On this episode of "Battleground: Ballot Box," we go back in time and explore the history of racist voting laws in Georgia and how the remnants of those decisions are still present today.

We start back in the 1880s, not too long after the 15th Amendment gave Black men the right to vote.

Following the Civil War, many state and local governments passed Jim Crow laws: legislation meant to deprive Black men of their new rights. These discriminatory policies were not fully abolished until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. But in the past several years, we have seen an unfortunate resurgence in laws meant to disenfranchise voters of color.    

Adrienne Jones, a political science professor at Morehouse College, has studied the history of political involvement of Black people in America. She focuses on the myriad barriers that were put up in former Confederate states to prevent Black people from exercising their vote: 

“There are a number of ways that became popular, like grandfather clauses, which meant you couldn't get to the polls if your grandfather couldn't vote; your grandfather presumably was a slave," Jones said. "Poll taxes, which even at just a dollar or two, were extremely expensive for people during that period of time. Literacy tests, where black people were prevented from solid education or public education. And then, of course, violence.”

Jones said that in mostly rural Georgia, it would have been hard for Black people to get to the polls without others in the community knowing.

“Lynching is at an all-time high, of course, from the late 1880s, 1890s through much of the middle of the 1900s," she said. "And so you got a situation where people are unable to register to vote. They’re unable to access the polls. So they're unable to participate in selecting their elected officials. And they're also prevented from being able to run for office themselves. The United States is actually the only country where they have granted the franchise to groups of people and then taken it back again.”

This persecution continued until the Civil Rights Movement, almost a century after the passing of the 15th Amendment. The Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964 all attempted to strengthen the voting rights of African Americans to little avail. Only the Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave teeth to the enforcement of non-discriminatory laws and practices. 

One of the most important aspects of the Voting Rights Act was its Section 5 preclearance requirement. Section 5 applied to jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination, which implemented literacy tests or had low voter registration numbers. Under Section 5, states like Georgia had to get permission from the federal Department of Justice to make changes in their voting laws, and the Department of Justice would have the authority to decide whether these laws were, in fact, discriminatory.

“What this did was put the onus on states, first of all, to only be proposing and attempting to pass laws that were not arguably going to discriminate against voters," she said. "And number two, in my mind, and looking at the material over the years, it really just promoted a moral compass."

But getting some states to abide by the Section 5 requirement was an uphill battle. 

“States like Georgia and Mississippi were extremely reticent, at first, to abide by the Section 5 requirements," she said. "States also engaged in a lot of rules-changing in order to avoid coming into contact with Voting Rights preclearance.

"And it's not as if the Voting Rights Act has ever been enforced in a draconian kind of way," she continued. "So there are a lot of laws that have been enacted since 1965, especially in that early period that weren't reviewed by Section 5, by the Department of Justice. But it still meant that we started to shift towards a fairer system.”

In fact, the Voting Rights Act led to a considerable increase in Black voter registration, as the Act appointed federal examiners to oversee registration efforts. In 1965 alone, almost 250,000 African Americans registered to vote. The increased engagement of Black citizens in politics also led to a rise in number of Black elected officials in both state and federal offices. 

The effort to roll back elements of the Voting Rights Act were at work since its inception, but Jones said that there’s now a more concerted effort of using the courts to make changes, embarking on a slow process to shift the conversation in their favor through lawsuits and judicial appointments.

Starting with Nixon through the George W. Bush administration, Jones said there was a steady push against the Voting Rights Act in a “politically correct” kind of way through things like voter fraud inquiries and voter ID laws. This came to a head in 2006, after a reauthorization of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was passed in Congress.

“Literally a week after the 2006 Reauthorization is completed, the law gets challenged in a case, the MUD case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court and in which Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the decision, basically indicated that the Voting Rights Act probably had some significant issues,” Jones explained.

That was a signal for plaintiffs interested in challenging the law, like Shelby County v. Holder. The landmark 2013 decision did not touch Section 5, which requires preclearance but struck down Section 4(b), the blueprint outlining which jurisdictions were required to be under preclearance. Without Section 4(b), Section 5 was no longer enforceable. 

Since that ruling, Georgia and other states are no longer obligated to seek federal permission for policy changes such as voter ID laws, polling place closures, voter list maintenance, and exact-match registration laws. 

On the one hand, you could make the argument that states and counties have more flexibility to make changes that they say will help voters in a timely manner. But Jones said Black voters in particular don’t have that luxury extended to them.

“And a couple of the main reasons why Black communities are often unable to get to vote is because people don't have time off work in order to go to vote on a workday," she said. "They don't necessarily have transportation. And sometimes they don't have the kinds of identification that is required under some of these new stricter ID laws. I mean, you remember used to be able to go to vote with a utility bill or something official that would prove that you were who you said you were, but nothing along the same limited lines as our — as what's being required now in a state like Georgia.”

There are also policies like Georgia’s “exact-match” law that, until recently, held up voter registration applications that did not precisely line up with the state driver’s license database or federal social security database. 

In the June 9 primary, there were problems with long lines and new voting machines, especially in predominantly non-white metro Atlanta polling places. Jones said that these barriers are present in communities across the country, especially ones that once required preclearance.

“Black people have definitely been impacted by the lack of supervision over voting laws post-Shelby. And part of that has to do with the importance of black voters, particularly in the Democratic Party, as we are now under a Republican administration which would like to maintain its leadership in this presidential election in November.”

But one thing Jones has noticed in recent years is a determination for Black Americans to vote in spite of these obstacles, especially in the South.

“People's understanding that there is an attempt to prevent them from voting has in some instances encouraged people to be more dogged and more deliberate, right?" she said. "So they're willing to wait longer, in some instances, because they are adamant that their voice be heard.”

In 2019, the Democrat-controlled U.S. House passed the Voting Rights Advancement Act, later renaming it the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act after the civil rights icon’s death in 2020. 

The measure, which has made no traction in the Republican-controlled Senate, would reinstate oversight by the federal government based on updated data about voting problems.

Meanwhile, the 2021 legislative session in Georgia is set to be ripe for discussion about voting changes after the disastrous June primary and the potentially problematic general election that could see control of the White House and the State House change hands.

Battleground: Ballot Box is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show gpb.org/battleground or anywhere you get podcasts.

Please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Our editor is Wayne Drash, our intern is Eva Rothenberg, our show is mixed by Jesse Nighswonger and the Director of Podcasting is Sean Powers.