Government & Politics

Is Georgia’s minority population boom fueling political pushback from Republicans?

Georgia’s demographics could alter election outcome

University of Georgia professor Trey Hood discusses the politics of Georgia's minority population boom.
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University of Georgia professor Trey Hood discusses the politics of Georgia's minority population boom.

On a recent Saturday morning in a Wal-Mart parking lot, Jamieson Holloway, a 19-year-old food service worker, registered to vote for the first time.

Young, African-American and a political newbie, Holloway was an ideal catch for the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan voter registration group whose canvassers and volunteers target minorities, single women and 18- to 29-year-olds.

This “rising American electorate” comprises 62 percent of Georgia’s voting-age adults, but just 53 percent of its registered voters, said Nse Nfot, the executive director of the New Georgia Project.

If minorities in Georgia registered to vote at rates that matched their explosive population growth, voters like Holloway could become a real political force. Of 1.5 million new residents that Georgia added from 2000 to 2010, about 81 percent were racial and ethnic minorities.

“We’re trying to build power and a power base that our communities can wield beyond any particular election cycle,” said Nfot, whose group has submitted nearly 166,000 voter registration forms since 2014.

Georgia’s growing diversity is not only driving a racial makeover for the state but, with the efforts of groups like New Georgia Project, it’s fueling a slow political facelift as well.

As more Democratic-leaning blacks, Hispanics and Asians become a larger force at the polls, white Georgia voters, most of whom support the GOP, are becoming a smaller share of the electorate.

Over the next few decades, experts say, that trend will likely move Georgia from a solid-red Republican stronghold to a blue state of majority-Democratic voters.

That prospect, civil rights groups say, has created legal and political pushback from GOP lawmakers, election officials and Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

Kemp began investigating the New Georgia Project for alleged voter fraud in 2014 after claiming the group had submitted dozens of faulty registration forms. The ongoing two-year probe has produced no charges, which has bolstered the rights groups’ concerns that Kemp is targeting the organization for political reasons.

Activists and voting rights groups say a slew of state and local policy changes adopted by Kemp and other Republicans in Georgia have suppressed and diluted minority voting strength and made it disproportionately harder for Democratic-leaning voters to register and cast ballots.

They cite as an example a 2015 incident in Macon-Bibb County when local outrage stopped the elections board from cutting the number of precincts from 40 to 26. Most of the proposed closings were slated for majority-black areas. The board eventually closed seven precincts.

Earlier this year, similar opposition forced the Macon-Bibb elections board to scrap what it said was a cost-saving plan to use the county sheriff’s office as a polling location. Civil rights groups said the move was made without adequate public notice as required by law and would have a chilling effect on black voters.

The plan wasn’t dropped, however, until a petition signed by more than 400 registered voters required the elections board to change the location. The polling place eventually was moved to a church.

In Emanuel County, the state NAACP sued earlier this year over a redistricting plan by the school board that allegedly diluted the strength of black voters by putting them disproportionately in a majority-black district.

And in Hancock County last year, opposition from civil rights groups and community leaders reversed a plan by the county elections board to close all precincts except the one in downtown Sparta. The move would have created travel difficulties for voters in mostly black, low-income precincts. Only one precinct ended up being closed.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. charges that officials in Georgia have implemented nearly 20 discriminatory voting changes since 2013, when a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision weakened the federal Voting Rights Act.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. says Georgia officials have implemented nearly 20 discriminatory voting changes since 2013, when a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision weakened the federal Voting Rights Act.

“The sheer number of local and statewide changes that have been attempted make Georgia, even on its own, a compelling case for restoring the Voting Rights Act,” Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said during a conference call with reporters this summer.

Officials at the Georgia Republican Party did not respond to numerous requests for comment for this story.

Kemp’s office has denied allegations that he’s using his office and power to suppress minority voters.

According to an email response from Kemp’s spokesperson, Candice Broce, Hispanic and black voter turnout for November general elections increased by 140 percent and 42 percent, respectively, from 2004 to 2008 – the same year Georgia became one of the first states to implement a strict voter-ID law.

Blacks and Hispanics also had large increases in voter turnout in 2006 and 2010, Broce noted.

“Under Secretary Kemp’s leadership, registering and voting in Georgia has never been easier,” Broce wrote. “He implemented online voter registration; created a free smartphone app where people can register, check their status, find their polling place and review their sample ballot.”

Under Secretary Kemp’s leadership, registering and voting in Georgia has never been easier. He implemented online voter registration; created a free smartphone app where people can register, check their status, find their polling place and review their sample ballot.

Candice Broce, spokesperson, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp

Francys Johnson, the president of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, said Kemp was taking credit for the work of others.

“He’s citing our work, which is an increased voter turnout despite his efforts, as evidence that what he’s doing is working. When, in fact, it’s evidence that the people he’s trying to disenfranchise take their vote seriously and cast their ballots despite his efforts,” Johnson said.

Kemp is facing three lawsuits from a host of voting-advocacy and civil-rights groups over the removal of voters from the rolls – some of whom haven’t cast ballots in recent elections and others whose voter registration information didn’t exactly match up with state databases.

The groups claim the voter purges violate the federal Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act. Kemp’s office has called the suits unwarranted and frivolous and has denied any wrongdoing.

