While the new administration continues to focus on unsubstantiated claims of vote fraud, across the country, communities continue to wrestle with the real and significant impact of voter suppression and voting discrimination. Some of the most egregious forms of voter suppression often play out in rural and isolated communities that are not under the national spotlight.
Take, for example, an issue from last Fall out of rural and majority-African-American Hancock County, one of the most economically disadvantaged counties in Georgia. The county’s majority-White Board of Elections decided to strip African-Americans of the right to vote on the eve of a hotly contested local election in which White candidates were challenging African-American incumbents for the Mayor and City Council of Sparta.
In 12 hearings held over the course of several weeks, the Board of Elections and its allies challenged the eligibility of nearly 20 percent of Sparta’s registered voters. Nearly all of those who were challenged are African-American, and the individuals initiating the challenges acknowledged targeting a politically active African-American neighborhood in Sparta called, “The Gut.”
Disturbingly, the local Sheriff’s office was involved in the scheme. The sheriff’s office was deployed to the homes of targeted voters who were issued summonses requiring that they come down to the local office to provide proof of their right to vote. The county’s former Supervisor of Elections acknowledged in a deposition that she believed the challenges were racially motivated. The Board’s actions would have been barred if the Voting Rights Act had not been decimated by a decision issued by the Supreme Court in 2013, Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. But, instead it proceeded unfettered.
Most of the challenged voters were not notified of their challenge hearings, which were conducted at inconvenient times during work hours. The Board of Elections ultimately purged dozens of voters who did not appear at their hearings based on hearsay and unsubstantiated speculation. One white member of the Board challenged African-American voters in her personal capacity as a Hancock County resident, then voted in her official capacity as a Board member to approve her own challenges. Local contacts have reported that the purges had a chilling effect on Black voter registration and participation.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and our partners filed a federal lawsuit the same day the Sparta election was held to stop the challenges. After months of litigation, we reached a settlement that restores all of the purged voters still living in the county to the rolls. The settlement also subjects the Board of Elections to a robust consent decree with myriad protections that ensure purges of this kind will never occur again in Hancock County.
Similarly, the Board is required to report all future challenges and provide challenge-related documents for review by our organization through 2022. Moreover, the role of law enforcement personnel, which voters reported as being intimidating, will be discouraged.
The resolution of this voter suppression case comes on the heels of the 52nd anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when hundreds of people marching in support of voting rights were assaulted and beaten by state troopers as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The coverage of Bloody Sunday shifted the public discourse on race in America and contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, arguably the most successful piece of civil rights legislation in our nation’s history.
While everyone agrees that the Voting Rights Act has been effective, there is disagreement about its continuing relevance and whether significant racial discrimination in voting continues to be a problem in today’s America. Hancock County makes clear that voter suppression is alive and well across our country and must be fought. It is important that we remain vigilant and to continue to fight for the rights that many before us, including those marching on the Edmund Pettus Bridge more than 52 years ago, have sacrificed so much for.
Kristen Clarke is President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. John Powers is Associate Counsel in the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Follow her on Twitter at KristenClarkeJD