ballot, except for during very limited times, like if you're there after 5:00. So if you're not at your proper polling place, you've gotta figure out where your polling place is and go to it. And this assumes that you have the time to do such a thing., a lot of working-class people can't do that.

They limited the powers of the secretary of state. They also reconfigured, to some degree, the state election board, which gives the state more control over the ability to not certify an election even if it is well-run and well-counted. And the state election board also has the power under particular sets circumstances, which are not difficult to achieve, to take over particular precincts. All of these things are particularly dangerous for Black voters who historically have been discriminated against in the United States, but they're also problematic for all voters who want to access the polls here in the state, want the elections to be well-organized and well-counted. SB 202 sort of begs the question of whether or not if the president calls down next time and asks for additional vote or asks that the election not be certified, well, SB 202 gives it the power, perhaps. Definitely not to certify the election, but, , perhaps to figure out a way to provide those 12,000 votes simply because the president is asking for it. And, , this is not what we have in mind when we show up to the polls to participate in a fair election.

Colleen: What we’re seeing unfold across the country is really anxiety-producing. P people are feeling that our democracy is in peril and want to know what they can do. What are people in your state doing to push back?

Adrienne: I do see what you're saying. It is anxiety-promoting. Recently, I went to a UCS event where Sophia Marjanovic was showing people how to do relational organizing, like relational organizing is just key right now, right? You gotta talk to your folks who are apathetic about voting and ask them to please get out here and cast ballots. Now, in addition to voter suppression, we have a major voter turnout problem, right? So there's a lot of room and potential. I think there's like 80,000 folks who didn't participate in the presidential election. So these are folks who just didn't vote. And I'm saying if these people, I really need you personally to speak to your friends and neighbors, whom are apathetic, to talk to them about the importance of participating in the franchise. We do not want a situation where the franchise is rendered completely irrelevant, right?

We already have huge corporate money in elections. We already have a situation where voters are apathetic, and a huge swath of people just don't even participate. And now in my state and in others around the nation, we have election rules and districting that could potentially mean that we don't have an option at elections. And so that means that in 2022 and 2024, whether you're about the candidates or not, I need you to be about the franchise. The other thing is that a lot of these races, you would be shocked come down to extremely small margins. So not all the time, but often the election is so close that it really does matter if you vote. Eleven thousand seven hundred votes, this is just not that many people.

And I mean, that's just one example, right? There are multiple examples of elections where it's super close. And it's one thing to be voting for the president, president's great, governor's great, I'm really worried about you and your local area, right? These are folks who have a real frontline impact on what your life is like. So I need you learning the ballots and the candidates on those ballots. In a state like Georgia, unlike California, you have to actually get online and do the homework, so that when you get into the polls, you are capable of not only voting for president and governor, easy-peasy, but you understand who you're selecting on your down-ballot. And the down-ballot folks are really the folks who you should be concerned about in fact.

Colleen: That is such an important point. Local elections are so important, and we really do tend to focus on the big elections. I'm glad you mentioned that.

Adrienne: I think it's important.

Colleen: I think you may have been alluding to the problem of redistricting with the next couple of election cycles.

Adrienne: Oh, yes.

Colleen: So I was looking, the Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave Georgia's Senate Committee map an F. So what specifically was done to create such an abysmal map, and is there anything that can be done to make this map better, make it fairer?

Adrienne: So, to our earlier point, this map is not subject to preclearance because Shelby versus Holder struck Section 4, and preclearance now is unable to operate. So the solution, one, is to litigate, which is happening. There are two redistricting-related lawsuits happening right now, and one against SB 202, which I just told you about, that are ongoing that will hopefully allow court to recognize that the population of Georgia, the way that it is spread should generate additional seats in the State House, in the Senate, including in the Senate, which would make the maps more fair and accessible and make the maps have the power to what we would like, which is to see districts drawn so that each person has a vote.

And, of course, we're also interested in districts being drawn so that folks of like mind are able to vote together. And based upon what I've seen of the Georgia redistricting, a lot of voting power has been diluted by sort of reorganizing where the lines are, which changes who's inside the lines. So even if the spaces are our equal number, the balance of the folks who are inside a district can have an impact on the options that those voters are able to choose when they are selecting candidates, and when later they actually attempting to elect those candidates to office.

Colleen: Right. And I guess we should mention just for those who may not be as, you know, aware of what redistricting is all about, it's essentially the way that your state is divided up or jurisdiction is divided up that will determine who the legislators are. Is that a fair way to describe that?

