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Georgia’s primary election could be a warning for what’s to come when Americans head to the polls in November.

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Female 1:                             This is a crisis in our world to make us not exercise our right to vote! I ran for office! I worked for President Obama in the White House! This is wrong!

Marc Steiner:                    You call this-

Female 1:                             This is America! Please, everybody, we cannot tolerate this!

Marc Steiner:                    Welcome to the Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us. Georgia elections on Tuesday were a disaster. It was the confluence of a perfect horrendous storm. The incompetency of an underfunded election system in Georgia met the purposeful efforts at voter suppression to create a disaster, where people waited in line in mostly black communities until as late as 12:17 a.m. the next morning. What we saw was the power and resiliency of black voters who stayed in line. They fought, and their parents, grandparents fought and died to ensure that right to vote.

That right to vote is now being taken away again, first by neo-conservative lawyers and the Supreme Court to render the Voting Rights Act ineffectual, and now white supremacists have control of states like Georgia and want to ensure that black voters are blatantly disenfranchised in order to ensure that Georgia, which is very divided racially and politically, stays in the Republican fold. From Stacey Abrams and her run for governor to Tuesday’s primary to the coming November elections, Georgia is a bellwether and a battleground for our future.

So let’s welcome our guests. Anoa Changa joins us once again. She’s the electoral justice staff reporter for Prism, a nonprofit media outlet elevating stories, ideas, and solutions from people whose voices are critical to a reflective democracy. And Aunna Dennis, who is a long-time voting rights activist. She previously was the National Coordinator for the Legal Mobilization Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, focusing on election protection programs, and has worked as an election trainer in Montgomery County here in Maryland, and is a native of Atlanta, Georgia. And both welcome. Good to have you with us.

Anoa Changa:                    Thank you.

Aunna Dennis:                   Thanks for having us.

Marc Steiner:                    Pleasure to have you all here. So looking at what Stacey Abrams had to say…

Stacy Abrams:                   The ability for voter suppression to work is almost complete. Georgia has seen this before.5 Yesterday was I think one of the most egregious examples. And I want to be clear. It wasn’t simply targeted, or certainly it didn’t simply happen in Democratic strongholds. It happened across the state because one of the problems with voter suppression, with the incompetence and malfeasance that we see in the Secretary of State’s office in Georgia, is that while the target may be communities of color, maybe voters of color or Democratic voters, it hits everyone. But the problem with voter suppression is that in their urge and zeal to break the machinery for certain communities, they’ve broken it for everyone.

Marc Steiner:                    When Stacy Adams speaks, and she talks about this disaster, she’s also trying to be kind of political in some senses, but she’s also was very clear about what’s going on here. And if you take that in concert with a quote here I want to use from a statement from the ACLU, Andrea Young said, “the ACLU warned that insufficient resources were allocated for holding places, machines, and personal election staff and staff to process absentee ballots, that this would result in the disenfranchisement of voters in 2020.” And then went on to say, “It gives us no pleasure to be proven right, whether it’s incompetence or intentional voter suppression, the result is the same, Georgians denied their rights as citizens and democracy.”

Let’s start there. So, Aunna, let me start with you because this is your first time on Real News. It’s good to have you with us. And I’m just curious, when I read all the articles, now it tells me that there’s this battle going on, where the Georgia state government is trying to say that it’s the fault of Atlanta and other, mostly black communities, but clearly something else is amiss here. And many people are saying this is a purposeful infringement on rights to vote in Georgia to control the state. So what’s your perspective?

Aunna Dennis:                   So yesterday was a predicted train wreck that as advocates, as community members, as election legal community, as election administration in communities, we can foresee that there was a storm that was going to come besides the storms that we had all day yesterday throughout our elections. But it does appear that it’s a political ping pong between the state election officials, county election officials, to place blame on the mismanagement of the elections that happened yesterday. In Georgia, we’ve just had new machine, new technology with our go-to units. Inherently, there are going to be issues with new technology, with learning how to actually use the technology and actually the mechanics of how the technology actually works.

And on Election Day what we have warned at Georgia Common Cause that there will be some type of issues inherently. Those issues actually did happen. At Georgia Common Cause we have worked and urged the Secretary of State’s office to have a allocation of 25% of ballots for paper, for emergency ballots and provisional ballots. The state only said they will have 10%, but on yesterday we saw there were precincts that only had seven ballots or 20 ballots to a precinct. And so you cannot rightfully tell me that that was 10% of the total active voting population of a jurisdiction. The state could have made enhanced procedures for more balloting, but they decided not to do that.

