How to win the voting rights battle in Georgia

We have one shot left to get this right

Today at Progressives Everywhere, you’ll read:

  • An in-depth look at Tuesday’s election disaster in Georgia with the Democrats’ top voting rights expert and State House candidate

  • The latest on ballot initiatives and LGBTQ rights

  • What’s happening with police reform?

Saving Democracy in Georgia

In a year filled with tragedy and abject governmental failure, few states if any can top Georgia’s run of shameful incompetence and malfeasance. From Governor Brian Kemp’s unconscionably inadequate response to the coronavirus (cases and deaths are once again on the rise) to police murders and the initial inaction against the men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery, it’s been an abject disaster in the Peach State. 

Given its recent incremental political shifts and presidential polls, Democrats are setting their eyes on Georgia as a swing state in November. But as we saw in 2018, when Republicans stole the governor’s election, and again during Tuesday’s embarrassingly dysfunctional primary election, which had unconscionably long lines and new and inoperable voting machines, particularly in majority Black districts, that polling won’t mean a thing if people don’t have the freedom to cast their ballots. Thankfully, there are Democrats and progressives working hard to mitigate these problems and ensure everyone’s right to vote in Georgia, including Sara Tindall Ghazal

After a career spent promoting democracy, in part for The Carter Center, she served as the Georgia Democratic Party’s official Voter Protection Director — the first person to ever serve in that role for a state party. Now, Ghazal is now running for Georgia legislature, in House District 45. She’s taking on a Republican named Matt Dollar, who has been in office for nearly 20 years passed almost zero significant legislation. Ghazal’s campaign is focused on a host of issues, from expanding Medicaid to ending police brutality and reworking education funding to be more equitable and robust, but when she spoke with Progressives Everywhere last week, Ghazal was fired up about the GOP’s voter suppression efforts and how Democrats can counteract them.

You’ve spent years focused on the voting rights issues in Georgia. What’s it like to then see this happen? Do you feel vindication or fury?

Tindall Ghazal: You feel a bit like Cassandra. This is exactly what we said was going to happen. This is exactly why we warned against using a system like this. This is exactly why we've been working for two years, to prevent what just happened from happening. As a candidate, it is incredibly frustrating, because when voters face problems and see how difficult it is, they get discouraged and therefore tend to be less likely to come out. So much of what's happened on Tuesday was preventable, because if you can predict it, you can prevent it.

So how did this disaster happen?

Tindall Ghazal: In large part, it was about training, which was absolutely not adequate. And the Secretary of State took the responsibility when it decided to invest almost $110 million taxpayer dollars on this system, that it would make sure that the people responsible for administering it were ready to go. They are the ones responsible for making sure that voters would be able to access their ballot [Editor’s note: The machines, which were bought despite public outcry, were always going to slow down voting due to their technology, and on Tuesday, they also malfunctioned all day]. And they failed utterly in preparing the poll workers and giving the counties the support that they need. 

Donate to Sara Tindall Ghazal's campaign

I saw that some counties didn’t even get their voting machines delivered after voting hours started — I would assume they shouldn’t be arriving day-of?

Tindall Ghazal: They need to be delivered at the absolute latest the night before the election, because they have to be set up with enough time to test them and get them configured properly. The fact that some weren’t even delivered, absolutely that is malfeasance. Counties screwed up on that, but they were given no resources.

The sort of silver lining in all of this is that there are steps that can be taken to prevent this from happening. Number one is better training for every single poll worker. It’s clear that poll workers didn't have any idea how to set any of this up and managers were overwhelmed. There were not nearly enough technicians and assistance provided to the counties by the state — under the contract that the state had with the manufacturer, it provided for an enormous number of technicians and they just weren't there on the ground. 

Another reason that so many poll workers dropped out is that they didn't feel safe. They didn't feel like the state or the counties were doing enough to protect their health during a pandemic. Cobb County was relying on donations from the public to provide face masks for their poll workers. The state has got to provide that, they need to have uniform guidelines. They should adhere to CDC recommendations for how to operate safely to reduce the risk and have to provide the equipment and supplies.

And this doesn’t take into consideration the sheer number of people being unfairly purged from the voting rolls, right? What’s the status of that?

Tindall Ghazal: They call it list maintenance activities and they are required by federal law to the extent that states must remove people who have died or that have moved and have registered that fact with the post office. It needs to happen every two years, but Georgia decided that they want to remove even more people from the list. 

So if there is a piece of election-related mail that gets returned by the post office, that moves someone to an inactive list. If they haven't voted in a certain number of election cycles, that also leads them to an inactive list. And if you've been on the inactive list through three years, you are purged. And those categories are the ones that are absolutely unacceptable. 

