The South Isn’t Doomed. Southern Organizers Have Always Put In The Work.

Despite voter suppression tactics and Herschel Walker being propped up for a Senate run in Georgia, things in the South are not as hopeless as some would have you believe.
Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) arrives for a "Dawgs for Warnock" rally at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, Dec. 4.
Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) arrives for a "Dawgs for Warnock" rally at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, Dec. 4.
Win McNamee via Getty Images

The summer of 2017, after my freshman year of college, I sat in a Waffle House in the suburbs of Atlanta and picked up a newspaper that read (and I’m paraphrasing): “Minority Leader of the Georgia House of Representatives Stacey Abrams puts in a bid for governor.

At the time, I was a political science minor with little to no understanding of campaign work. But the thought of a Black woman representing Georgia sent a wave of inspiration through my body.

A month later, I was sitting in the small campaign office on the east side of the city. There’d been a letter mailed to almost 50,000 Fulton County voters, wrongly informing them that their voter status could be marked as inactive because they’d updated a change of address but did not update their voter registration status. The American Civil Liberties Union claimed that this was illegal, as those voters still lived in the same county.

That same month, Fulton County’s Board of Registration and Elections voted unanimously to propose closing down six voting precinct locations. All of the polling places were in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

These incidents were only the beginning of the latest wave of voter suppression tactics that would reign over the South. This year, as Georgia’s U.S. Senate contest enters a runoff between incumbent Raphael Warnock and former Georgia running back Herschel Walker, I am all too familiar with the heavy burden that our society puts on the backs of minority Southern voters. In my graduate class this year, I spoke about voter suppression tactics that I have experienced firsthand after four years of community organizing work.

My classmate responded: “I wish I could just round up all of the Black men who think they are too tough to vote and take them to the polls.”

Responses like those help reinforce the idea that minority groups are to blame for election results. Meanwhile, community organizers are working tirelessly in the South to register and mobilize voters, only to face obstacles due to voter suppression tactics.

When Abrams again ran for governor this year, a media narrative emerged that she had an issue with Black male voters. There were articles and opinion pieces with headlines like “Stacey Abrams Struggles With Black Male Voters in Georgia While Wielding National Clout” and “Democrats’ Black Male Voter Problem” when, in fact, there wasn’t much of a problem at all.

The Grio’s Michael Harriot noted that not only was all of this a myth, but “84 percent of Black men who voted in Georgia’s election cast ballots for Abrams.” That’s almost statistically equivalent to “Democrats’ level of support from Black men nationwide (82 percent).”

Meanwhile, as we’re presented with the fictional narrative that Black folks don’t vote, or that they are turning to the Republican Party in droves, anti-democracy forces in Georgia are doing what they do best: suppressing the Black vote.

Organizers in Georgia point to SB 202 as one of the most challenging forms of voter suppression in their state. Ashley Coleman, civic engagement manager at the nonprofit group New American Pathways, describes it as “the biggest legislative barrier standing between Georgians and the ballot box.”

“While the bill was framed as an attempt to stave off potential voter fraud, it adds additional barriers that end up limiting voting access,” Coleman said. “The use of drop boxes were widely taken advantage of during 2020 and the 2021 runoff and helped contribute to the surge of turnout we saw in Georgia while in the midst of a pandemic. They were accessible 24/7 under security surveillance and were widely abundant across early voting sites and other key community spaces.”

Coleman noted that SB 202 limits counties to a maximum of one drop box for every 100,000 voters. The drop box is stationed at an early voting location and can only be accessed during early voting days and times. Limiting access points to voting disproportionately affects minority voters, and certain counties have chosen to opt out of Sunday voting, preventing Black congregations from mobilizing their communities to the polls per tradition.

Lyndon Waller, programs director of the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda, a civil rights group, similarly explained how SB 202 affects voters who are not always updated on the changes that occur.

“The changes to the absentee ballot application process has caused much confusion to the senior citizens we work with, and the shortened window leading into the runoff period has made it near impossible for individuals to request, receive and return their ballots in a timely fashion,” Waller said.

Lux Ho, an organizer at the nonprofit group Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, mentioned that long lines also discourage people from voting, and voter suppression bills heighten the fear some people have of polling precincts.

“SB 202 also criminalizes the act of handing out water and snacks at the polls to the voter; many organizations and volunteers have handed out water to voters who have waited to vote for hours in line,” she told HuffPost. “The bottom line is that all of these changes will affect voting accessibility.”

Georgia organizers aren’t the only ones fighting voter suppression bills. Steven Wu, the organizing and policy manager at Woori Juntos, a Houston-based immigrant rights organization, noted there are similar bills in Texas that reduce voter turnout.

SB 1 (87th Texas Legislature-2021) prohibited 24-hour-voting, drive-through voting, and added burdensome requirements to vote-by-mail. All of these played a huge role in suppressing voter engagement and turnout for these past midterm elections,” he said.

“Drive-through voting provided a safe way for voters to cast their ballot during the pandemic and was a key way for our communities (essential workers, those with immunocompromised family members) to participate civically without hurting our communities’ health,” Wu said.

He noted that SB 1 contributed to high rejection rates of Asian voters in 2022. “This was due to not understanding the new laws, and a lack of in-language communication/education.”

Still, despite the active suppression efforts, community organizers continue to work to mobilize voters. Selina Asefaw, the civic engagement and youth program coordinator at Refugee Women’s Network, collects feedback from community members to understand their needs. She and her colleagues advocate for communities by “providing resources that increase accessibility in the steps that lead a community member to submitting their ballot,” she told HuffPost.

“This looks like workshops that break down a ballot, advocating for cities to translate election materials (and succeeding), providing transportation to polls, bringing election candidates to the community members, and advocating with GA partners against SB 202,” she said.

Asefaw noted that although working with youth and minority voters keeps her inspired, “it’s still very scary to canvas, even as an experienced Black woman.”

When I first read about voter suppression in Georgia five years ago, a sense of fear rushed through me. And this election season, social media, classmates and news articles made me feel as if the South was somehow doomed. But we aren’t. Despite restrictive voting laws’ best efforts to keep Southern organizers from mobilizing voters, those organizers are still putting up the good fight.

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