The incessant clamor after the 2020 election about “election integrity” implies that something went awry, that there was widespread, results-changing fraud at the ballot box. That concern, however, is a red herring, a deceptive trick to take our eyes off the real crime. The “infraction” that brought about a flurry of disenfranchising laws was that American citizens, who are not white, endured the obstacles of closed polling places in their neighborhoods, the requirements for IDs that statistically they were known not to have, and a deadly pandemic to vote.
Those American citizens did all of that because democracy was on the line. And, by record-breaking turnout, they beat back what promised to be a lethal regime wedded to authoritarianism, antisemitism, xenophobia and racism. That really was the transgression. And, the goal of the “election integrity” crew is to see to it that those Americans would not be able to vote in sizable enough numbers again to affect an election.
In December 2020, just weeks before a historic U.S. Senate runoff election in Georgia, True the Vote, a Texas-based right-wing group, challenged the voter registration of more than 250,000 Georgians, “offered a $1 million bounty and recruited Navy SEALs to oversee polling places,” hoping that enough Americans would be purged from the rolls less than a month before a key election that would decide control of the Senate.
This was not the first time that the organization pulled a stunt like this. True the Vote had already received brushback pitches from the Department of Justice and authorities in Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin for submitting unverifiable lists, demanding the removal of voters even though a federal election loomed and intimidating voters. Indeed, True the Vote suggested that intimidation was key to its strategy. Earlier it had told its volunteers that the goal was to give voters a feeling “like driving and seeing the police following you.” In short, to replicate the terror of “Voting while Black.”
Georgia’s Republican-dominated Legislature saw all of this and, instead of being appalled, thought it would be a good idea to encode True the Vote’s behavior into Senate Bill 202, the “election integrity” legislation enacted in March 2021. Among other measures, this law allows random individuals to question the legitimacy of voters en masse, and requires the county boards of elections to respond within 10 business days. It is a system not only designed to intimidate and frustrate voters, but also sets up boards of elections to fail and face a state takeover.
The use of voter challenges to intimidate voters is a historic Georgia tradition going back to Reconstruction and carrying through to Jim Crow. Yet, since the passage of S.B. 202, those challenges are carried forward with a vengeance. Election after election, tens of thousands of voters have had their eligibility challenged by a handful of private vigilantes. These vigilantes, replicants of True the Vote, say their work is about ensuring accurate voter rolls, but in private strategy and training calls, they admit that the aim is to “largely target voters in Democratic, urban areas.”
The targeting of Democrats in urban areas means that county boards of elections in major urban hubs, like Atlanta, are taking the brunt of the hits. As the Atlanta Journal Constitution recently reported, under S.B. 202, “conservative activists have filed over 100,000 more voter challenges, primarily in Atlanta-area counties with large numbers of Democratic voters.”
County election boards have had to drain precious staff time to chase down the names drawn from an unreliable database, squander limited resources to notify thousands — sometimes tens of thousands — of American citizens that their eligibility to vote has been called into question and then hold hearings on the cases. Gabriel Sterling from the Georgia secretary of state’s office acknowledged the speciousness of the challenges because, as he said, “really all of them were tossed out by the bipartisan [county] election boards that do these things.”
DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties that comprise some of the Atlanta metropolitan area have all had to absorb this onslaught. As have their voters. A man with cancer. A woman who does not have a permanent home. A houseless man. A returning citizen. And so many more.
The onslaught continues. After the state’s election director, Blake Evans, alerted boards of elections that “a voter’s eligibility may be challenged by another voter at the time of voting,” members in the African American community were alarmed. Bishop Reginald T. Jackson of the Sixth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, roared, “What kind of a debacle is this? . . . The intent is to impose fear, provoke anger, and disrupt the election process.”
This wasn’t just evoking memories of Georgia’s blood-drenched Reconstruction and Jim Crow past, it reflected the violence and threats unleashed on Black poll workers in 2020 and multiple bomb threats at polling areas in Fulton County as election deniers were wrongly convinced that rampant voter fraud had occurred. The fear also emerged because the Republican Party defined violence as “legitimate political discourse.” The fear continues to be stoked by former President Donald Trump’s recent call to his supporters, who have a demonstrated propensity for violence, to go to Atlanta, Detroit and Philadelphia to “guard the vote.”
While the Georgia secretary of state’s office eventually had to send out a clarification that the challenges could not happen face-to-face at the polls, and, while True the Vote mocks the real fears of intimidation that voter challenges have unleashed, the reality is that the genie of violence has been blessed, approved and legitimized, especially by the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
Carol Anderson is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of African American Studies at Emory University and the author of One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying our Democracy. She is also a board member at Fair Fight, the voting rights organization that brought the lawsuit against True the Vote.