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Voter suppression in rural Georgia mirrors systemic racism across the South

Looking down Peterson Avenue in Douglas, Georgia, it is easy to slip back in time. If you squint past the late-model cars and ignore the occasional modern building, the old brick structures and small shops that line the city’s downtown hark back to 1950s Americana.

Behind the peaceful façade, however, powerful forces are in motion. The quiet calm that envelops the streets as the sun sets counters the turmoil that the rise of Trumpian politics has brought to the region.

Just off the main drag on Ashley Street, the shell of the Coffee County Elections & Registration office is still standing, for now at least. A new building is coming to replace the boxy brown, single-story affair.

The building became infamous thanks to videos of local election officials leading “cyber sleuths” inside to access some of the county’s voting machines in 2021. The officials were seeking to find evidence of the widespread fraud they claim helped prevent Donald Trump from winning a second term as president.

But these sorts of election shenanigans are not new to Coffee County. Douglas Mayor Pro Tem Olivia Coley-Pearson, who has served on the city’s commission for more than two decades, faced two felony trials for helping a first-time voter understand how a voting machine worked in 2012. And the ongoing effort to gain equal representation for Black and Brown residents is a never-ending struggle that has become more heated as traditional conservatism has given way to MAGA extremism, especially in the deep-red rural South.

“In terms of voting rights, I’ve definitely seen regress,” Coley-Pearson said. “Back in the 1960s, we had to count the jelly beans, this, that and the other. We aren’t still there, but where we are is a more sophisticated means of voter suppression. We might have progressed some at one point in time, but we are currently moving backwards.”

Poy Winichakul, senior staff attorney for Democracy and Voting Rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the systematic effort to minimize the collective voting power of communities of color in Georgia and across the South requires local leaders like Coley-Pearson to stand up.

“Anti-voter politicians are systemically denying equal representation to communities of color to advocate for how resources are allocated and how communities are governed,” Winichakul said. “It’s imperative that local leaders and other advocates for democracy make their voices heard.”

No good deed unpunished

The Douglas City Hall, located on Peterson Avenue near downtown Douglas, Georgia on Aug. 24, 2023. (Credit: Dwayne Fatherree)

At the local level, voter suppression can take a personal turn.

Coley-Pearson was known as an advocate in the Black community before she first took office in 2000. So for her, helping a young woman navigate the somewhat intimidating act of voting for the first time was not a burden.

In explaining the process and showing the woman how the voting machine worked on that day in 2012, however, she did not realize that she had started a six-year journey that would test her resolve.

She filled out a form that day explaining that she had told the voter how the machine worked. That form came back to haunt her in 2016 with multiple felony charges for voter fraud, specifically giving “improper voting assistance.”

Her first trial, in Coffee County, led to a hung jury. It took two years before her second trial. That time, a jury acquitted her in less than 30 minutes.

But the message had been sent. A Black leader had been put through years of turmoil at the hands of white officials intent on suppressing the vote. And that ordeal, seen throughout the community, is not an isolated one.

“I’ve had my job threatened,” said Tabitha Paulk, president of the Coffee County chapter of the NAACP and a teacher with the county school system. “Even if you are just standing up to right the wrongs that you see, you become a target. And in a small town, you don’t have the option of just getting another job somewhere else. That’s a lot of the tactics you see going on now. They look at Miss Olivia and see what happened to her, a council member. So what is going to happen to me if I speak out? Do I vote and speak out, or do I just keep working and provide for my family?”

When things changed

This is what remained of the Coffee County Elections & Registration building in downtown Douglas, Georgia, on Aug. 24, 2023. (Credit: Dwayne Fatherree)

It would be easy to point to the rise of Trump in 2015 and 2016 as a marker, a high-tide point after which individual voting rights began to ebb. But Bruce L. Francis, pastor of Gaines Chapel AME Church in Douglas, puts that mark a little lower.

“It was very subtle prior to that, but during the second term of President Obama it just progressively got worse,” Francis said of those who began deconstructing the efforts to enhance voting rights over the previous 50 years. “They really just came out the closet.”

He pointed out the reaction to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 sideline protests – when he kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality – as an example of how strident the racially charged discourse became during that time. He especially noted the words that came from the mouth of then-President Trump in 2017.

“He made that speech in Alabama and he cussed, he said all kinds of things about people going to jail and losing their jobs,” said Francis, 62, adding that in his lifetime, he’d “never seen any talk like that” from a president. “And they cheered. From a racial standpoint, we were at rock bottom. From a political standpoint, especially when he was in office, we hit rock bottom. Because he did nothing to enhance the welfare of the nation as a whole and everything he did, really, was to promote himself.”

Douglas resident Larry Nesmith was a candidate for the District 169 Georgia House seat in 2014. He won with almost 57% of the vote in the primary but lost to the Republican incumbent 73% to 27% in the general election.

Still, he said his strong showing in the primary was enough to concern some of his Republican opponent’s supporters. He said he had a cash offer to drop out of the race even though the Republican was heavily favored.

