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Still Fighting Jim Crow in Georgia

Stacey Abrams is not just battling Brian Kemp, she is battling history

In 1964, Clara Curtis worked as a poll watcher at her local Cobb County, Georgia precinct. She had been working to establish a Republican Party in a state where the Democratic party had a stranglehold on local and state politics. Curtis watched each voter drop a ballot into the wooden box — and made sure the lock stayed locked on the box.

At lunch, a man working the polls offered to keep the ballots safe — he’d take them home while he ate. Clara perched on the box, her white boots swinging — and said he’d have to take her home, too.

He left the box. That year, Georgia elected Bo Callaway, the first Republican Congressman since Reconstruction.

Clara Curtis and her partners in the Georgia Federation of Republican Women spread the party so successfully that a two-party system took hold within the decade.

In 2018, we are working in Georgia again for a two-party system. This time, the Republicans have the tight grasp on our state politics. Only now, sitting on the ballot box isn’t going to get us through.

The Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp oversees the Georgia voter registration and the elections. Trouble is, the GOP candidate for Governor is also Brian Kemp. He’s running against former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams who stands to be the first African American woman governor if elected.

My viewpoint is skewed. When Tenured Radical asked me to write this, I warned her I’d be biased. I’m in Atlanta — the part of the state Brian Kemp hasn’t even tried to win. I don’t know what’s going on OTP (Atlanta-speak for “outside the perimeter” of the 285 highway that runs around the city). Here in the ITP (“inside the perimeter”) world, we have nothing but Stacey Abrams signs. I’ve been canvassing since the primaries — but now we focus on the households that at some point indicated they are “strong Abrams.” Get. Out. The. Vote.

But I’m also a professor. I put my nonpartisan call to vote on the syllabus. I made sure my first year students were all registered.

Then the Purge happened.

Brian Kemp uses the Exact Match system. Voter names must match other state records exactly. Don’t forget an accent. Don’t forget the hyphen — or don’t add the hyphen. And just pray nobody else shares your name. If you got your daddy’s name, you better be “Jr.” and he’ll be “Sr.” or one of you is out.

Emory historian Carol Anderson’s One Man, No Vote skillfully exposes exact match as a descendant of Jim Crow. Minority groups share fewer last names than white citizens. Just think about how many people of Vietnamese heritage have the last name Nguyen. How many Latinx voters are Gonzalez or Garcia or García?

Brian Kemp likes to talk about a crazy ballot for a man named Jesus on Heaven Street. But the thing is, I know where there’s a neighborhood with street names based on a Bonanza and another with Christmas-themed streets. I would absolutely believe that in an evangelical state like Georgia, we could have a subdivision with Heaven Street intersecting Pearly Gates Way. And in our state with high immigration numbers, I could even believe Jesús lives there.

Two of my students — both women of color — have had their voter registration applications held back. I’ve told them to vote — to demand their provisional ballot. Then we have to monitor to make sure the provisional ballots don’t just sit in a box.

Other students are checking to see if their absentee ballots have been accepted. In Georgia, absentee ballots require two stamps. Some got them back in time to add another stamp.

We lie when we say voting is easy.

Voting in Georgia is not easy.

Voting in Georgia requires a photo ID — which requires a day at the driver’s license office and a $20 fee. The driver’s license requires proof of residency which means a power bill, a lease, a mortgage — something that proves your residence. So, if you are homeless or living with your parents or in uncertain housing — good luck. You need a birth certificate. If you changed your name when you married, you need the official name change. If you are divorced, same thing.

Do all of that before October 9 and then don’t even think of moving or changing your name. Cross your fingers, hold your breath, and hope your voter card comes in.

If you do manage to get all that, but your name matches someone else’s, you may be purged.

If you do vote, your vote may switch — always from Abrams to Kemp, never the other way around. Somehow, the glitches never hurt the Secretary of State.

Or your voting place may be closed.

Or your vote may be tossed out.

Or your voter information may be stolen. And the server wiped clean.

Setting up a two-party system in presence of a one-party chokehold is never easy. But this time, it isn’t as easy as perching on a ballot box.

Robin Morris is associate professor of history at Agnes Scott College.

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