Tuesday afternoon, I waited over an hour and a half to vote in Atlanta in the Georgia Senate runoff between Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker.
This is my second election cycle in Georgia, but I still can’t get used to the wait times to vote. It’s a voter suppression tactic in and of itself. It’s a poll tax paid in time.
I lived more than 25 years in New York, where I took for granted that voting was a casual affair. For years, I would take my children into the booth with me so that they could see how the electoral process worked. There was never a line. Maybe there was a person or two in front of us, but no real delay.
I wouldn’t do that here in Georgia. Forcing a child to wait in a long line in the cold could by itself be considered abusive.
But, as I waited, something else occurred to me: Voter suppression is one of the surest cures for apathy. Nothing makes you value a thing like someone trying to steal it from you.
The line, and all the people patiently waiting in it, is a symbol of resilience and perseverance. It is a reminder that people will work hard to overcome obstacles to accomplish things they deem essential.
Waiting in line is such a feature of Georgia voting that some counties even publish their waiting times online so that voters can plan their arrivals to have the shortest wait.
These waits can disproportionately affect nonwhite voters. According to a report by Georgia Public Broadcasting and ProPublica before Election Day in 2020, a shrinking number of polling places “has primarily caused long lines in nonwhite neighborhoods where voter registration has surged and more residents cast ballots in person on Election Day.”
According to the report, the nine metro Atlanta counties “have nearly half of the state’s active voters but only 38 percent of the polling places.”
Yet those voters would not be deterred.
During the general election, voters set a record for the number of early votes cast in a Georgia midterm election, and on Monday and again on Tuesday they set records for single-day early voting in a Georgia runoff. It is interesting to note that an estimated 35 percent of the early votes so far are from African Americans, a slightly greater figure than their percentage of the population of Georgia.
This is a testament to the fortitude of those voters, because they were the ones targeted by Georgia’s latest round of voter suppression with “uncanny accuracy,” as the Brennan Center for Justice’s president, Michael Waldman, put it last year. Waldman wrote that Gov. Brian Kemp “signed his voter suppression bill in front of a painting of a plantation where more than 100 Black people had been enslaved. The symbolism, unnerving and ghastly, is almost too fitting.”
People who defend voter suppression point to these numbers as proof that their critics are simply being hyperbolic and creating an issue where none exists. But that is the opposite of the truth as far as I can see it. From my perspective, voters are simply responding with defiance to the efforts to suppress.
And yet that defiance might still not be enough to overcome all of the obstacles placed in voters’ way. While those record daily numbers are heartening, they are in part a result of a new Republican election law that cut the number of early-voting days roughly in half. Even with the extraordinary turnout, it is unlikely this year’s early voting will match that of last year’s runoff between Warnock and the Republican incumbent, Kelly Loeffler.
In addition, Republicans have fielded a singularly offensive candidate in Walker, a man not fit for elective office, a walking caricature of Black competence and excellence, as if Black candidates are interchangeable irrespective of accomplishment and proficiency.
The whole time I was waiting in line, I kept thinking about how the wait would have been impossible for someone struggling with child care or elder care, or someone whose job — or jobs — wouldn’t allow for that long a break in the middle of the day.
Also, I voted on an unseasonably warm day. What about those whose only opportunity to vote might be a day when it was raining or cold? The line at my polling place was outside for 90 percent of the time I waited.
I have nothing but disdain for the efforts to suppress the vote in my new home state, but I have nothing but admiration for the voters’ determination not to be suppressed.
Democracy is being saved by sheer force of will, by people climbing a hill that should never have been put in front of them.
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