“I had a man say he would give me $5,000 to drop out of the race,” Nesmith said. “I told him my soul was not for sale.”

Nesmith, a military veteran and community activist, said he had to overcome stereotyping when he first moved to Douglas.

“When I came here, I moved into one of the nicer parts of town,” he said. “And people said, ‘He must be a drug dealer.’ They didn’t ask if I had served in the military or if I owned a business. They just assumed I was a dealer. Even in the Black community, they thought I was dealing.

“That’s why I left Atlanta, to get away from that crime. I’ve never even done drugs. But that is the way that is in small towns. They just assume.”

Finding allies

Kathryn Grant, left, and Douglas Mayor Pro Tem Olivia Coley-Pearson on Aug. 24, 2023, look over signatures on a petition calling for more transparency from the Coffee County Board of Elections regarding data breaches in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. The board has yet to publicly comment on the extent of the breach. (Credit: Dwayne Fatherree)

Kathryn Grant is program director for Safe to Thrive, a project of the Campaign To Keep Guns Off Campus, a nonprofit dedicated to ending gun violence and a partner to Black Voters Matter, a national nonprofit that seeks to increase voting power in Black communities. She lives just southwest of Douglas.

Like Coley-Pearson, Grant has been active in the fight for fair elections since before Obama’s 2012 reelection. She said the struggle begins at the grassroots level.

“I started getting involved in voter protection work in 2018,” Grant said. “What I noticed at the Board of Elections on the local level is how partisan, how overtly partisan, it was. It was shocking to me that that would even be allowed. I think that the political influence within the Board of Elections has escalated and resulted in local policies that make it harder for all people to vote.”

Grant pointed to the local control of the board seats as a point of concern.

“The authority to appoint members to the Board of Elections falls on the county commission,” Grant said. “County commissions in rural Georgia, with few exceptions, are majority Republican held, although technically the county commission races are nonpartisan. So who are they going to appoint, with no regard for any sort of balance?”

Another issue for voters in rural areas is the access to basic information on elections. As more and more of the world moves online, the digital divide between those with internet access and those without it grows starker, especially in rural areas.

“I have a friend who lives on the outskirts of Valdosta who spends $150 a month for cable access, but the speeds are so slow she can’t even access Zoom calls,” Grant said. “Now, she and her husband have means. What about the people who can’t even afford $150 a month? What about those who don’t even know how to get access to the internet? None of those accommodations are fully considered in the local elections.”

One focus of the effort to improve transparency was to have the Coffee County Board of Elections hire a special counsel to investigate the actions that occurred surrounding the 2020 election and its aftermath, including the unauthorized access of the county’s voting machines in 2021. The board denied that motion at its August meeting, leaving the investigation in the hands of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

“So these various mechanisms, some of them obvious, some of them more sinister, are coming together at what is one of the most important times in our history,” Grant said. “And through local policies, some election officials are instituting policies at the local level that create barriers, limiting public oversight and election transparency. Most Board of Elections meetings are held weekdays during work hours. Important decisions are made during these monthly meetings that may or may not reach the public unless they attend, but how many people in rural areas, where employment opportunities are already limited, can take time off work to go to meetings? The selective information piece affects the community profoundly. If the people don’t know what is going on, how can they be expected to care?”

Solutions and challenges

Grant’s point dovetails with local NAACP president Paulk’s reasoning for the lack of involvement among communities of color in their local politics.

“Part of the problem is that the representation does not reflect the makeup of the community,” Paulk said.

But that sets up a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Which comes first: community involvement or community representation? And if there isn’t enough community involvement, can any change happen without state or national legislation to force equal rights for all voters?

The situation in Coffee County underscores the need to restore, strengthen and modernize the Voting Rights Act and pass state legislation to protect Black and Brown communities from voter discrimination, advocates say.

As of July 2022, census data shows that 68% of Coffee County residents are white and 29% are Black. Additionally, 13% of the residents of any race claim Latinx roots. Currently only one of the county’s five commissioners is Black. Four are white.

“The state representatives have to say, ‘This is the rules that you go by,’ instead of letting the county go on their own,” Paulk said. “There needs to be some sort of legislation that says it will be reflective of the community.”

But Coley-Pearson said the problem begins with the lack of citizen involvement in the process.

“When they were considering redistricting, I had a redistricting luncheon to get people out,” she said. “I may have had 20 folks show up. It was a public meeting to keep people informed, so they would know what was going on. But they want to wait until things happen to get involved.”

Photo at top: From left, Douglas Mayor Pro Tem Olivia Coley-Pearson, Gaines Chapel AME Church Pastor Bruce L. Francis, community activist Larry Nesmith, Coffee County NAACP President Tabitha Paulk and Safe to Thrive Program Director Kathryn Grant stand at the steps of Gaines Chapel on Aug. 24, 2023. (Credit: Dwayne Fatherree)