Looking back at several of my columns, I have to admit that a few have been relatively negative (everyone’s a critic, amirite?). But this week, I think Macon-Bibb County deserves a pat on the back. Our voter registration is the highest it’s been in the modern era, and voter turnout in this midterm election was up significantly from the last midterm election and down only slightly from 2016 (a presidential election year, when turnout tends to be generally higher).
It’s not always easy to vote in Georgia, and that isn’t by accident. Universal voting rights have long been a frightening prospect for those who stand to lose power with a more diverse electorate.
After the Reconstruction Era, intentional tactics to make it difficult to vote made an impact both in registrations and voter turnout. Poll taxes and literacy tests were implemented with a specific aim to intimidate black voters, and these practices were upheld by state and federal appellate courts until the 1970s. Statewide efforts to restrict the franchise were so successful that in 1940, only 3 percent of black Southerners were registered to vote. That percentage would increase only slightly over the next two decades.
Although the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, gave women the right to vote, Georgia’s state law requiring voters to have been registered for six months before participating in an election meant that women didn’t vote here until 1922. It would take several more decades to see a meaningful women’s voting bloc emerge.
Current Georgia law requires a valid, government-issued ID in order to cast a ballot, Georgia voters can be removed from rolls for failure to vote in one or more election cycle, and felons (including those convicted of non-violent crimes) can be banned from voting for life — far past the service of their sentence.
And in 2013, the United States Supreme Court lifted certain requirements of the Voting Rights Act for state and local governments to secure federal clearance before making changes to voting procedures, including closing precincts. Bibb County has nine fewer voting precincts than it did in 2012.
Beyond the structural barriers, lines in this election cycle have been relatively long, and the rain has come down like cats and dogs.
But Bibb voters still turned out.
For those voters who do not belong to classes historically restricted from voting, it can be easy to minimize the barriers to exercising the franchise. What’s such a big deal about requiring a valid ID, after all? What is important, though, is the context of these barriers. Context matters. William Faulker famously reminded us “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
While the past few years have seen voting become more difficult in Georgia, other states have moved in the opposite direction. Oregon, for example, automatically registers eligible voters, allowing them to opt out if they wish. Other states allow mail-in ballots, obviating the need to stand in line in the rain or to secure a ride to the polls.
Those states are not in the Deep South.
We need to continue to be vigilant about limitations to our voting rights. But despite challenges involved with showing up to our polling places and casting our votes, Bibb County exercised our franchise. We may have challenging local elections looming, and may the 2018 midterm foreshadow our engagement in that process as well.
Sarah Gerwig is a law professor and word enthusiast raising her two sons in Macon.