They decided not to actually extend absentee ballot application requests to all registered voters in Georgia. They only extended to active voters. And then with those absentee ballot request applications, some counties actually did not process the email requests until May. May was just two weeks ago, so definitely this is enfranchisement for voters. We always say that we live in a new Jim Crow South where we’re not picking jelly beans out of a jar anymore, but what we’re seeing is mass precinct consolidations where you see precincts that are consolidated to 6,000, 8,000, 16,000 people to a precinct.

And we’re seeing polling change locations happening at the wee hours of the morning. We’re seeing machines not being delivered on time. We’re seeing not allocating for more poll workers, not instituting having state employees actually work as poll workers and asking emergency requests on Saturday of getting 250 more coworkers if there’s a shortage. So we definitely see a mismanagement of these elections, and we need to do actually better for August and November. So with coalition partners at Georgia Common Cause, we’re urging the state to come to the table in a task force to actually talk more about how do we become more prepared for our elections in August and November so we can not be the laughingstock of the country.

Marc Steiner:                    So before I turned to Anoa, just to be clear, one thing when you say August, November, August is a special election? Is that right?

Aunna Dennis:                   Yes. Yes.

Marc Steiner:                    Right, right. So Anoa, to me, what I said in the opening here, it’s as if it’s incompetency meets conspiracy, and I’m not a conspiracy kind of person to start with, but what I mean by that is, it’s incompetency meets kind of a racist system that is kind of trying to take us backwards. I mean, does that analysis make any sense?

Anoa Changa:                    I mean, when you consider the fact that we definitely have an entrenched power structure, regardless of party affiliation, that is intent on not losing or rescinding power in any way. I mean, Georgia is on its way to be a majority black and brown state, the first majority black and brown state in the South later on this decade. The term people use is “majority minority.” We definitely need new terminology, but that’s where we’re trending. And so you do see, I mean, we saw it in 2017, 2018, when Stacey Abrams was running her race, and there was recalcitrance even amongst white Democrats in the state for the way in which she saw fit to build and organize people.

But we definitely, when we’re talking about like state level administration and the issues with this particular election and like Aunna was pointing to that, there are coalition partners, there’s an entire voter empowerment task force. They’re like the Justice League of voting rights that have come together in response to the Secretary of State, not prioritizing, not just the safety of health or the security of our elections, but just making sure that voters can actually access the ballot. Instead, the Secretary of State Raffensperger announced in early April that he was forming a voter fraud task force comprised of predominantly conservative white prosecutors versus prioritizing these really glaring issues.

As Aunna pointed out, our election, because of the pandemic, had actually been delayed over two months. So we were originally supposed to have the presidential primary on March 24th and our state election on May 19th. But instead, we rightfully had it delayed. So June 9th to give way to actually prepare and not rush, and yet we still saw what happened. And then on top of all of the issues we had with absentee ballots, we also had these brand-new machines that the Secretary of State and the governor fought to push down Georgia’s throats that were having issues across the state.

So it is not necessarily incompetence. I mean, because it’s intentional, right? They are intentionally and willfully disregarding voting rights advocates who are actually doing the work on behalf of all Georgians. This is not a partisan thing from their perspective, but the way the Secretary of State and the governor, they’re putting their own personal egos and pride over actual work that needs to be done to actually ensuring we have elections that are fair and free and that people can actively participate in. I mean, so many people were not able to get absentee ballots. And we knew that because of the pandemic, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were going to see a surge in requests. And we saw what happened in Wisconsin, right? We’ve already had an example of how poorly this can go by a state that has not acted quickly, adopt proper measures. We’ve already seen what happened in Wisconsin, and unfortunately that was not heated to here.

Marc Steiner:                    So take a step backwards just a moment, and then come back to where you all just took this conversation. Ari Berman as a reporter from Mother Jones who’s been covering voting rights for 10 years, at least, The Nation and now Mother Jones. And he said in a tweet, which I think is important for us to reflect upon that 214 polling places were closed after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Then he went on to say there were fewer than 80 fewer polling places for the June primary in metro Atlanta, where the majority black voters live. And then Mitch McConnell was blocking legislation to pass a House Democratic bill that would restore the Voting Rights Act. And Brad Raffensperger, who’s your Georgia Secretary of State is in the middle of all this. So let’s talk about what politically what’s going on here.

As I looked at this, to me as someone who was in Georgia back in the early ’60s, at the SNCC headquarters in and out and seeing the kind of horrendous violence that took place when people attempted to vote and the fight for voting. Then you have the Voting Rights Act. Now you have them destroy the Voting Rights Act. Now you have them acting on that, destroy the right to vote, period in places like Georgia. I mean, this is, to me, the essence of a deep political struggle. I mean, this is almost like a crisis moment, it seems to me, Anoa. Am I making too much of this?

