The Fight For Voting Rights in Georgia

Read Transcript EXPAND

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, this week marks the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and that’s when voting rights activists, of course, were brutally attacked in Selma, Alabama. Nearly six decades later, voting rights are still under assault, bills restricting access to the ballot are now working their way through legislators in more than 40 states, including Georgia. Activist Nse Ufot is working to change that. She is the CEO of the New Georgia Project. It’s a nonpartisan group that register voters. And here she is talking with our Michel Martin about why so many of these bills are, of course, about race and class.


MICHEL MARTIN: Nse Ufot, thank you so much for joining us.


MARTIN: So, let’s talk about the present moment. Just this week, the Georgia Senate passed a bill to end No-Excuse Absentee Voting. This is the House, the Georgia House previously passed the bill with sort of an array of changes, change Georgia’s voting laws. What are the implications of this and how do you understand it?

UFOT: I understand it that after Georgians across our races, ages, genders turned up in historic numbers to vote in November and then nine weeks later, turned up to make history once again, the Republicans, as defenders of the status quo, and people currently in power are shook. They are afraid. And they cannot win on their ideas. That in the Court of Public Opinion, fewer and fewer people are buying what they are selling, and the only way for them to continue to hold onto power is if they cheat, as if they attack the infrastructure, our election’s infrastructure by making it more difficult and constructing additional hurdles for new Georgians to participate in our elections.

MARTIN: What are some of the other things that this bill would do?

UFOT: Oh, my goodness. So, this bill gets rid of Sunday Voting, right, which is from our perspective, a direct attack on Souls to the Polls, an important program that has the been a long-held part of sort of the civic engagement and the public engagement of black churches, particularly in deep south. There’s an element we call the Kinkos Bill (ph) that requires Georgians to submit a photocopy of their I.D. to request an absentee ballot and then to submit in another copy of their photo I.D. in order to submit an absentee ballot. I know that tons of people who are smart and engaged and do good work who don’t have printers in their homes. And so, this is a problem, again, this is a hurdle. We are talking about, you know, getting of drop boxes, you know, limiting drop box hours. We’re talking about getting rid of local control. So, at this moment, County Boards of Elections choose their own members, county commissioners choose their members, choose how they want to fund elections, how they want a staff election, and it would take that control away from the local control, which is completely antithetical to what is — has always been communicated as the Republican approach to governance.

MARTIN: A lot of these voting regiments in Georgia preceded the pandemic, which means that the Republicans have control of the legislation there for quite some time, presumable they supported them initially, right? They supported before?

UFOT: Absolutely. No-Excuse Absentee Voting is a Republican initiative. It passed 16 years ago. Georgia voters have been voting this way or have had the ability to vote this way for 16 years thanks to the Republicans in our state. And so, it is only when this way of voting was adopted by the majority of Georgians including young people and people of color that it somehow became indicative of voter fraud and it needed to be stopped.

MARTIN: The argument that many people are making, from the former president, the former vice president and including many state officials is that people feel that there was fraud. They feel that something was amiss. And so, therefore, measures need to be taken to restore confidence in the integrity of the system.

UFOT: Right. Well, one, feelings are not facts, one. Two, that if you look at, for example, the January 6th insurrection where people stormed the capital, where they killed the capitol police officers, where they put their feet up on Nancy Pelosi’s desk or they waved the confederate flag inside of our nation’s capitol, that was based off of the big lie, right, that there is widespread voter fraud that needs to be addressed in our country. Well, these almost 100 bills that have been introduced in the Georgia legislature are also based on the big lie. These are solutions in search of problems that there is no widespread voter fraud in Georgia. The secretary of state said so himself directly to the president of the United States, right?

MARTIN: Who is a Republican? Who is a republican by the way? I think it’s important to point out. The governor of Georgia is a Republican, the secretary of state is Republican and controlled the election apparatus through the state and said this. But what have they to say about that since they have asserted publicly and to the former president directly that there was no fraud that, in fact, systems were put in place to triple check the results and they were actually checked twice? So, how — what is their stance on — three times.

UFOT: Yes.

MARTIN: They were checked three times, right. So, given that they have made that statement, that assertion, what’s their posture about this slate of bills?

UFOT: Their silence is deafening. That they either have so little influence amongst their caucus in the Georgia State Legislature that like to be rendered essentially impotent or they’re going along with it. But they’ve been quiet. They have not forcefully come out and condemned these attacks on our voting and our elections’ infrastructure. And, again, they are either super OK with it or they’re not and they have so little influence that they can’t stop this runaway Republican train in the Georgia State Legislature.

MARTIN: You are in Georgia and your focus is Georgia, but this is actually something going on nationwide. It’s my understanding that, you know, according to Brennan Center for Justice, which is a nonprofit organization that both tracks these things and advocates and litigates around these things, you know, lawmakers in some 43 states are pushing more than 250 bills that would make it more difficult to vote. And that’s actually something like seven times the number of bills on this matter that were introduced in the last legislative session. Now, I do want to mention that lawmakers are also introducing bills in many of these states to make it easier to vote, but the reality of it is that Republicans control many of these state legislatures. In some places — in many places they control both houses. So, why do you think this is happening?

UFOT: I think there are a couple of things at play here, Michel. I think that, A, we are looking at sort of outside entities like ALEC, right, that are drafting sample legislation for Republicans to sort of push on that agenda.

