Skip navigation

‘Democracy is on life support’: the organizers fighting voter suppression in the US south

The Guardian

Voting advocates say they are playing a game of Whac-a-Mole to keep voter suppression at bay. Composite: The Guardian/Getty Images/New Virginia Majority/Billy Honor

After the 2013 supreme court ruling decimated the Voting Rights Act, advocates are working round the clock to ensure the ballot is accessible to all

As the co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, Cliff Albright frequently crisscrosses the south on a bus, holding rallies and events to encourage Black voters to show up to the polls. On an election day, the bus might pull up to a polling place to play music or give out water and snacks.

Then Georgia’s legislature made it a crime to hand out food or water to people in line to vote. Albright said the change seemed specifically designed to target groups like his, and it’s just one way that voting advocates have had to adapt to new, restrictive laws since the US supreme court gutted the Voting Rights Act 10 years ago.

Before the Shelby county v Holder decision in 2013, nine mostly southern states had to notify the US Department of Justice if they planned to make any changes to their voting law because of their histories of racial discrimination. But when the court ruled that pre-clearance was no longer necessary, states and local boards of elections could get away with quietly changing laws and policies without notification – from adding new voter ID requirements to closing a polling place in a rural town.

Voting advocates say they had to step in to fill that gap, alerting others and legal organizations when voting changes are problematic or necessitate legal action. Many say they feel like they’re playing Whac-a-Mole, trying to educate and register voters while also having to work to defeat suppressive legislation that would impose new rules on mail-in voting or limit drop boxes or require proof of citizenship to vote.

Here’s how four organizers in the south say that the Shelby decision has shaped their work and the struggle for voting rights:

Nsé Ufot
Founder of the New South Super P
ac and former CEO of the New Georgia Project

When the supreme court handed down the Shelby decision in 2013, Nsé Ufot was working at a union in Ottawa, Canada. But by the following year, she would be leading the New Georgia Project, an organization launched by voting rights advocate and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in 2013.

Through her role at the organization, Ufot started the Georgia Peanut Gallery, an effort to have volunteers attend board of elections meetings in the state’s 159 counties each month. Before the Shelby decision, each county would have to inform the justice department of any changes it planned to make to its voting procedures, including something as small as eliminating one polling place. After the decision, it was up to local organizations like Ufot’s to learn about proposed changes and alert others.

Shelby v Holder opened up the floodgates and allowed the Republicans to lean into their worst instincts to make it more difficult for Georgians to vote Nsé Ufot

“If the counties weren’t going to be required to report to anyone those changes, then civil society was going to have to stand in the gap because this information is important,” she said.

For example, in 2018, Randolph county, Georgia, attempted to close two-thirds of its polling locations including many in majority Black communities. After immense pushback from the community and threatened lawsuits from civil rights organizations, the county dropped the plan and fired the consultant who came up with it.

In addition to doing their typical voter registration work, New Georgia Project has also had to work to inform Black voters across the south of new restrictions, like strict voter ID laws and cuts to early voting hours. Ufot said Georgia already had a suppressive environment for voters, but the supreme court ruling made it worse.

“Shelby v Holder opened up the floodgates and allowed the Republicans to lean into their worst instincts to make it more difficult for Georgians to vote,” she said.

In 2021, the state legislature passed a bill making it a crime to give food or water to people waiting in line to vote. Ufot said that measure had been the most difficult to work around.

“Not only are the neighbors and the volunteers and the New Georgia Project canvassers subject to going to jail and fines, but the voters themselves if they take a bottle of water or food or anything, they also get snatched out of line and denied the right to vote and also criminalized,” she said.

Ufot left the New Georgia Project last year, but isn’t leaving the world of political organizing before the next election.

Tram Nguyen
Co-executive director of New Virginia Majority

Nguyen has been active in voting rights work in Virginia, one of the nine states that was covered by the Voting Rights Act formula and subject to justice department pre-clearance, for roughly 15 years.

Before Shelby, she described how easy it was to go to the DoJ website to see any proposed changes to voting law in the state. “We could know which counties were considering certain things that may or may not impact communities of color,” she said.

The post-Shelby world made it really hard to monitor and keep track of all the changes Tram Nguyen

After Shelby, her organization also tries to recruit volunteers to attend local electoral board meetings. “With 133 localities, it was hard,” she said. “The post-Shelby world made it really hard to monitor and keep track of all the changes.”

In 2019, for example, the Prince William county registrar decided shortly before an election to eliminate the first five Saturdays of in-person absentee voting, after they had already advertised those days as options for voters.

“We didn’t find out about it until the Friday before that first Saturday,” Nguyen said. Her organization raised its alarms, the board held an emergency meeting and quickly reinstated all of the voting days.

That experience was one of the reasons Nguyen said voting advocates in Virginia worked to pass a state voting rights act, which passed the legislature in 2021. Now counties must put changes to local voting policy up for public comment and the changes need to be evaluated for their impact on non-white communities.

Though the state-level protections help, Nguyen said she worries that Republicans could win a trifecta in the state government this year and roll back all of the advances. “I feel like democracy is still very much on life support,” she said.

Billy Honor
Organizing director at the New Georgia Project

In 2013, Honor was working as a pastor and organizer on the south side of Atlanta. He remembers how the Shelby ruling was the start of a powerful summer for the Black freedom struggle. Just over two weeks after the decision, George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin in Florida.

He said both events changed the landscape of the south and Black political participation. “So much organizing has really gone into trying to undo some of what happened as a result of those two things,” he said.

We’ve had to build out a whole sophisticated voter protection apparatus in response Billy Honor

In 2014, the New Georgia Project started its massive effort to register voters of color in the state and lawmakers responded specifically with laws that targeted voter registration, like policies to purge voter registration forms and voter rolls. Exact match policies, which require a voter’s signature to match their signature on other government documents, made it even more difficult.

Honor joined the organization in 2017 and said that when he and other organizers now knock on doors and talk to voters, they have to warn people about suppressive laws in addition to encouraging them to vote. The new environment requires much more resources from organizations like his.

“We’ve had to build out a whole sophisticated voter protection apparatus in response,” he said.

Cliff Albright
Co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund

As the co-founder of a community and capacity building organization for Black political power, Albright frequently travels across the south and has experienced first-hand how the Shelby decision has allowed legislatures to “do really bad stuff without having to get it pre-cleared any more”. Many of the laws, he says, specifically target Black voters.

“They’re not even trying to hide that they’re literally creating laws targeting our communities, our cities, our counties,” he said.

He remembers the wave of voter ID laws that came shortly after the decision, which ended up being a precursor to other types of restrictions. All of the new voting laws across the south, from Georgia to Florida and Texas, have made voter outreach more difficult. In some cases, laws have criminalized parts of his organization’s work, like giving out food and water to voters in line or handing out voter registration applications.

It makes it difficult to explore good policies because you have to spend so much time fighting the bad stuff Cliff Albright

“It’s made the actual process of reaching voters and increasing turnout more difficult,” he said.

He also worries that the impacts of the decision on the communities he works with are often hard to measure, because they take the form of intimidation and may result in people being discouraged to participate.

He said he feels like the strategy from Republican lawmakers is to constantly keep voting advocates on the defensive by passing law after law that restricts ballot access.

“It makes it difficult for us to be focused on what we do,” he said. “It makes it difficult to explore good policies because you have to spend so much time fighting the bad stuff.”

Continue Reading

Read More