Do you know how many absentee ballot applications got bounced back because the Secretary of State sent the wrong list to the vendor this year just now? Tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands. There are voters who are very much still registered and wanting to vote, and they’ve raised a stink about it.

Donate to Sara Tindall Ghazal's campaign

I don’t want to be a conspiracy theorist, but Gov. Kemp did oversee the mass voter suppression that led to his election. So how much of this do you think is incompetence versus ill-intent and purposeful suppression?

Tindall Ghazal: It is important to try to differentiate what poor administration and bad management will do versus absolute ill intent and malfeasance. Well, in this case, it’s a deliberate policy choice to remove more people from the voter rolls. It is written into Georgia state laws that people with returned mail or who don’t vote for a few years should be removed. So they know it's a flawed system. They know that people get caught up in it. That shouldn't be, but they choose to continue to do it that way.

There are lots of other states where the Secretary of State makes it their policy that that is the job of their office to inform voters of the necessary procedures and methods and options to vote. Well, the Secretary of State of Georgia does not see that it as his responsibility, to make it easy for people to vote. So as a candidate, as with the party, that is now part of my job, so I spend hours talking on the phone with voters, I spend hours talking on the phone with county officials and state officials and party officials to try to make the systems a little bit easier.

So let’s say you win and Democrats take one of the houses of the legislature. What laws can be put in place to fix these things?

Tindall Ghazal: Well, the first thing is that we have to make it a lot easier just to have the right to vote. Right now we have a very challenging voter registration deadlines, you have to be registered to vote a full month before. And if you wind up at the wrong precinct or you've moved or for some reason, they can't find your voter registration on the rolls, you're out of luck, because you needed to make all those changes a few months ago. And there's no reason for that. If you have the right to vote, and you can prove you have the right to vote, you should be able to vote. So same-day registration, you need to be able to just show up at the polls with what you need to prove you can vote and then get a ballot. 

We need to also make it easier to get an absentee ballot. There needs to be a single sign-up list, just sign up once and you never have to worry about that again. And this is getting into the weeds a bit, but we need to have a vote center model for election day. I love early voting because you can go anywhere in your county and you'll get your correct ballot, because it doesn't matter where you show up. 

Let me tell you, it's almost impossible to figure out where precinct is now because of Coronavirus. Everybody's moving. Well, if you have a vote center model, it doesn't matter. You just go to a vote center on election day and it's treated just like it would be as an early vote.

Donate to Sara Tindall Ghazal's campaign

The News!

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Police reform:

  • New York’s legislature (which we turned blue in 2018) passed a raft of long-overdue police reform bills this past week, including a repeal of 50-a, which protected bad cops from having their records exposed, and a ban on officers using chokeholds. It also guarantees a right to record the police in public so that they’re more accountable for when they do awful things.

  • It’s hard to get super-excited, though — a lot of these bills are pretty incremental compromises that were nonetheless on life support up until this point. Most of them were introduced last year in a fully Democratic-controlled government but languished until protests broke out nationwide over the murder of George Floyd and larger systemic racism.

    Democrats are far better than Republicans, of course, but they still need to be forced to do the right thing every step of the way. Just look at what Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Friday, when he knows damn well that this should just be the beginning of changes:

  • We’re seeing some movement in California, as well. San Francisco has a first-step plan to reform (but not defund) the police, a plan highlighted by the cessation of police officers responding to noncriminal emergencies.

  • It’s happening in Texas, too. Dallas, Austin, and Houston all have seen some movement toward reforming police laws, with Austin already passing some minor budget cuts. Again, protestors are demanding far more than these small conciliations, and they’re still out there in the streets, even if the news media isn’t covering it because police have stopped beating them half to death.

  • In Michigan, even Republicans are proposing some reforms, which shows you just how effective protestors have been these last few weeks. There are lots of critics complaining about the term “defund the police,” but clearly it’s scaring politicians into unprecedented action.

Ballot initiatives and LGBTQ rights:

  • On Friday, the Trump administration announced that it would roll back Obamacare’s protection of trans people’s rights, opening the door for discrimination from providers and insurers. It’s typical barbaric Trumpism and is already the subject of multiple lawsuits — hopefully it will become irrelevant after this November’s election, with a Democratic administration canceling the bigoted new proposal.

  • In Michigan, voters may yet have the opportunity to codify the guarantee of LGBTQ rights, as a court granted activists an extra 69 (nice) days to gather the required signatures to get an amendment on the ballot. The ultimate goal is to get the state’s big civil rights act to extend its protections to LGBTQ individuals.

  • Similarly, a judge says it’s unconstitutional for the state to cut off activists trying to repeal Michigan’s Truth in Sentencing law.

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