Georgia Republicans are pushing a bill that would dramatically shorten early voting for city elections. The effort is the latest to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling last year on the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which made it easier for certain areas to change election rules in ways that hurt racial minorities.
The measure, introduced this week by State Rep. Brian Fleming, would cut early voting days from a minimum of 16 (some counties currently choose to offer more) down to six. The change would exclude the state’s seven consolidated cities, which include Athens, Augusta, and Columbus, and would apply only to municipal elections—not county, state, or federal contests.
Creating different voting periods for different elections is likely to reduce turnout, said Elizabeth Poythress, the president of the League of Women Voters of Georgia.
“If they make specific provisions for certain elections, it’s just so confusing,” Poythress said. “Educating the normal voter is enough.”
Those most likely to be deterred, of course, are low-information voters, who may not hear about the change. “It’s taking away the right for some people to vote, because they won’t know,” Poythress added.
A higher share of blacks than whites uses early voting. In the 2012 presidential election, blacks in Georgia accounted for 34% of all early votes cast in the state.
A report released last month by a bipartisan panel of experts appointed by President Obama recommended expanding early voting as a key way to make elections run more smoothly.
Fleming said the demand for early voting in municipal elections in many small cities isn’t high enough to justify the cost of paying election workers. “Small cities were having to pay three people to sit around all day when one or two people would vote,” he said.
So why not take a more flexible approach that lets small cities cut early voting days that aren’t being used, without forcing more populated areas, where a longer period is useful, to go along with it? That’s what plenty of states do.
Fleming said the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA), which has pushed the issue, didn’t include that idea in their draft proposal, though he wouldn’t be opposed to it. Asked about whether that approach was considered, Brian Wallace, a GMA official, referred msnbc back to Fleming.
The bill’s focus on municipal elections, which in Georgia are non-partisan and held in odd-numbered years, means it won’t affect this year’s midterms or the 2016 presidential election. That could keep it from turning into a national news story, as other fights over Republican-backed voting restrictions have done.
But for many Americans, it’s local officials that have the greatest impact on their daily lives.
“Those are the people that spend the money that’s in your pocket,” said Poythress. “They do your roads, they have control of your schools. Those are the important people.”
And precisely because those local changes often fly under the radar, the Voting Rights Act’s federal oversight system was perfectly designed to stop them. Until that system was neutered by the Supreme Court last June, it required areas with a history of racial discrimination in voting—including most southern states—to submit even minor election changes to the federal government before they could go into effect. Under the weakened VRA, victims can still sue for discrimination after the fact. But lawsuits are expensive and time-consuming, meaning elections may take place before a discriminatory change can be overturned.
“If you feel disenfranchised, the only way you can do it in Georgia is to sue, and that costs a lot of money,” said Poythress. “And voting should not cost a lot of money.”
Georgia’s early voting bill is just the latest in a series of conservative efforts to reduce local-level minority political power that have gained momentum thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling. Georgia Republicans have already pushed through a bill that would move Augusta’s elections from November to June, when black voters are far less likely to make it to the polls—a tactic pulled from the Jim Crow era. Conservatives in Beaumont, Texas have tried to oust the school board’s black majority without an election. And Pasadena, Texas is looking to move to an at-large voting system that will reduce Hispanic representation. All those moves likely would have been—or at first were—blocked by the federal government under the VRA.
“There’s been significant attention on state-level changes, because those seem to be changes that have partisan consequences,” Spencer Overton, a voting rights expert at George Washington University, told msnbc in December, referring to voter ID laws in Texas and North Carolina, among other state-level restrictions. “That overlooks the real problem, and that’s discrimination on the local level.”
“It’s difficult to see when politicians abuse the process and engage in voting discrimination,” Overton added. “A lot of that activity was deterred because these local politicians knew their changes would be reviewed, and they needed to be on good behavior. Unfortunately we don’t have that check anymore.”