How (and How Not) to Avoid Voter Discrimination

Politics, Social Issues

I was rather displeased to find this video in my daily dose, if not binge, of YouTube news. The headline alone is rather inappropriately sensational, as though these seniors were yanked off a bus, Freedom Rider-style, in Georgia for being black. That is very much the image that is purposely suggested.

I have much sympathy for LaTosha Brown in that I agree that you should be as compassionate as you can with others. She clearly has much love for humanity and that is rather awesome. I think some of her passion may be misdirected. From what I am learning about what happened at the Leisure Center in Jefferson County, Georgia, this all seems to have been a big misunderstanding, which could have been mitigated with more communication and/or discretion, that resulted in no one’s voter rights being suppressed in any manner. Georgia’s voter registration system could be made to be a little smoother, but it looks like a relatively easy-to-use system that is earnestly trying to simplify the overall process and minimize your interaction with it except for when you first register or need to change something.

Understand the Past and the Present

Why would you need to make a group called Black Voters Matter? What reasonable person is saying that black voters don’t matter? There is no process occurring in Georgia that is suppressing or preventing votes from minorities. As I will elaborate, I do think that some parts of Georgia’s voter registration process could be simplified, with Colorado as a great model for comparison. Problems that effect Georgia’s system are bureaucratic and not race-based. They are not so much issues as they are places where things could be better streamlined, especially so that fears of intentional or unintentional voter suppression can be quelled.

I am very concerned that some members of Black Voters Matter see themselves as an extension of the marches from Selma to Montgomery in the 1960s. That is a very inappropriate comparison because people actually died in those marches and were facing problems that the individuals on the Black Voters Matter bus were not dealing with, such as people physically assaulting you and actually preventing you from progressing.

Get On the Bus… Or Not

From what I am understanding, the director of a recreation center called the Leisure Center received a call from his head office, who had received a call from a concerned citizen who saw seniors board what the citizen believed was a suspicious bus. The director was told to not let the seniors leave on that bus and so he went outside and flagged it down.

A conversation ensued where the director explained that the seniors who are part of the program at the center could not leave on this bus as it is not affiliated with the program and the bus is here to pick up people from the center. Ms Brown and the seniors, it would seem, explained that the seniors are leaving on their own accord independent of the program. The contention seems to be due to how the bus was boarding members of the center program during or perhaps near the end of program hours on the center property, and so there was some implied affiliation that the director wanted to avoid.

Jefferson County issued a statement, only a small part of which was read by CNN. You may be surprised to learn that this is the full statement (my emphasis and spacing added):

Jefferson County operates a Senior Center that provides meals and entertainment to senior citizens in Jefferson County three days per week. The Jefferson County Board of Commissioners has a long standing practice of not allowing political activities during normal business hours or at County sponsored activities.

These senior citizens are under the complete care and supervision of Jefferson County while they are at the Senior Center. Jefferson County Administration felt uncomfortable with allowing Senior Center patrons to leave the facility in a bus with an unknown third party. Additionally, the event in question that took place at the Jefferson County Senior Center was led by the President of the Jefferson County Democratic Party and as such was considered a political event.

No seniors at the Jefferson County Senior Center were denied their right to vote. In fact, Senior Center staff routinely arrange Jefferson County Public Transit to transport senior citizens to vote. Jefferson County invites and encourages all registered voters to vote from October 15-November 2 from 8 AM to 5 PM, October 27 from 9 AM to 4 PM and on election day November 6 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

There’s already dedicated transportation from the center to the polls? Well then… shall we celebrate?

Still, if you want to travel to a polling center in a giant charter bus, it is your right as an American citizen. And you want to travel on a bus that comes from an organization created by the president of a Democratic party group? Then go for it. However, it seems you’ll want to avoid doing so while participating in a senior center event in Georgia or they might get confused.

The full statement from Jefferson County comes from a local news article that I find very illuminative. Take a look at the last three paragraphs:

The seniors who wanted to take the bus ride would’ve had to completely leave the property first, on their own free will, before the bus could pick them up. At that point, liability is unlikely to be on the county.

But Black Voters Matters say it just does not add up because many of the seniors were already on their way out, planning to vote.

“Is the county saying they’re responsible for them when they’re not at the center,” Brown asked. “Cause if so, I’m sure there’s a whole bunch of things the seniors would love their help on.”

Again, the problem was that the bus was picking people up at the center. Regardless, they would not be hassled by any senior center if they either let the center know beforehand that this massive bus is coming to pick people up after their activities or just pick them up at a closer location than wherever some of them ended up walking to. When you’re dealing with a giant charter bus, you kind of have to coordinate where you will go and make sure you have clearance in some cases.

Voting is Not as Exciting as it Looks on TV

So, for all the black people who want to vote… just go vote. It’s not as exciting as being on a massive bus or being on TV. But all those people we saw in this video were able to vote one way or another, so everyone won I guess.