Anoa Changa:                    No, I don’t think you’re making too much of it. What I will say, though, because I know it’s very easy for us to get into what the South, particularly Georgia, does wrong. I would caution us because this is actually a widespread nationwide problem. We’re just seeing Iowa.

Marc Steiner:                    Oh, right.

Anoa Changa:                    No, I’ll just say the Iowa state legislature, Republican-held red legislature in Iowa is actually forbidding the Secretary of State from being able to send out absentee ballots in direct response to what they saw in terms of turnout. We saw what happened in Wisconsin, but in terms of what’s happening in Georgia, I think Georgia is the culmination of a perfect storm of people really trying to hold onto their power no matter what. And you pointed to the gutting of the VRA. I mean, Brian Kemp, I believe it’s the 2015 memo that has been talked about publicly, explicitly ordered that, or suggested to counties, that they look at poll consolidations and closures because the VRA, because the Shelby case gutted the VRA, and pre-clearance was no longer required.

And so we do have these massive consolidations and polling closures that have happened, and I think Aklima, who is the executive director of All Voting Is Local, noted this on a press call yesterday that the safeguards that are supposed to be in place, they’re supposed to be in place when they close a poll or want to consolidate a poll, have not been in place for the closures that have happened with consolidations happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So what we’ve seen in the metro area, and as a Fulton County voter whose polling location was consolidated along with several others to a library, we have seen not just the closure and consolidation of early voting locations.

We went down to only five in Fulton County, and Fulton County stretches about 70 miles. And we only had five early voting locations for that population. But then we saw the same thing happening with our actual polling locations, which we understand this is going to happen because we are in a pandemic, but instead of just closing locations and not making other alternatives, right, what we saw was we didn’t have proper notice. I mean, several folks have posted on social media. I myself checked my mail yesterday and also saw a letter from the Fulton County Board of Elections indicating the change of my polling location.

I, knowing better and having done this work, know to check constantly the My Voter page to see if there are changes or updates and things of that nature, tracking my absentee ballot. The average person does not know the constantly have to check, and it’s not necessarily their obligation. It is upon the state. It is upon the counties to make sure people know that when they’re pulling locations are changing, they have that proper interim information. And in our case, it makes sense because my polling location was in a senior center. So it makes sense that it was changing.

But the alternative was a site that ended up being consolidated with multiple other sites where people were waiting upwards of three, four or five hours in what was, as Aunna said, intermittent rain and issues with machines and things of that nature. I mean, the Atlanta Public Schools school board chair even did not receive his absentee ballot and also had to wait in line three and a half hours. So this was like widespread and really problematic and could have been entirely avoided.

Marc Steiner:                    So, you know what I was thinking, Aunna, you made a statement through your work at Common Cause, the statement saying that the obstacles in Georgia, the voters faced in the selection are simply unacceptable. It’s also acceptable that officials and trusted administering the elections have spent the day dodging blame rather than accepting responsibility. These problems were avoidable, and they disenfranchised voters. That must not be allowed to happen again. So let’s talk a bit politically about what happens next. How do you, stop this from, from stealing the election in November or August? What has to be mobilized? So what do you take this from here?

Aunna Dennis:                   So where do we go from here is really the state taking accountability. The county is taking accountability and coming and sitting down with advocates and community members and creating preparedness planning for August and November. That’s what we’re hoping that will happen. However, we have been urging for task force formation, and what we got in April was a task force of, I want to create a task force on voter fraud, but we’re not going to create a task force on voter information.

So we’re hoping that they will want to create a fair, equitable election. We’re hoping that we can have legislative measures come in place that can create more safeguards to enhance an equitable election process. We’re hoping for these things. Will these things actually happen? I actually do not know because as of yesterday, our Secretary of State thought that the elections went fine. It was great. Oh, it wasn’t, actually.

Marc Steiner:                    Wait, wait, wait, wait, did you just say he said they went great?

Aunna Dennis:                   Yeah.

Anoa Changa:                    Yeah.

Marc Steiner:                    I didn’t see that.

Aunna Dennis:                   I guess the metro Atlanta area, I guess, was an isolated incident. I can’t speak on what he’s actually thinking when he says it was great, but it wasn’t great for the voters that I spoke to because I actually had to go and early vote. And when I went to go early by one of the largest early voting sites in Fulton County, lines were four to six hours. It was not great for them, for their experience. It was not great, actually, for the poll workers and the precinct managers who were very much overwhelmed when I went to the precinct, and I actually asked, what do you all need right now? How can I be of help? And I said to them, “You know what? I have extra preparedness kits in my car. Would you like what I have in my car?” And they said, yes, because their voters who actually didn’t have any. And then they said, “We may need some for Election Day.”

