When the leading 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls hop on stage in Atlanta for the fifth Democratic debates, the candidates will have no dearth of topics to discuss — but perhaps one of the most important and relevant facing them will concern the right to vote.
Georgia is known to be a deep-red state in the deep-red South, but political fortunes there have slowly threatened to change in recent years as the minority populations have burgeoned to take up an increasingly large piece of the electoral pie.
And, the state made frequent front pages for that tension last year during the 2018 midterms, when Democrat Stacey Abrams came within striking distance of the governor’s mansion but was thwarted by then-Georgia secretary of State Brian Kemp. That election ensured that a Republican has been in control of the governorship for more than 16 years — but was shrouded in accusations of voter suppression against minorities and likely Democratic voters.
The Independent caught up with Myrna Perez, the director of Brennan Centre’s Voting Rights and Election Program at New York University, to discuss the upcoming debate. That interview, below, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What are you watching for in the Atlanta debate?
Bread and butter democracy issues. The idea that our right to vote is fundamental. The idea that our elections should be free, fair and accessible. The idea that Americans should be able to trust the outcomes of elections.
The idea that people are going to be free from racial discrimination when they step into the ballot box. These are all foundational issues for our country.
We hope that we see candidates expressing a commitment an affirmative to those things.
How does Georgia specifically play into concerns surrounding access to the ballot?
Georgia is significant because it is one of those states that have compounding barriers to the ballot box.
So, let’s start: First there were allegations that groups that were trying to register voters were being targeted and harassed and the registrations weren’t being processed. And then if you were able to get through that hurdle, they had what you would call a ‘no match no vote’ law where, if your information didn’t perfectly match with what some other database said, your registration wouldn’t go through.
Then if you were able to pass all those hurdles you might have had your name purged from voter rolls. If you were able to go through those hurdles, it was unclear if your polling place would be in the same place it was during past elections. Then if you were able to go through those hurdles you would be required to have an ID that between 8 and 12 per cent of Americans don’t have.
If something else went wrong and you showed up, then you’d be getting a provisional ballot that wasn’t even a fail-safe as much as it was a placebo. Any one voter might not get hooked up by all of these potential problems, but these are compounding barriers that just shave people out of the electorate and frustrate people given personal and time sacrifices that people are making to be able to cast a ballot.
Have we seen this change political outcomes?
No one has, to my knowledge, been able to quantify exactly how the outcomes have been changed, but I would submit that it’s not about the candidates and who wins. It’s about the voters’ fundamental right to vote.
Even if they are shut out of the process and the candidates they wanted to win were elected, that still doesn’t mean that they weren’t injured.
The vote is the way we resolve peaceably our political differences, it is a way you demonstrate our political power.
It is a way you send a strong message that you care about your community, and you care about the direction of your country. It’s revealing and powerful even if your vote doesn’t swing a particular election.
I think anytime we have a ballot that has been lost, then that is something that makes our democracy poorer and that’s a growth opportunity to all of us. We should be in a place where every American is casting a ballot and having it counted.
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How might this impact 2020?
I think it’s going to be an important year because there’s a lot of political excitement, and a lot of energy around the elections.
I think it’s going to be important because there are a lot of races at all levels of government that are going to be on the ballot. I think it’s important because the country is at a moment where there is very public disagreement about the direction of the country. Again the way we resolve things politically is through the ballot.
It matters because there is some frustration and mistrust because we have heard things like Russian cyber criminals trying to interfere with our election and politicians at all levels of the government claiming there has been fraud.
I think democracy and foundational issues about how it is that we come together and move forward are going to be on the ballot.
Especially at a time when we see high turnout — all the things that are wrong or strained are going to be really acute.
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Who do these voting access issues generally impact?
There are politicians who are concerned about the “browning of America” — the changing demographics — and are pushing towards changes that would make it harder for certain Americans to register to vote, and those Americans are often folks who have been traditionally disenfranchised. They include people of colour, they include young people, they include seniors and folks with disabilities.
Georgia was a real hot spot in 2018, it was the Florida of elections this last election cycle, and Georgians deserve better. We need to make sure that when folks go to the ballot box, that they feel confident in the outcome and that political operatives aren’t trying to bend the rules of the game so some people can participate and some can’t.
I think 2020 is a real opportunity for Georgia to demonstrate that they can do better. We’ll be watching and we hope that they will.