Keeping voter registration rolls clean and current helps discourage voter fraud, said Robert Knight, a senior fellow at the conservative American Civil Rights Union.

That group has sued numerous counties across the country for failing to keep their voter rolls updated. In several counties, the group has found more registered voters than residents, Knight said.

A 2012 study by the Pew Center on the States found roughly 1 of 8 voter registrations in the United States was no longer valid or had significant inaccuracies, including more than 1.8 million dead people still on the rolls and roughly 2.75 million people who were registered in more than one state, most likely after relocating.

Knight discounted concerns that the voter roll upkeep is being used to target minorities.

“We frankly think that’s an absurd charge . . . that somehow having clean rolls and requiring things like voter ID and even proof of U.S. citizenship somehow suppress the vote of minorities,” Knight said. “We don’t believe that disadvantages anybody except vote fraudsters, and everybody should have an interest in preventing vote fraud, including minorities.”

The 2016 Republican platform calls on states to mandate proof of citizenship when registering and photo IDs when voting because “voting procedures may be open to abuse.”

But numerous studies and investigations have shown that voter fraud is very rare. An exhaustive analysis of more than 2,000 reported cases from 2000 through 2012 found only 10 instances of voter impersonation, the only kind of voter fraud the new laws would prevent.

That’s one case for every 14.6 million eligible voters, according to the study by News21, a national investigative reporting project funded by the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

In 2016, News21 examined cases in Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Ohio and Texas, where attorneys general in those states had prosecuted 38 cases of voter fraud from 2012 to 2016. They found that at least 13 cases dealt with nonvoting violations by people such as election officials or volunteers. None of the cases involved prosecutions for voter impersonation.

At the local level in Georgia, civil rights groups and individual voters have alleged discrimination in numerous efforts to restrict early voting, reduce the number of polling places, redraw district boundary lines and change district-based elections to at-large contests.

“We’re seeing tactics being used now that weren’t even contemplated when the Voting Rights Act was established,” said Johnson of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP.

We’re seeing tactics being used now that weren’t even contemplated when the Voting Rights Act was established.

Francys Johnson, president, Georgia State Conference of the NAACP

The issue isn’t new. From 1992 to 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice issued 37 objections to discriminatory changes in voting laws proposed by Georgia elections officials, according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

But Georgia’s tangle of voting disputes following the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder has raised eyebrows even among veteran civil rights activists.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required the U.S. Department of Justice to preapprove changes to voting rules in Georgia and eight other states with long histories of voting discrimination.

But after nearly 50 years, the U.S. Supreme Court voided the “pre-clearance” requirement in June 2013, ruling in Shelby County v. Holder that an invalid formula had been used to determine which jurisdictions should be subject to the provision.

Civil rights groups say the court’s decision opened the door for Republican-led state and local governments to enact a flurry of controversial voting restrictions that disproportionately affect young, low-income, minority and student voters.

“Shelby County had other consequences as well,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch told a gathering of Latino leaders in July. “It has forced the Justice Department to rely much more on local groups and individuals to alert us to potentially unlawful acts, since jurisdictions no longer have to self-report.”

In June, the Leadership Conference Education Fund included Georgia among five states – the others are Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia – that it charges have “engaged in deceptive and sophisticated practices to disenfranchise voters that will have an impact on the 2016 election.”

A wave of recent federal court decisions has sided with civil rights groups and blocked or weakened restrictive voting laws enacted by Republicans in Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin. The rulings suggest that judicial concerns are growing about the true intent and impact of such laws.

In scuttling North Carolina’s voter-ID law, for example, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also reinstated early voting, out-of-precinct voting, same-day voter registration and preregistration for teen voters – all of which the ID law had also eliminated or scaled back.

The majority decision by Justice Diana Gribbon Motz said the North Carolina law targeted “African-Americans with almost surgical precision” and “comes as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times.”

Knight, of the American Civil Rights Union, said the judges were wrong to weaken and strike down the controversial laws.

“They are dead wrong,” Knight said. “These are good laws. They should remain on the books because they protect everybody’s vote.”

The favorable rulings have heartened voting rights supporters, but many still worry that the presidential election and a host of statewide races this year could hinge on what many see as discriminatory voting rules enacted in Georgia and other states after the Shelby decision.

There are communities that are committed to freezing in place the status quo and denying a growing group of minority voters an opportunity to have voice in their communities. So a lot of the voter suppression we’re seeing in Georgia and in other parts of the country really makes clear that voting discrimination is something that we continue to wrestle with in our nation.

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

“There are communities that are committed to freezing in place the status quo and denying a growing group of minority voters an opportunity to have voice in their communities. So a lot of the voter suppression we’re seeing in Georgia and in other parts of the country really makes clear that voting discrimination is something that we continue to wrestle with in our nation,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

As Georgia’s minority population continues to rise, Johnson, of the NAACP, expects the electoral clashes to become more litigious, the debates more pointed and the disputes possibly violent. Johnson said he got hate mail on a daily basis and death threats over his voting rights efforts – which, he said, will not stop.

“If we have to mortgage every asset we have, we will defend our right to unfettered access to the ballot,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot at stake. And we’re not going back. We are not going back.”

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