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CNN analysis: Georgia's proposed weekend voting restrictions would strike at Black voters

By Fredreka Schouten, Casey Tolan and Kelly Mena, CNN

Updated: Fri, 05 Mar 2021 18:27:18 GMT

Source: CNN

Black Georgians disproportionately cast their ballots on the weekend days that Republican lawmakers want to eliminate as options in future elections, according to a CNN analysis of voting data from last November's general election.

A measure moving swiftly through the Georgia legislature would reduce the number of weekend days available for in-person early voting and ban casting ballots on the final Sunday of the early voting period. Voting rights activists say the move attacks the "Souls to the Polls" programs that help drive turnout among Black churchgoers, a key Democratic constituency.

Only 26.9% of the voters who cast in-person early ballots in Georgia during the general election were Black, state voting records showed. But CNN's analysis shows Black voters made up 34.6% of the voters who cast early ballots on the three weekend voting days that could be eliminated under the proposal from Georgia lawmakers -- about 48,000 people, significantly more than President Joe Biden's victory over former President Donald Trump in the state. Biden won Georgia by just shy of 12,000 votes.

Georgia sits at the epicenter of a nationwide battle over voting rights -- following repeated and baseless claims by Trump that he lost the White House last fall because of fraud. Around the country, Republican-controlled state legislatures now are relying on election falsehoods to mount aggressive changes to voting rules. As of February 19, lawmakers in more than 40 states had introduced more than 250 bills that included voting restrictions, according to the liberal-leaning Brennan Center of Justice at New York University, which is tracking the bills.

Georgia stands out for expansive Republican efforts to erect new barriers to voting, after the GOP lost the presidential election and two Senate contests. The Democratic victories in the state helped send Biden to the White House and gave Democrats a narrow majority in the US Senate.

A sweeping package of new election rules that recently passed the Georgia House would -- in addition to reducing the number of weekend days for early voting -- restrict absentee voting, end automatic voter registration and limit access to drop boxes that voters use to return their absentee ballots.

The bill has moved to the Georgia Senate, which is weighing its own list of new restrictions -- including ending no-excuse absentee voting.

Cliff Albright of the Georgia-based Black Voters Matter Fund called his state "the voter suppression capital of the country."

"The breadth of this attack and the speed with which it's coming is unlike anything we've seen since Jim Crow," Albright told CNN this week.

Georgia Rep. Barry Fleming, the primary author of the package that passed the Georgia House, declined to comment for this story. But Fleming, who chairs a special House committee on elections, has said the provisions would address voter perceptions that they couldn't trust Georgia's election results.

"The challenge for the legislature is to see what kind of changes we can make in our election system to try to increase that public confidence," Fleming said during a recent online discussion organized by the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. "Because if one thing we probably know, going forward in Georgia, we're going to have close elections."

Black early voting

In the voting package passed this week, Republican lawmakers in the Georgia House retreated from an initial plan to ban Sunday voting entirely, amid public outcry. But the measure still cuts down on weekend voting.

Under current law, local registrars in Georgia are allowed to offer in-person early voting on any of the four weekend days during the state's nearly three-week early voting period. The bill that passed the Georgia House this week would restrict that, only allowing early voting on two weekend days: either the first Saturday or Sunday of the early voting period -- a decision left up to the registrar -- as well as the second Saturday.

In the leadup to the 2020 general election, roughly 138,000 voters cast in-person early ballots on the three days of early voting that could have possibly been eliminated had the new bill been in effect -- the first Saturday and Sunday of the early voting period, October 17 and October 18, and the final Sunday of early voting, October 25.

Those days saw disproportionately high rates of Black and minority turnout as compared to other early voting days, according to absentee voting records published by the Secretary of State's office.

More broadly, White Georgians were less likely to vote on weekends than those from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. Only 8.6% of White voters who cast early in-person ballots did so on a weekend, compared with nearly 12% of Black and Latino voters and almost 15% of Asian voters.

The CNN analysis used a copy of the Georgia voter file that includes voters' race, which was provided by Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who studies elections. Georgians self-report their race and ethnicity when they register to vote. Racial and ethnic data were not available for about 7% of voters who cast early in-person ballots in the 2020 general election.

