October 16, 2018; Atlanta Journal-Constitution
On Monday, 40 Black senior citizens were told to get off a bus that was taking them to a poll station to cast early votes.
The bus was run by a group called Black Votes Matter, one of the organizations that helped elect Doug Jones to the US Senate. The group recognizes the need to mobilize voters all year, not just on Election Day. After Jones was elected, they declared, “Organizers worked hard to galvanize the black community, and we have every intention to hold him accountable.”
In advance of the midterms, BVM organized a tour called The South Is Rising, an echo of the Freedom Riders of the 1960s. Co-founder LaTosha Brown said, “We wanted to bring attention to the amazing change that is happening all across the South in both urban and rural communities, particularly the Black Belt and Mississippi Delta regions.”
The group hosted a voter outreach event at Jefferson County’s Leisure Center, a senior center in Louisville, about 150 miles east of Atlanta. Residents asked during the event if they could have a ride to the polls, since Monday was the first day of early voting, and BVM offered to drive them. But before they left, a county clerk called the senior center and expressed concerns, and the center’s director said the residents needed to get off the bus. They were originally to be provided with a van from the center, but “the senior center’s leaders decided it was close to lunchtime,” said Mark Niesse of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and they would have to vote another day.
The county was not able to offer a good reason for stymieing the seniors’ efforts to go vote. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that someone called the county’s government offices, which prompted the call to the senior center, but Bonnie Wells, the clerk for the Jefferson County Commission, told ThinkProgress’s Kira Lerner that her office didn’t receive any calls. Brett said that “Jefferson County administration felt uncomfortable with allowing senior center patrons to leave the facility in a bus with an unknown third party,” but that is just patronizing and isn’t a legal reason to stop someone from going to the polls.
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County Administrator Adam Brett said that part of the concern was that Jefferson County Democratic Party Chairwoman Diane Evans had helped organize the event, but BVM had gotten permission to hold the event in advance, and Evans said she coordinated in her capacity as a private citizen. In a letter to the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund wrote, “As far as we have been able to determine, there is no provision in Georgia or Jefferson County law that provides any basis for the caller’s allegation. No specialized registration is required for vehicles that transport voters to the polls.”
Weak procedural justifications appear to be a cover for the fact that the real problem was seniors wanting to vote while Black. Georgia’s governors’ race pits Stacey Abrams, who has a chance to become the nation’s first Black female governor, against current Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is running on the Republican ticket while also maintaining his post as the state’s election chief. Abrams has asked that he step down from the latter post during election season.
Kemp was accused last week of purging Black voters from the state’s rolls. His office put 53,000 voter registrations “on hold” because they failed the state’s “exact match” verification process, which flags things like whether a name is hyphenated consistently on all the forms on which it appears. Kemp blamed “untrained and ill prepared canvassers who signed people up to vote.” The percentage of Black registrations on hold is more than double the percentage of Black people in the state.
Racism often manifests itself in procedural banalities like “exact match” checks and vague claims of partisanship or safety. When the system is designed to perpetrate inequity, maintaining the status quo is not a neutral act, but one of suppression. The NAACP’s letter pointed out that “many of [the seniors] remember a time in Georgia when people of color were systematically excluded from any meaningful participation in politics as a matter of state law.” In a way, Abrams’s presence in the governor’s race is exciting; on the other hand, that she might be the first Black female governor the US has ever elected is appalling.
The seniors said they remain determined to cast their votes. Brown said, “At the end of the day, every senior that got off that bus, not only are they going to vote, but they’re going to get five to ten people to vote with them.” We hope she’s right.—Erin Rubin