Recently, the New Georgia Project, a voting rights organization I chair, was forced to file yet another lawsuit against Secretary of State Brian Kemp. A skilled craftsman in the dubious art of voter suppression, Kemp is stalling the voter registrations of some 53,000 Georgians. As shocking as it is, this is just the latest chapter in an old story and, of late, a growing trend in America. Regardless of political party, we should all see it for what it is – an assault on the soul of our democracy, the sacred trust we have with one another as an American people.
More than a decade ago, Republican legislators in the state of Georgia, ironically the home state of Martin Luther King, Jr., led the way in turning the clock back on voting rights by passing unnecessary and discriminatory voter ID laws. Others followed suit and there are, according to the Voting Rights Alliance, some 41 forms of voter suppression in America today. But Secretary Kemp leads as a most adept architect and a ruthless practitioner of this work.
Sadly, we do not have to guess Kemp’s intentions. When the New Georgia Project began its work four years ago, he made it clear while at a gathering of Republicans. Kemp shared that, “Democrats are working hard, and all these stories about them, you know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines. If they can do that, they can win these elections in November.” Both his words and his actions show that he is hell bent on sidelining the votes and voices of those whom he fears will vote against him, even as he prepares to certify an election in which he is running for governor. If Kemp cared about the integrity of the process and the confidence of the voters in our system, he would follow the lead of other secretaries of state who have run for higher office and resign rather than preside over this election.
This situation should alarm all of us. Our vote is our voice and every time we use it, we get to have our say – irrespective of color, gender or class. The ballot is the embodied and hard-fought expression of the American covenant, “We the people.” That grand and noble experiment is being threatened, not only by Kemp’s antics but also by a wave of similar voter suppression tactics sweeping across the country.
Americans should be deeply concerned by these unfounded fear-driven tactics because nothing less than the soul of our country is at stake. In America, we have exciting, noisy, contentious and sometimes flat-out rambunctious arguments about everything from taxes and healthcare to the price of milk and bread. However, those who seek to win the argument, or the office, must convince the people. And in the end, the people – all the people – get to speak at the ballot box. That is the precious covenant we have with one another.
That covenant, a commitment to the soul of our democracy is why we are suing Brian Kemp and that is why we must also meet rabid voter suppression with massive voter mobilization. Americans cannot allow politicians to steal our voice whether through partisan gerrymandering, onerous voter ID laws or this deeply flawed process of “exact match” that has proven to be particularly biased against women and voters of color. The truth is, we have seen a type of “exact match” before. It was utilized by politicians of the Jim Crow era who asked black people desiring to register to vote to tell them, “Exactly how many bubbles are there in this bar of soap?” or “How many beans are there in this jar?” Let us not return to this sinister era.
A much more apt and relevant question is this. How long before we decide to stand up and once again reclaim the soul of our democracy? I submit that the time is now.
Dr. Raphael G. Warnock is chairman of the New Georgia Project and pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.