Georgia, Voting Rights, and the Second Great Disenfranchisement in America

Photograph Source: Stephen Harlan – CC BY 2.0

Georgia’s decision to restrict voting rights in partisan retaliation for Democrats flipping the state should come as no surprise.  It is a continuation of a nearly generation long battle that is part of the Second Great Disenfranchisement in American history.  Like the first which occurred after Reconstruction ended in 1877, this one too is both partisan and aimed at people of color, especially at a time when the latter are about to take political control.

Across Europe and the United States, the 1800s was the century of the battle for universal suffrage.  Democratic movements pushed for everyone to get the right to vote, including women, the indigent, and people of color. While the battle for universal suffrage began in the nineteenth century, apparent victory did not occur until the twentieth century.  In the United States, by the early 1970s federal laws and constitutional amendments achieved nearly universal suffrage, and enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act significantly overcame the racial barriers that many states still maintained to prevent people of color from voting.

But while the arc of American history has been an expansion of voting rights—an effort former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall referred to as expanding who was included in the promise of the Constitution’s “We the people”—there has also been a counter effort to suppress voting rights.  After the Civil War, the Republican Party embraced voting rights for the newly freed male slaves, while the Democratic Party opposed it.  When the 1876 disputed presidential election, Democrats conceded the election to the Republicans on condition that Reconstruction end.  This ushered in a 100-year-long Jim Crow era where literacy tests, grandfather laws, poll taxes, felon disenfranchisements, and outright lynching suppressed voting rights for African Americans.

The first Great Disenfranchisement ended in the 1960s with 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act and perhaps the 1993 Motor Voter Act.   But with universal franchise within grasp, the roots of the Second Great Disenfranchisement began.  It started with Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Richard Nixon defending states rights in the 1960s.  It continued into the 1990s with Republicans claiming Motor Voter would yield fraud.  And then post Florida 2000 and the disputed election between George Bush and Al Gore, the language turned to claims of voter fraud and the need to fix it via voter identification laws.

Since then, there has been a generation long effort by Republicans to suppress voting rights, using the false claim of voter fraud as a pretext.  Now voter fraud has morphed into “stolen election” after Donald Trump lost the 2020 election and Joe Biden and the Democrats flipped Georgia, and with that, the control of the presidency and the Senate.  As the Brennan Center reports, 43 states have introduced more than 250 laws aimed at suppressing voting rights.   There is still no basis for the stolen election thesis,  as 60+  court cases after the 2020 elections showed, and according to Sidney Powell, Trump’s attorney, who, in response  to lawsuits challenging her claims of fraud, asserted that no reasonable  person would believe such assertions.  And with a conservative Supreme Court already having gutted the Voting Rights Act and poised to let states restrict franchise, the Second Great Disenfranchisement is in full bloom.  Georgia is at the center of the fight.

Georgia’s flip to voting for the Democratic Party presidential and US Senate candidates came as a surprise to many.  On one level perhaps its flipping vindicates Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder when he pointed to statistics indicating parity in voter registration for Blacks and Whites across the South, insinuating that perhaps the VRA might no longer be needed.  Maybe Georgia in 2020 was proof that Jim Crow and voter suppression were left behind, and that the electoral college was no longer an anti-majoritarian institution.

Georgia was a surprise, but it was also a product of a perfect storm that may not be repeatable or serve as a harbinger for the rest of the South.  What happened in 2020 was a product of a concerted multiyear organizing strategy by Democrats and Stacy Abrams.  It also benefited from a large Black voting population, a state with significant in-migration from the north to Atlanta, and college educated White suburban voters who disliked the incumbent president Donald Trump for among other things, his mishandling of the pandemic.

Consider first the racial makeup of Georgia.  According to the 2019 Census Bureau American Community Survey population estimates, Georgia is 57.75% White, 42.25% non-White, with 31.94% African American.  Of the 11 states that made up the Confederacy, no other state has a high percentage of its population non-White.  The only state coming close is Mississippi at 41.97%. The latter, however, does not have as high a percentage of  college educated as Georgia.  In 2020, 40% of the Georgia voters had a college education, with 14% of persons of color having a college degree.  Compare this to Mississippi where 30% of the voters had a college degree and approximately 8% of non-whites had college degrees.  In Georgia 61% of the voters according to exit polls were White, whereas in Mississippi it was 69%.   Finally, in Georgia 69% of Whites voters supported Trump and 88% of Blacks supported Biden, while in Mississippi 81% of White voters supported Trump while 90% non-White voter for Biden.

What we learn from this brief comparison is that while racially polarized voting continues to exist in both states, the presence of more voters with a college degree somewhat mediated the partisan split in Georgia but not so much in Mississippi.  Nationally we know that in 2020 college-educated voters were much more likely to support Biden, confirming that Georgia voting patterns followed that trend.  Yet Georgia’s unique combination of racial demographics and education distinguished it from Mississippi and perhaps other former Confederacy states in setting the stage for the 2020 election results.

Given the above, one should not necessarily expect that the electoral college vote in Georgia in 2024 will produce similar results and perhaps protect minority rights.  And all of that was before the effort to suppress voting rights in that state.  Georgi flipped in part because people of color voted.  Suppress them in that state and a few others and the election in 2020 could have been different.  In fact, while Joe Biden won the presidency in 2020 by nearly seven million popular votes, he only won Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin by 19,457, 11,779, and 20,682 votes respectively, or collectively by 42,918 votes.  Suppress 43,000 votes and Trump would have won the electoral college again in 2020.

Elections have consequences.  That is why voter suppression is so important.  We are in the middle of the Second Great Disenfranchisement and 2021 will tell us whether the battle to protect voting rights will be won or lost.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.