A collage of Governor Kemp, a hanger, and a voting box.

Voting Rights

Governor Kemp Is Turning Georgia Into Gilead

GOP-led state legislatures are suppressing minority votes and taking away the right to a safe, legal abortion. In Georgia, the governor who stole his seat while Secretary of State is doing it in one sitting.

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To be a resident in Georgia today, specifically to be a woman of color in Georgia, is to see your rights vanish right before your very eyes. When I refer to the state’s rapid disposal of civil rights as a real-life The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s not an ode to Margaret Atwood’s eponymous novel nor is it a pop cultural reference to the Hulu television series where women don red robes and white bonnets (though Georgians have been seen flooding the state capitol wearing these costumes in protest more than a few times recently). This is a fast-approaching reality. Governor Brian Kemp is on the verge of signing two horrific bills into law that slash voting rights and reproductive rights. Taken together, these two bills will harm women of color—Black women, Indigenous women—and especially poor women, the most.

When Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp took the highest state office in November 2018, after Stacey Abrams rightfully refused to concede the gubernatorial race, women of color were bracing themselves for the kinds of bills that would come down the pipe—it’s the reason they fought so hard to elect Leader Abrams in the first place. Now we are bracing ourselves for the impact of a Republican-majority legislature determined to silence and control us.

House Bill 316 would allow the state to purchase hackable and unverifiable barcode ballot-marking devices to replace the state’s current obsolete election system. It’s a bill that goes against the recommendations of every independent cyber security expert who has stated that the use of hand-marked paper ballots is the most secure, efficient, and accurate system to count votes in elections. (It’s also far cheaper.) But Georgia GOP lawmakers have been working overtime to intentionally mislead voters by equating the print-outs generated by ballot-marking devices with verifiable hand-marked paper-ballots.

“The only part of the printout (from ballot-marking devices) actually counted as your vote is the barcode, which voters can’t read and thus can’t verify,” says attorney and election-integrity advocate Jennifer Cohn. “This is a fraud on the public.”

This abominable bill improbably comes on the heels of the state’s rampant suppression of minority voters led by Kemp when he was Secretary of State,  overseeing his own election to governor, as well as a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the election system used last November.

In the years leading up to the midterm election, Leader Abrams, through her organization, New Voter Project, registered some 200,000 new voters, many of them minorities. Kemp did everything in his power to beat back this perceived threat. He unjustifiably purged 340,000 voters from the rolls, claiming these voters moved out of state when they hadn’t, failed to mail out absentee ballots to voters who requested them, and rejected hundreds of minority absentee ballots due to Georgia’s Exact Match Law. Voters in precincts with a large minority community waited for hours to cast their ballots on Election Day, while hundreds of voting computers sat idle in storage.

While Atlanta has always been a reliable blue epicenter for the state, in 2018 its greater suburbs experienced what’s been called a “blue tsunami.” Black, Indigenous, and other women of color deserve a significant amount of the credit for this. Some 97 percent of Black women and 92 percent of nonwhite women voted for Stacey Abrams. Unfortunately, these numbers were no match for Kemp’s severe suppression tactics, which led to an easy majority in both the State House and Senate.

Given the state’s rapidly changing demographics, the days of a Republican-controlled legislature may be numbered. Georgia is now 45 percent minority and only 55 percent white—it resembles California and New York much more closely than its neighbors Alabama and South Carolina. Enter HB 316, the Georgia GOP’s newest, last-ditch effort to suppress voters by purchasing barcode ballot-marking devices where votes can be manipulated without voters knowing it. Not even an announcement of the House Oversight Committee’s launch into an investigation of the significant barriers voters faced in last year’s election has slowed the Georgia GOP down in their mission to spend over 150 million taxpayer dollars on these hackable devices.

This legislative nightmare continues with House Bill 481, the “Heartbeat Bill,” which has passed both chambers of the General Assembly and has now joined HB 316 on Kemp’s desk. He has said he will sign both. It bans abortion when an ultrasound can detect a heartbeat at approximately six weeks—a time when many women don’t even know they’re pregnant.

Much of Georgia already lacks reproductive health care. Half of the state’s 159 counties have no OB/GYNs. In eight rural counties of South Georgia, there are only two OB/GYNs. Black women, who face the highest maternal mortality rate in the nation—a staggering 43.5 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared to 12.7 deaths for white women, have an even higher maternal mortality rate in Georgia where 66.6 Black women die per 100,000 live births. Instead of supporting legislation to improve Black women’s postnatal health, the Georgia GOP has sought to strip all women of the rights to make decisions about their reproductive health.

One of the very few (and ludicrous) exceptions to HB 481 is for sexual-assault survivors who file a police report. Such an exception can only have been authored by a legislator who has no concept of the effects of trauma from sexual violence or the justice system. So few rapists are ever prosecuted and even fewer are convicted.

Georgia Republican lawmakers do not view women as autonomous individuals capable of making their own decisions. They do not believe in the science of reproduction and pregnancy. They do not believe health-care providers. If this bill becomes law, the Georgia GOP will be responsible for endangering women, especially poor women, who will seek out unsafe abortions to end a pregnancy.

Who are the people supporting these outlandish and draconian bills? They include Kemp, our white Republican governor; Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, another white Republican man who enthusiastically supports the state’s adoption of ballot-marking devices and has said he will continue to follow the actions of his predecessor with respect to voter roll purges; Representative Barry Fleming, the white Republican man who authored HB 316; Representative Ed Setzler, who sponsored the Heartbeat Bill; and the entire Georgia GOP, almost all white men over the age of 40.

A vote is a voice, and to silence a voice intentionally with the passage of HB 316 in a state with a history of minority voter suppression undermines and dishonors the activists who fought and died for the right to vote. And to pass HB 481, a bill where women’s wombs will belong to the government, where decisions about their bodies will be made by primarily white male legislators who have never experienced a pregnancy—is beyond unconscionable. It is depraved.

“What we have is a state more than willing for children to be born and spend the rest of the time making sure those same lives never receive recognition,” says Georgia activist Stacey Hopkins. “How many Black children will be born only to face voter suppression that says plainly and unequivocally that while your birth matters, your life doesn’t count at all at the voting booth or inside your own womb.”

What’s more, such oppressive bills are not unique to Georgia. Several cities and states are considering switching to barcode ballot-marking devices for their new election systems. And abortion bans are ripping through the Southeast. On Friday, Mississippi passed its own abortion ban at six weeks. It joins Kentucky, a state that already passed an abortion ban (though a federal judge has suspended it until its constitutionality has been determined). Tennessee appears to be hot on their heels. Red States are hellbent on dealing this one-two punch—first annihilate voting rights and then vanquish reproductive rights.

It’s the perfect storm to disenfranchise the voices and bodies of women of color. Who will stop it now?

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