Georgia will not reinstate 98,000 voters who had their registrations purged on December 16, marking another victory for state Republicans who’ve spent years shrouding their efforts to winnow the electorate in the guise of electoral integrity. A federal judge ruled late last week that it wasn’t in his purview to block the state’s decision, adding that the plaintiffs who challenged the purge had failed to show they were likely to prove its unconstitutionality, according to the Washington Post.
After Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger de-registered more than 300,000 voters earlier this month, Fair Fight Georgia, the voting-rights organization founded by 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, challenged the deletion of 120,000 on the basis that those voters had their rights stripped owing to capriciously defined “inactivity” — meaning they either hadn’t voted or made contact with state election officials, such as responding to mailers, for three years, then failed to vote in the two subsequent federal elections.
Fair Fight Georgia’s challenge alone prompted the secretary of state’s office to voluntarily reinstate 22,000 registrations later that same week. The fate of the rest hinged on a pending lawsuit filed by the organization, which argues that Georgia’s “use it or lose it” approach to voter-roll maintenance was so overzealous as to be unconstitutional. A law signed in April by Governor Brian Kemp extended the inactivity threshold from three years to five. Fair Fight Georgia argued that this more generous standard should apply retroactively to newly purged voters who’d been marked inactive under the previous law. Judge Steve C. Jones’s decision not to stop Raffensperger means that the remaining 98,000 inactives will still be unable to vote unless they reregister — possibly giving Republicans a decisive advantage in the upcoming 2020 elections.
Jones’s ruling was the latest in an ongoing voting-rights battle in Georgia, which has increasingly been regarded as a potential 2020 swing state. Though Republican Brian Kemp prevailed over Democrat Stacey Abrams to win the governorship in 2018, he did so by the narrowest margin for a Republican in nearly 20 years, and only after overseeing nearly a decade of aggressive voter-suppression measures as secretary of state.
Kemp’s enforcement of America’s most expansive array of state-level suppression regulations — including voter-ID laws, proof-of-citizenship requirements, purges, polling-site closures, and cuts to early voting — and rejection of federal help after Georgia’s notoriously glitchy digital voting machines were shown to be easily hacked drew condemnation. His actions were part of a trend in Republican-governed states whose leaders grew emboldened after the Supreme Court’s decimation of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Suddenly free from the burden of having to get federal “preclearance” before changing their voting laws, states with long histories of racist restrictions on the franchise— like Georgia and others, largely in the South — pursued a barely concealed effort to make it harder for constituencies that tend to vote Democratic to cast their ballots, particularly black people, Latinos, young people, and poor people.
The Raffensperger era has seen a loosening of some of these restrictions in the form of an extended inactivity threshold, the return of paper ballots (while still keeping the digital machines), and wider availability of early voting and vote-by-mail options. But the costs of suppression continue to reverberate. An analysis last year from American Public Media found that targets of then-Secretary Kemp’s purges were significantly more likely to live in Democratic precincts, with close to 47 percent living in precincts that Abrams carried by at least ten points in 2018. An analysis earlier this month from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution determined that if Kemp hadn’t overseen the closure or relocation of nearly half of the state’s precincts and polling sites between 2012 and 2018, anywhere from 54,000 and 85,000 more voters would’ve cast ballots in the gubernatorial election that Kemp ended up winning. There are counterarguments to this claim — research in other states suggests that such closures tend to be offset by early-voting options, which Georgia has. But the victims remain unaltered: According to the AJC’s analysis, Kemp’s closures and relocations were 20 percent more likely to be prohibitive for black voters than their white counterparts.
The difficulty in determining precisely how impactful suppressive measures like Georgia’s are lies in how their effects reveal themselves primarily in retrospect. Republicans cannot legally bar black people from voting, at least not statedly. But they can ensure that the path to the ballot box is littered with enough administrative confusion and logistical inconveniences that it makes the process close to unnavigable for people whose lives are already marked by precariousness — like a lack of access to reliable transportation, steady housing, or the ability to circumnavigate work obligations in order to vote. These deficits tend to afflict black people and poor people disproportionately. All Republicans have to do to reap the spoils is watch the speed bumps they’ve implemented take effect and their fallout reveal themselves in the results of the elections that follow or the findings of subsequent data analyses.
Equally difficult to parse is how many of these speed bumps are determinative. In Georgia, they seem to have mostly assured what was already the likely outcome in 2018. The state’s electorate is still majority white, and that white majority is still mostly conservative, so Kemp had a good chance of winning regardless. The AJC also found that, even though Kemp’s precinct closures and poll-site relocations may have reduced that year’s electorate by 1.2 to 1.8 percentage points (Abrams lost the election by only 1.4), his opponent still would’ve needed upwards of 80 percent of those absent votes to claim victory — an unlikely prospect.
But the shifting partisan makeup of some of the state’s biggest metropolitan areas, like Atlanta, suggest that even if such measures didn’t alter the outcome of 2018, they’ll play a crucial role in future elections. An electorate trimmed to the GOP’s liking is more likely to determine outcomes in a state where Republicans are winning by narrow margins than where their victories are already more or less assured. But even as Judge Jones’s ruling is a boon for Republicans seeking to prevail in Georgia in 2020, it more egregiously advances the idea that the right to vote applies only to people who exercise it with some arbitrary degree of regularity. The particulars of that degree have been devised in Georgia by a party that wants fewer black people and poor people to vote. It’s the mark of a party whose definition of electoral integrity hews increasingly toward any measure that lets it become a minority and still win.