On Oct. 15, government officials ordered 40 senior citizens in Jefferson County, Ga., off a bus that was taking them to vote. All of the seniors were black, and the county officials were white. The county administrator defended the move, claiming the bus, organized by Black Votes Matter, was engaged in barred “political activity.”
This episode was not an isolated example of burdens imposed on minority voters in Georgia. Relying on a 2017 law passed by the Republican-led legislature, Brian Kemp, the Republican secretary of state who is running for governor, suspended about 53,000 registrations that lacked an exact match between information on the registration forms and driver’s licenses or Social Security records. Although the population of Georgia is only about one-third black, African Americans account for about 70 percent of suspended registrations. And in majority-minority Gwinnett County, election officials have rejected 8.5 percent of mail-in absentee ballots, more than four times the statewide rejection rate of about 2 percent.
In Georgia and elsewhere, the right to vote is increasingly imperiled. That has important implications not only for the outcomes of this year’s midterm election, but for American democracy.
Republicans say that voter restrictions are necessary to safeguard against purportedly widespread fraud. (In-person voter fraud is actually vanishingly rare.) But in adopting these voter-fraud arguments, Republicans are participating in a long-standing tradition. Critics of an expansive franchise have warned of widespread voter fraud since the adoption of the Constitution. Yet these charges have never been supported by systematic evidence. Instead, they have served as a false pretext, not a legitimate justification, for restrictions on the ballot throughout American history.
In the 19th century, those who wanted to restrict the vote only to white men claimed, without evidence, that racial and gender exclusion guarded against voter fraud by preventing unscrupulous politicians from buying the votes of allegedly dependent women and ignorant blacks.
New Jersey, for example, was the only state in the beginning years of the republic to authorize voting by both African Americans and women. In the early 19th century, when New Jersey followed most other states in restricting voting to white men, an opinion writer in the Trenton Federalist praised the legislature for ending “what has made our elections disagreeable, contentious, and corrupt; all Females and Negroes being now deprived of a vote, who, not being eligible to nor much acquainted with the affairs of government, need not any longer be made use of to answer a party purpose.”