So I sent for 200 to 300 more to come to this precinct so people can have this and feel safer going through this election process. During early voting on a Friday night, I was at C.T. Martin Recreation Center because that’s where I go to early vote. Me and my daughter, pushing my stroller. I asked voters how has their experience? I spent three hours there talking to voters, keeping people in good spirits, speaking to the precinct manager. They’re asking, “How can we best be of a help as of now, and what is actually needed?” I actually did ask some people in line who were actually wanting to be more involved. I was like, they need more coworkers. Would you be willing to sign up for co-workers at this point in time? Because people are dropping out and people did say they were interested.

I spoke to folks who were in line, who requested an absentee ballot and that are a healthcare worker and who’s based in North Carolina right now because they’re helping out with COVID. They never got their absentee ballot. So they had to actually come back to Georgia to vote. I spoke to a voter who requested an absentee ballot. And she said she received an email the week before saying that her signature did not match. And we know that we’ve heard from Fulton County, that they said that they actually did not check the email absentee ballot request portal. They did not check the ones who requested from email. They did not check that until actually May. May was two weeks ago.

So all these things are very much unacceptable. I think about the people who have disabilities, who actually had to wait in line for four hours on Election Day. And because they’re not 75 years or older, they actually could not go to the front of the line. And can you imagine them going to vote and waiting four hours and not being able to actually use this optical scan machine and this actual technology and then asking for a paper ballot and to be told, “Oh, well we only have seven ballots this precinct, or we only have 20 paper ballots to this precinct.” So they have been disenfranchised.

So I think about those things, and I’m hoping that our Secretary of State’s office and election officials, they see that this is a lesson learned. Yes, this was a perfect storm. Yes, it’s with precedent. And yes, it was unexpected, but a lot of things could have been prevented. And I’m hoping for August and November that they will want to sit down in a task force formation and not just talk about voter fraud, but talk about how we can make elections more equitable and more just for every Georgia voter.

Marc Steiner:                    So in the very little time we have left here, one of the things, just to end with this, so it seems to me that this is also part and parcel of a deep political struggle that’s now going to take place over these next months between now and November. So, Anoa, let me just start with you very quickly, and then, Aunna, if you want to jump in and quickly, quickly conclude, we can. So what is the strategy to fight back? How do you not let them turn the tables and control this? Isn’t it possible? Anoa?

Anoa Changa:                    I mean, the order of the strategy is to have people continuing to be involved in deep organizing work year round, not just six weeks before you’re trying to get someone elected and actually do the organizing, the civic engagement, the year-round work that Aunna does, that New Georgia Project, Black Voters Matter and so many other organizations have already been doing and that you support news like yours and mine, to make sure that we’re actually uplifting the story of the work, of not just the issues that are happening, but the solutions and how people are trying to actually move forward. So the more people we have educated and aware and understanding what’s possible, the better we will become come November.

Aunna Dennis:                   And I think on to Anoa’s point that we do need to focus on not just the issues that are happening, but how we can create solutions. So when we’re saying, as advocates and as community members sit down and talk to us, there is a poll worker shortage. We have massive listservs who want to help each other out and make elections more equitable. Let us send out mass messages to our listserv saying, “Hey, can you sign up to be a poll worker?” Let us help with the training of those set poll workers. Let us help do those virtual trainings. If you don’t have the technology to be able to do it, let us come together to find out how we can create more solutions to make our elections fair and equitable so everyone can have access to the ballot, especially because we’re living in this post-Shelby Wild West world of Georgia down here.

Marc Steiner:                    I want to thank Aunna Dennis and Anoa Changa for joining us, also for the work that you both do to fight for justice in Georgia and around this country. And to say that all of us collectively here, as we all know, there’s more, we stand in solidarity. We cannot let them take it away from us. We fought too hard and continue to fight. So thank you both for your work and thank you for joining us here on Real News, but we’ll stay on top of this and look forward to having you both back.

Anoa Changa:                    Absolutely. Thank you.

Aunna Dennis:                   Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you for having us.

Marc Steiner:                    Thank you all. And I’m Mark Steiner here for the Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think, and we will stay on top of this because it’s necessary for our future. Take care.


Production: Genevieve Montinar, Bababtunde Ogunfolaju, Andrew Corkery
Studio: Bababtunde Ogunfolaju

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Anoa Changa is an electoral justice staff reporter for Prism, a nonprofit media outlet elevating stories, ideas, and solutions from people whose voices are critical to a reflective democracy.