Adrienne: It is. There's, of course, redistricting and there's apportionment. And both of these verbs have to be achieved. So they count the number of people in the nation every 10 years. And this determines how many legislators, say your state is gonna receive. If your state has gained population, you're gonna get more seats. But the number of seats in Congress, of course, is static. So you're gonna get more seats, and that means another state is gonna lose seats. And when that happens, they have to redraw the district lines and they have to reapportion where the potential elected officials will sit so that your newly expanded population can accommodate those new legislators and voters can be sliced up in the state, hopefully equally, and assigned to each of those election spaces, right?

So your space is supposed to, by law, be population equal, and then your legislators are supposed to be essentially spread evenly. So it feels like it's sort of confusing and hard to understand, but there are a number of people who are expert at it, and the technology to adjust district lines and apportion elected officials has become much more advanced.

Colleen: Right there are online tools where you can go in and draw your own map.

Adrienne: Absolutely. And folks are doing that, right? Folks are drawing maps that they think are more equitable and talking about them or taking them to their state legislatures.

Colleen: Right. And it's great to open that up and, for people to understand a little more deeply and...So in terms of these redistricting court cases, I how long will they take, and do we have enough time for that to happen before the election?

Adrienne: Hopefully not long, which is why these lawsuits are being brought right now. And I'm gonna assure you that the main argument in my state and perhaps in other states is going to be something along the lines of there isn't enough time to make these changes. Because there are also deadlines related to, for example, running in 2022, there's a certification date after which the argument that it is too late to adjust the district lines becomes more persuasive. And so it is my impression that the lawsuits that are being heard right now, they're essentially on a fast track as it were, where the plaintiffs who are bringing the are attempting to make sure that they can get some responses before it is "too late."

Colleen: Right. So it's a bit of a fast track. Well, that's some good news! So there are a lot of ways people can get involved in preserving our democracy beyond voting, what else would you like us to do?

I need you working the polls. I need you counting the votes. I need you looking in your state to see--how do people get on the election board? Is there an appointment? Can you get one? I need you knocking doors. I need you doing this friends and family discussion about elections. I need you, frankly, thinking about pressure that you might put on to your elected officials even outside of the election. Because this is what is gonna make it possible for you to continue to have a democratic polity in which you are able to participate.

Colleen: Are there things that people in other states can do? For example, I'm in Massachusetts, in, a state where we don't have as many of these issues. So, what can I do to work on voter suppression and these other issues in Georgia or in other states?

Adrienne: So you wanna look for the organizations that are doing the kind of work that you're interested in getting involved with, right? So Fair Fight Action in Georgia has done quite a bit of mobilization. They need your dollars. They need you to respond if they have calls for, say, writing postcard campaigns or making calls. I also saw people in 2018 and 2020 fly down here to do things, , which you could also do. If you're in Arizona, for example, again, there was some insight into some native American organizations that can be tapped. So these folks need support, financial, in particular. If you don't have a lot of money, I'm asking you to think about pooling your dollars, sending them down. And then, again, the postcard campaigns, making the calls, just trying your best to find outlets to get involved. If you don't have significant funding, I was speaking with the representative from Arizona who is a native organizer and she was talking about how people were using their own personal strengths. So they had some group in California that like makes cakes. And so they made voter cakes that had a native theme, and then they've been selling the cakes and using that money to send down to support the organization. It's talking to other people and keeping these issues at the forefront also.

Colleen: Those are great ideas. And I'm happy to hear you mention the postcards because I have done that in the past and wondered,...

Adrienne: Oh yes, we're getting the postcards. And the postcards are nice. And mailers make a difference. I've talked to a number of folks running for office and like the media stuff is, I mean, obviously, is media, but I mean like the television media and the radio is huge, but they'll tell you quickly that getting a mailer about an elected candidate or getting a mailer about voting, like this motivates people.

Colleen: What do you do to keep yourself balanced in this time of turmoil and anxiety?

Adrienne: I just keep trying to re-calm down. If we don't get pulled in by the general media message, which I think makes it seem like, to folks who are not members of the former president's party, like they just have the lock on everything, they do not. But if we don't mobilize and participate, they have a path to running everything. And since we don't want that to happen, we really do need to try to maintain our optimism and do something instead of not.

Colleen: Well, Adrienne, I wanna thank you, first, for all the work that you are doing to protect voting rights, and for taking time out of your schedule to talk to me. This has been a great conversation, and I think our listeners are going to love this episode. Adrienne: You're very welcome. It's a pleasure.

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