One of my initial thoughts was that surely this could all be avoided with the absentee ballot. This prompted me to look into Georgia’s absentee ballot situation.

I found two very intriguing articles. One talks about how around 600 absentee ballots from Gwinnett County, Georgia were rejected this year. Another talks about how 53,000 voter registrations were set to “pending” status.

CNN talked about how they obtained voter records from Georgia and saw that more than 300 of the rejected absentee ballots were from African and Asian-Americans. It turns out that Georgia’s voter registration form asks you to specify out your race and they oddly do not explicitly mark it as optional, although they do say this in step 4 of the instructions at the top: “Gender and race are requested and are needed to comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but are not mandated by law” which is a fairly silly indirect way of saying “optional”, I will grant to the critics. In contrast, Colorado, where I live, does not ask about race, but there is a very clearly marked optional section at the bottom asking for “Gender Identity”.

The main reason for the rejections and pending statuses appears to have been due to address discrepancies. This is somewhere I agree Georgia could relax their rules regarding one’s residential address. At the same time, I acknowledge that they provide electors a variety of options for verifying their current address. It also appears fairly straightforward to change your address online.

I will say that the examples of signature issues in the video from the article about rejected absentee ballots were rather ridiculous on Georgia’s part. That is indeed too strict of an interpretation to say that letters are too close together.

Choose the Path of Least Resistance

According to Georgia’s Information for Pending Voters, an elector would go into pending status if the info in their voter registration didn’t match what was on file with either Georgia Department of Drivers Services or the Social Security Administration or the Drivers Servers’ Citizenship Records.

From what I’m reading in the text of the voter registration form, it looks like they would only do this crosscheck if you did not provide “a COPY of a current and valid photo ID; or a COPY of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document that shows your name and address”. So if you did provide either of those things when registering, it would appear they would accept that as your address. It is only if you do not provide those things and instead provide a Georgia driver’s license/ID number or last four of your social that they would then verify your info with “a state database”.

And so, although there is clearly a way for someone of any race to avoid the pending status, there is no doubt that some states like Colorado make the whole thing much easier. There are areas in Georgia’s voter registration process that could be improved so that fewer snags were encountered, but no race is being targeted for suppression. You could argue there is some economical discrimination. Again, for contrast, Colorado’s form has a box to tick if you don’t have a permanent address (in fact, it might be good for them to have phrased it like that as opposed to “I am homeless”). Georgia doesn’t have any such thing. Also, Colorado has a much more varied list of acceptable forms of ID, even compared to acceptable ID for Georgia pending voters.

The argument appears to be that more than half of the rejected absentee ballots were minorities and that the 53,000 pending status voters might mostly be minorities.

I did some quick number crunching with the help of Suburban Stats which had info on Georgia’s demographics from the US Census Bureau. If Georgia’s total population is around 10 million and about 30% of these individuals are black, then maybe around 3 million black people are in Georgia. According to Suburban Stats, the total number of people of voting age is around 7 million, adding all the numbers of male and females who are 18 years and older. If we were to assume that around 30% of those 7 million individuals are black, then that means somewhere around 2.1 million black people are eligible to vote in Georgia, but surely not all have registered. Nevertheless, even if all 600 of those absentee ballots were black people, and indeed even if all 53,000 pending status registrants were of such race, or even if all of these ballots/voters were excluded from an election, that is to say if 54,000 ballots from black voters were surgically removed, this would be about 3% of black voters. This would be an extremely ineffective way to suppress such voters. But I do agree that 54,000 votes can sway an election.

Regardless, these individuals can still vote. The voters in pending status most certainly can. I disagree with Politifact that they are being asked to provide “additional information”. They are being asked to verify what they entered because instead of providing proof of residence in the registration, they opted to provide an ID number that can be looked up in government databases, and so it is the potential elector who is asserting that the address affiliated with either their state or government ID matches what they enter on the form. If that happens to not be the case, it’s fine. Just mail, fax or email your absentee ballot form with an ID copy or bring one of the listed forms of ID to a polling place if you’d rather vote in person.

Black People Can and Should Vote In Georgia

The takeaway from all this is that everyone you saw in the CNN video, and every single one of those absentee ballot electors and pending voters are still eligible to vote, as long as they are US citizens, and neither Georgia nor Colorado appear to make all too much effort to verify this, unless something is encountered that causes one’s citizenship to be questioned. Luckily, they only have to jump through these hoops the first time. A Georgian can change their address online from then on, again much like a Coloradoan. To be frank, the less time you spend making a spectacle of yourself voting so as to draw so much unwanted attention, and the less time you spend fixing whatever issue the state has with your voter registration, then the harder it will be to vote. If you are black and live in Georgia, are eligible to vote and want to, then it’s a lot easier to pull off than some people might have you believe.

What say you?

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