Linking Georgia’s newly signed elections law to the segregationist Jim Crow system is not only inaccurate, it’s an affront to Black Americans, as far as Michael Lancaster is concerned.
His forebears were among those who labored under the racist system designed to prevent Black suffrage and enforce segregation in public facilities, transportation and education in the Deep South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“A civil debate about voting rights is an important conversation to have, but comparing Georgia’s election reform legislation to Jim Crow is insulting to my Black ancestors who suffered through those dehumanizing segregation laws,” said Mr. Lancaster, Georgia state director of the Frederick Douglass Foundation.
As Democrats increasingly brandish the Jim Crow comparison in the fight over state and national election laws, critics — including Black conservatives — are challenging the narrative, saying it trivializes the era’s horrific abuses by likening them to standard identification requirements used for everything from boarding an airplane to buying beer.
“Comparing absentee ballot changes and ID requirements to banning Black people from restaurants and drinking fountains is absurd,” Mr. Lancaster said in an email.
Wilfred Reilly, associate political science professor at Kentucky State University, a historically Black college, said the “Jim Crow claim passes through ‘nonsensical’ into offensiveness.”
The Georgia Election Integrity Act expands voting hours but also requires identification for absentee voting, prohibits handing out food and drinks for voters within 150 feet of polling entrances and bans the mobile-voting buses used during last year’s pandemic.
“I’ve read the Georgia bill, and it’s a fairly standard voting law, which attempts to respond to concerns (justified or not) on the right about election integrity, while also taking practical steps to add voting machines and reduce wait times,” Mr. Reilly said. “Whether you approve or disapprove of the law, comparing this sort of thing to lynching or mandated racial segregation, which is what Jim Crow was, is beyond bizarre.”
The food-and-drink stipulation is not unique: Other states, including New York, have such limits to “prevent electioneering, such as community or church leaders handing out chilled bottles of ‘Donald Trump’ iced tea,” said Mr. Reilly.
The Jim Crow schemes to disenfranchise voters included requiring them to pay the equivalent of $25 to $50; prove that they could read at a time when illiteracy was far more widespread, and own property, according to America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee.
The effect was to exclude both poor Black and White voters. In addition, Blacks could be excluded via grandfather clauses which allowed them to cast ballots if their relatives voted before 1867, eliminating nearly all Black residents.
When all else failed, “Blacks who tried to vote were threatened, beaten and killed,” said the write-up by Alverno College political science professor Russell Brooker.
The passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act signaled the end of the Jim Crow era, but the term has resurfaced as Democrats seek to beat back attempts by GOP-led state legislatures to tighten the process amid voter-fraud allegations following the widespread expansion of mail-in voting and absentee balloting during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Fair Fight Action leader Stacey Abrams launched the “Stop Jim Crow 2” campaign this year to push for congressional legislation that would “safeguard the freedom to vote” as well as stop red states from rolling back emergency rules and enacting new limits.
“Now, more than ever, Americans must demand federal action to protect voting rights as we continue to fight against these blatantly unconstitutional efforts that are nothing less than Jim Crow 2.0,” Ms. Abrams said in a statement on the website.
President Biden gave the comparison his blessing when he declared March 25 that the Republican bills were “sick” and that “this makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle,” prompting head-scratching from conservatives like Los Angeles radio talk-show host Larry Elder.
“I don’t even know what Biden meant,” Mr. Elder said in an email. “I suppose that was an attempt at being clever. Jim Crow is dead. Does Biden even know what he meant?”
He cited a March 17 Rasmussen Reports poll showing that 75% of voters supported voter-identification requirements, including 69% of Black voters, a higher level of support than Democrats, who were 60% in favor.
“And, if ‘voter suppression laws’ are designed to ‘suppress the black vote,’ what happened in 2008 and 2012?” Mr. Elder said. “For the first time in history, the percentage of eligible black voters who voted in 2008 and 2012 exceeded the percentage of eligible white voters who voted in 2008 and 2012.”
Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican, argued that the Georgia law “says we are going to expand your access to the polls” by legalizing drop boxes, which were banned before the pandemic, while extending hours and adding Sunday voting.
“How can you distort the facts so terribly that you’re willing to bring back the concept of a poll tax, or the concept of Jim Crow?” said Mr. Scott in a speech last week to the Berkeley County Republican Party posted by Forbes. “You only do that when you have nothing to stand on.”
While today’s Republican proposals may not look the same as the Jim Crow laws, the goal is the same: to reduce minority voter turnout, said Mr. Brooker.
“It’s not as bad as Jim Crow because Jim Crow was ultimately backed up by murder and burning down your house. Nobody’s doing that,” Mr. Brooker said. “It’s not as bad as Jim Crow. But it’s the same idea.”
He cited long lines outside polling places in minority neighborhoods and voter roll “purges.” Even though Georgia provides free state identification cards, he noted that would-be voters must still be able to produce documents such as birth certificates, which can entail expenses.
“The point is they’re trying to keep people from voting who they think will vote against them,” said Mr. Brooker. “During Jim Crow, it was Democrats keeping Republicans from voting, and now it’s Republicans keeping Democrats from voting.”
Heritage Foundation senior legal fellow Hans von Spakovsky decried the idea that Black voters are somehow less capable of being able to obtain and show identification, calling it “patronizingly racist.”
“Comparing the Georgia election law to Jim Crow is not just trivializing Jim Crow, but insulting to people who actually suffered under the real Jim Crow laws,” said Mr. von Spakovsky, who heads Heritage’s Election Law Reform Initiative.
He said that Georgia’s law extends the voter-identification law that took effect in 2008 to absentee ballots, and that the higher voter turnout numbers disprove the racism allegations.
“The idea that Black residents and voters of Georgia can’t cope with the ID requirement is racist, and the facts prove that they’re wrong,” Mr. von Spakovsky said. “The law has been in effect for 10 years, and if you look at the turnout numbers for Georgia elections since the ID law was in place — not only did the turnout of Black voters and Hispanic voters not go down, it increased dramatically.”
Mr. Brooker agreed that studies about voter turnout show that “voter suppression laws … are not very effective.”
Even so, “Republicans must think it’s effective, or they wouldn’t be doing it, and the Democrats must think it’s effective, or they wouldn’t be fighting it so hard,” Mr. Brooker said. “I’m not saying they’re right, but that’s what they believe.”