Politics

Georgia Dems not deterred by bill giving election police powers to state law enforcement

People check in as they prepare to cast their vote in the Georgia run-off election at C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center on January 05, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

After Georgia Republicans advanced a bill giving sweeping election policing powers to state law enforcement, subsequently causing concern that it could intimidate Black and Brown voters at the polls, Democrats and leaders say they’re not giving up the fight to protect the sacred right to vote in the Peach State. 

S.B. 441, passed along party lines last week on the last day of this year’s legislative session by the Georgia State Legislature, provides the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) with original jurisdiction to investigate election fraud and election crimes, shifting the purview of election monitoring away from the state’s Board of Elections. 

The bill’s advancement comes after a twisty legislative process that initially saw the State Senate’s Ethics Committee significantly pare down the GBI provision in a previous bill, H.B. 1464, which was passed in the State House of Representatives last month. That provision regarding the GBI ultimately passed in S.B. 441 instead and has now been sent to the desk of Gov. Brian Kemp.

This also comes a year after Georgia passed the controversial law, S.B. 202, that significantly restricted voting in the state, including making it a requirement to have an ID to request and return absentee ballots, limiting drop boxes, and making it illegal to provide food and water to voters waiting in polling lines.

The new bill passed on April 4 goes further in that it gives the GBI the power to investigate and charge those who violate the state’s election laws. 

State Rep. Park Cannon, who, along with fellow Democrats in the House, fought to prevent the original bill H.B. 1464 from passing in an hours-long session, told theGrio that her Republican colleagues are intent on “punishing election workers and election administrators, as well as voters.”

Georgia State Rep. Park Cannon
Georgia State Rep. Park Cannon. (Photo: Instagram/Park Cannon)

“We have seen this same group of legislators be increasingly punitive towards the right to vote over the past two years,” said Cannon.

Georgia became known as “ground zero” for voter suppression as it was the first U.S. state to pass a major restrictive voting law in a nationwide wave of legislation limiting access to the ballot in response to former President Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” that there was voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Rep. Cannon was infamously arrested by State Capitol Police last year after she knocked on the door of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in protest of S.B. 202 as he signed the bill into law. The charges were ultimately dropped, however, Cannon told theGrio that her team is “looking at all of our legal options” for the “unlawful arrest.”

Georgia Democrats are now up against yet another battle over voter suppression with S.B. 441. Rep. Cannon told theGrio that, “this idea of giving power to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is not one to take lightly,” adding, “These tactics of intimidation are decades old. They are structurally prejudiced and we see them for what they are.”

Cannon said rather than tasking the GBI with investigating elections, the agency would be better served performing its duty of “creating a system for hate crimes in Georgia.” 

“To take time away from the GBI investigating hate crimes in a place where Ahmaud Arbery’s life was taken — and the justice that’s going to come from that is still unraveling — is really a dangerous path for Georgia Republicans to take,” she said.

Dee Dawkins-Haigler, a former state representative and current candidate for Georgia Secretary of State, noted that while she hopes to see Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams elected governor in November’s statewide election, Republicans have also strategically removed the purview of elections away from the governor to the state legislature – which is currently controlled by Republicans – and the secretary of state. 

Democratic Candidate for U.S. Senate Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock speak at a campaign event to encourage people to vote on December 14, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images)

“We’ve got to make sure that whoever steps into that office can make the ship right, and not so much to sway votes our way, but to make sure that you don’t suppress or steal our votes or intimidate us going to the polls,” Dawkins-Haigler told theGrio. “Imagine what would happen now if the GBI can just go straight at [voters] because any random Proud Boy or GOP person or white supremacist says they’re doing something [nefarious] over here at these voting polls.”

Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, underscored a sense of optimism for the voting electorate despite the challenges S.B. 441 and S.B. 202 could pose for voters this election season and future elections. In her view, the legislative strategy by Republicans is a direct response to a changing demographic in Georgia.

People attend event where President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris speak to the American people about constitutional voting rights in Atlanta, GA, on January, 11, 2022 United States . (Photo by Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“Georgia Republicans are terrified about this new American majority that is present in Georgia and that is powered by Black votes,” Ufot told theGrio. “This multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multilingual moderate progressive majority in Georgia has wholesale rejected what the Georgia GOP is offering, and the only way for them to continue to hold on to power is if they abuse their positions, abuse their authority and cheat by trying to take a sledgehammer to our election infrastructure.”

Dawkins-Haigler, who is in a crowded Democratic primary for secretary of state, reminds that suppressing the right to vote is not new for Black Americans. This battle for the ballot, she said, is no different. 

“We know how to maneuver because we’ve always had to maneuver. We’ve always had to be three steps, five steps, 10 steps ahead of them because every time we would learn something, they would move the goalposts. We had to be very creative in how we did things,” she told theGrio

“Just like what they said you can’t give people food and water at the polls. That’s fine, but what we need to do is set up food and water stations right before you get to where you can’t give it out. You just tell people to grab a bag and go stand in line. Black people, we know how to do that. We understand how the system has always been against us and how we’ve had to operate within that system.”

Ufot told theGrio that New Georgia Project and organizers on the ground are ready to fight for the right to vote and the issues important to Black and Brown families that stand in the balance, like raising the minimum wage and addressing a broken health care system.

Nsé Ufot of New Georgia Project
Nsé Ufot, CEO of New Georgia Project. (Photo: Instagram/Nsé Ufot)

“We are organizing for the Georgia that we think our families deserve. It’s never been about the Democrats or the Republicans. It’s never been about any individual candidate. What you are seeing is a more sophisticated electorate. Young voters, Black voters have an agenda,” said Ufot.  

Advocacy groups like New Georgia Project and Fair Fight, founded by Stacey Abrams in 2018, tell theGrio that they will continue to be vigilant and ensure that Black voters and voters of color are educated about how to vote and the issues that impact their communities.

“The Georgia legislature should be making it easier to vote for people but they have consistently shown that they want to make it harder for people to vote here in our state,” said André Fields, Political Director at Fair Fight.

“What Fair Fight is doing is we’re going to continue to educate voters. We’re going to continue to mobilize voters. We’re going to continue to support candidates who see a progressive future for our state where voting is not stripped but we’re voting is expanded.”

Supporters of Democratic Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock (D-GA) attend a get out to vote rally in Hampton, Georgia on January 2, 2021. (Photo by SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

Similarly, Ufot said New Georgia Project is focused on empowering voters while trying to navigate some of the barriers created by Georgia’s state legislature.

“We are looking at several changes to Georgia’s election law, particularly around the absentee ballot, and how people can request it…And so it’s going to be a lot of voter education, popular education so that people understand what their rights are and what they can and can’t do and what the timelines are. That is going to be a huge important piece of the work that we’re doing,” said Ufot.

She said the organization is also training individuals to be deployed to voting sites who “can address any issues as they come up.”

The power of the people, she said, will ultimately prevail. “I’m convinced that organizing gets the good…what we are doing is building independent political power for Black families, for Latino families, for young people in Georgia that will endure whatever the Republicans throw at us,” added Ufot.

“The viciousness of the attack is a direct correlation to how much power we’re building and the fact that we’re winning.”

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