A young woman learned her name was no longer on the voter rolls in Georgia. Ironically, she discovered this while training as a canvasser for new voters. Since registering and casting her first ballot in 2008, she hadn’t returned to the polls, and under the new “use it or lose it” rule, the system purged her registration.
A dentist in Macon received a letter from the secretary of state, warning him that he was at risk of being labeled an “inactive voter” for changing addresses, not voting or not responding to election-related mail. None of that was true, he said: He’d participated in every Georgia election in the past 40 years and had lived in his home for 30.
A man was moved to a “pending” list of voters and told he had to prove his identity before he could cast a ballot, because the clerk registering him had missed the hyphen in his first name. It took a three-way phone call between him, a team of election lawyers and the Fulton County Board of Elections to secure his status as an eligible voter.
These individuals called the New Georgia Project, the voter rights group for which I serve as chairman, and we sent in a phalanx of legal experts to defend their rights. But not everyone is so lucky, and these are not rare and random instances of people accidentally falling through the cracks. The system is functioning exactly as it was designed. They’re the consequence of the policies pursued by Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp (who, like a boxer refereeing his own bout, oversees the election in which he’s running).
My beloved state of Georgia has followed seemingly every strategy in the voter-suppression playbook, like partisan gerrymandering and closing polling locations. It even charged a poll worker with a felony for helping someone use a voting machine. Moreover, the state has pursued aggressive voter purges, removing 1.6 million names from the rolls between the 2012 and 2016 elections, and another 670,000 last year. More than 100,000 of these were due to the new “use it or lose it” standard. Anyone sincerely concerned with the health of our democracy, whose voter turnout trails most developed countries, would invite citizens into the process, not punish them for being unable to make it to the polls for two seasons.
The state has also made it harder for new voters to participate, by implementing “exact match,” demanding that voters’ names on the rolls exactly match the state’s driver’s license and Social Security records. This system has put the registrations of nearly 47,000 new voters on hold, 70 percent of them African American. It is extremely error-prone. Discrepancies as small as a missing hyphen, an extra space, or an initial in place of a middle name could put a voter in the crosshairs, making women and people of color particularly vulnerable to having their applications stalled. So are new citizens: The system routinely flags them as “noncitizens,” because state agency records do not automatically update when they’re naturalized. All “pending” voters may still cast a ballot if they bring adequate evidence of their identity or eligibility to the polls. Even so, there is substantial collateral damage. Such policies depress turnout by sowing confusion, discouraging voters who are unclear about their rights.
We are witnessing, in broad daylight, an assault on the American covenant, summarized in those simple and sublime words “We the people.” That’s not just a political problem; it’s a moral problem. It speaks to the integrity of the process and the character of the country. We are in a fight for the soul of our nation’s democracy. If we lose that fight, then everybody loses, Republicans and Democrats.
At Ebenezer Baptist Church, where I am pastor, we register people virtually every Sunday to vote. Theologically, worship or “liturgy” literally means “the work of the people,” and that’s what voting is: When we vote, we raise our collective voices. In that sense, voting is an act of worship, a prayer for the kind of country that we want to live in. In a 1957 speech, Martin Luther King Jr., co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist, also spoke of the vote in sacred terms. With the preacher’s refrain, he intoned: Give us the ballot. “Give us the ballot,” he said, and the people would elect leaders “who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine.”
In America, we have noisy, contentious and sometimes rambunctious arguments about public policy and taxes, about bread, butter and guns. Those who seek to win the argument or enter public office must first convince the people. In this process, the people — all of the people — get to speak. That is the covenant we have with one another.
As told to Washington Post editor Sophia Nguyen