Shawanda Williams, a hospital administrator who lives in the Atlanta suburb of Conyers, cast her ballot on the last Sunday of the early voting period -- a day that the House bill would exclude from early voting in future elections. In an interview with CNN, Williams said she appreciated the opportunity to cast her vote that day because she usually got home from work after her local early voting site had closed.

On the last Sunday of early voting, she said, "Football was on, I figured nobody's going to be there -- and I was able to run in and out."

Without the opportunity to vote that day, Williams, who supported Biden, said she would have made time to cast her ballot -- but it would have been a much bigger hassle.

"It does seem like they're trying to change the rules to make it harder for people to vote," she said. "It's like voter suppression."

Having multiple weekend voting options is particularly important for working-class Georgians, said Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown, who founded a social-justice group, The People's Uprising.

"Most working families are working two or three jobs, and don't have the capacity to be able to vote, like a normal person working a normal job where the hours of that job kind of coincide with their ability to go into a voting precinct and actually cast the ballot," Brown said.

And across Georgia, Black churchgoers have a tradition of heading to the polls together after Sunday services -- driving to the polls or riding in church vans to cast their ballots during the early voting period.

Bishop Victor Powell is active in voting rights as pastor of the Rhema Word Cathedral in Albany, Georgia -- in the heart of the state's rural "Black Belt."

He said the "Souls to the Polls" push on the final Sunday of early voting offers convenience. "You've got a ready-made audience that you can talk to and say, 'Before you go to dinner, go to the polls.' "

But Powell said he's always encouraged his congregation and the broader community to use every available path to the franchise.

"We don't wait until the last day" to vote, he said. "Anything can happen."

Falsehoods persist

Georgia's push to restrict paths to voting comes as Republicans around the country -- led by Trump -- continue to promote the falsehood of election fraud.

Speaking to activists over the weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump repeatedly made false claims about the election and called for more restrictions, including proof of citizenship to cast a ballot and limits on mail-in voting.

This week, former Vice President Mike Pence joined the criticism, taking aim at a Democratic bill that passed in the US House of Representatives on Wednesday that would set uniform standards for voting. The bill, dubbed The For the People Act, would deliver the biggest overhaul to US election law in decades. Among other provisions, it would mandate automatic voter registration, expand mail-in voting and restore voting rights to former felons.

In an op-ed in The Daily Signal, Pence claimed the 2020 election was "marked by significant voting irregularities" and described the work under way in state legislatures as needed "reform to restore public confidence in state elections."

There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud that would have changed the outcome of the 2020 election.

Allegations of voter fraud are "just code for historic Black turnout," said Sherrell Byrd, who helps run SOWEGA Rising, a community organization in southwest Georgia.

"That's what's being attacked right now," she said. "The things we fought for. That our grandparents were fighting for. They said, 'Fine, we'll give you those rights.' We exercised those rights. We did what we were supposed to do, and it worked."

"So, they continue to try to change the game," Byrd said of Georgia lawmakers.

Black voters in Georgia helped propel Democrats to big wins.

Exit polls show 88% of the Black electorate supported Biden last November. And in January, Democratic Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock saw even bigger support, capturing 92% and 93% of the Black vote in their runoff elections, respectively.

Warnock, who won a special election, is on the ballot again in November 2022.

Faced with the barrage of bills moving through the Georgia legislature, activists are turning to other forms of public pressure.

This week, Black Voters Matters Fund launched an advertising effort with other voting-rights groups that calls on corporations in Georgia to speak out against the voting restrictions. And this weekend, the NBA is teaming with a group founded by Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James to promote voting rights during Sunday's All-Star Game in Atlanta.

Powell, the pastor from Albany, said he's hopeful that Black voters in the state and elsewhere won't retreat, even if Georgia's proposed voting restrictions become law.

"An awakening has taken place, not only in places like Georgia, but in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin," Powell said, ticking off battleground states that saw strong Black voter turnout last year. "People will find a way because they witnessed what happens when we get engaged and come together."


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