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The New Jim Crow

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Brian Kemp’s Georgia isn’t just making it harder for African-Americans to vote, it’s intimidating voters with prosecution:

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the chief elections official in the state, is a pioneer of present-day voter suppression. Mr. Kemp has a record of making it harder for people to register to vote, and more difficult for those voters to remain on the rolls. Since 2012, his office has canceled more than 1.4 million voter registrations. In July 2017, over half a million people — 8 percent of the state’s registered voters — were purged in a single day. As of earlier this month, over 50,000 people’s registrations, filed before the deadline to vote in the coming midterm election, were listed as on hold. Seventy percent had been filed by black applicants.

Even as Mr. Kemp claims his draconian voting policies are intended to prevent fraud, it’s clear that his real aim is to weaken black voting power in a state where political affiliation is largely dictated by race. He has warned his fellow Republicans about Democrats “registering all these minority voters.”

Mr. Kemp’s attempts to prevent people from voting exemplify the familiar ways in which access to the ballot has been restricted for people of color across the United States. But voter suppression also happens in ways that aren’t as well-known, and are even more insidious. In particular, local prosecutors have increasingly brought criminal charges against black voters and community activists for small technical infractions. They’re sending the frightening message that casting a ballot is risky — a message that resonates even when the charges turn out to be baseless and the people charged are acquitted.

In a particularly disturbing case, Olivia Pearson, a grandmother and lifelong resident of Coffee County, Ga., found herself on trial this year on charges of felony voter fraud. It began six years ago, on the first day of early voting in Georgia, when a black woman named Diewanna Robinson went to cast her ballot. Ms. Robinson, then 21, had never voted before and didn’t know how to operate the electronic voting machine, reported Buzzfeed. She asked Ms. Pearson, more than 30 years her senior, for help. Ms. Robinson would later testify that Ms. Pearson informed her where the card went in the machine and told her to “just go through and make my own selections on who I wanted to vote for.” Ms. Pearson walked away before Ms. Robinson started voting.

Almost four years later, Ms. Pearson received a letter from District Attorney George Barnhill’s office, informing her that she was facing felony charges for improperly assisting Ms. Robinson. The city councilwoman and community leader was arrested and booked. She had never been in trouble with the law, but now she found herself facing up to 15 years in prison.

Ms. Pearson was not accused of telling Ms. Robinson whom to vote for. She didn’t help her cast her ballot or even touch her machine. Prosecutors did not allege that the brief interaction between the two women impacted Robinson’s decisions in the voter booth. Rather, they insisted that because Ms. Robinson was not illiterate or disabled, she had not been entitled to even minimal verbal assistance.

It’s well known that voter suppression has taken the form of the closing of polling places, new restrictive voter ID laws, voter roll purges of thousands of eligible voters and nine-hour lines at the polls. But Ms. Pearson’s case is a reminder that it can also take the form of the aggressive prosecution of individual black voters for polling-place offenses — which in many cases appears motivated less by a sincere desire to address fraud than by a desire to intimidate.

Again, if you’re ever tempted to think that voting doesn’t matter consider the lengths to which the party that represents the country’s most powerful interests go to in order to stop people from voting.

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