MARTIN: OK. So, ALEC for those not familiar, that’s the American Legislative Exchange Council, it’s a conservative group that drafts legislation, it often, you know, drafts a template that it then shares with state governments who can sort of adopt it in their own states.

UFOT: Yes. I think, two, that Republican brains have been addled by misinformation and disinformation, that as a result of coordinated well-funded robust disinformation campaigns that the big lie around widespread voter fraud continues to be pushed, and that there are some who have a genuinely held belief that they are doing something to protect our democracy. I think the other thing that is at play here is that they are losing. That when everyone is allowed to vote free from intimidation, free from additional hurdles, free from these modern-day poll taxes, that they don’t win. And that this is a way for them to hold on to power, right. That like, if they — if voters are not going to choose them, they are going to choose their voters by carving out pieces of the electorate with these what appear to be race neutral suppression laws, but they are really not. They are designed to make it more difficult for low wealth people, for people of color, for young folks to not participate in our elections.

MARTIN: Give an example of that, because when you raise this people say, well, what’s wrong with, you know, showing an I.D.? I mean, you know, I have to show an I.D. to get cough syrup. What’s wrong with an I.D.? So, what do you say to that?

UFOT: Well, what I say is that there are tons of ways for people to establish their identity, and that there is tons of research that shows that older people or our seniors, people of color who — and young people who tend to have less wealth are prevented from participating in our elections because they have to pay for an I.D., and that is, you know, from where I stand, a modern-day poll tax, that we have to spend money in order to participate in our elections, that before Georgia — the Georgia legislature passed it’s voter I.D. bill in 2005, before Shelby versus Holder kicked the teeth out of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and 30 additional states added their voter I.D. loss, that people could bring utility bills, they could bring all manners of stuff to say who they are. And as a voting rights activist, like an organizer, somebody who does this work, I know hard it is to get people to vote once. So, the idea that people are trying to go and vote two and three or four times, it’s nonsense, it’s ridiculous. And again, these are solutions in search of problems.

MARTIN: How do you make this case? I mean, part of issue here is that Republicans over the last decades have made a concerted effort to control states houses and Democrats have not, or at least they have not been as successful. I mean, back in 2010, remember that Republicans won 2 dozen chambers. Republicans now control about 3/5 of all the partisan legislative chambers and they are the ones — if people who don’t, you know, know this, they are the ones who write — generally write the district.

UFOT: I mean, we are in, what, the 40th, the 41st year of the Reagan revolution. And so, the work to take over school boards and statehouses has been, you are right, decades in the making. I would say that in a Democratic, Republic and in a healthy democracy that one party rule is not in our interests, it’s not in our best interest. I would say that what we are looking at is not necessarily — I mean, it is partisan, but it’s really a racist, sexist, classist power grab and an attempt to hold onto power for as long as possible. A lot has been written and a lot has been said about this sort of the browning of America, right. And so, 2040, 2050 in some places that America will be a majority of people of color. And nowhere is that change happening as aggressively and as acutely as across the deep south and across the sun belt. So, we’re looking at states like Arizona, and states like Georgia, et cetera. And so, what we are looking at is a power grab. I don’t want to couch it in political science terms because it is a racist, sexist, classist attack on participation in public life. And it’s not just the active voting, right. Because, I mean, voting is important, but it is a tool that is used to sort of express our priorities as a community, how we want to spend our money. We have 12 hospitals in Rural Georgia that have closed or that are about to close in a middle of a pandemic. We still don’t have expanded Medicaid. The minimum wage is $5.15 an hour, right. Like people vote so that they can get elected officials who go to Atlanta or who go to Washington, D.C. do the people’s business, and that’s not happening right now. And we want to do something about it, and that is why we care so deeply about preserving the integrity of our elections.

MARTIN: So, there is a bill that’s moving through the Congress, it is called H.R. 1, it’s been introduced before. It would do a number of things to sort of standardize some of the practices that advocates believe would make elections more fair. For example, it would, you know, make it easier to have some of the techniques that advocates say make it easier for people to vote. And this would standardize these across the country. As you would imagine, that there’s been sort of a furious type of response to that. I mean, some of the conservative outlets call it, you know, a partisan attack on democracy. You know, they say that this is just a common sense — these are common sense measures against concerns like ballot harvesting, somebody kind of, what, aggregating all the ballots and, you know, just the kind of ballot stuff into people are accustomed to seeing in other countries, and they say they’re just trying to guard against that. I mean, how do you respond to that?

UFOT: I respond that America has a long history of federal intervention and judicial intervention when white conservatives lose their minds and try to make it more difficult for people of color and for women and for new Americans to gain the rights that they enjoy. I think about Robert F. Kennedy as attorney general who filed, you know, 50 lawsuits trying to fight back segregation. I think about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 where federal laws that were meant to supersede racist laws that were being promulgated state by state by state. I think about Title 9. Again, federal intervention that was designed to force the states and schools and school boards and colleges and universities to not discriminate on the basis of gender because they weren’t — the institutions weren’t getting it done on their own, and there was this sort of the mishmash quilt patchwork quilt of laws. And so, to set a basic standard, to set a universal standard is in the interest of the most vulnerable of us, and we welcome it.

MARTIN: Maybe we should have focus on Georgia now. I mean, this bill is passing through the legislature. What do you do? I mean, how do you persuade people that that’s just not fair?

UFOT: People know that it’s not fair. I think when we talk about it in very plain terms, the majority of Georgians — actually, the majority of Americans, because we are talking about regularly to our colleagues and our siblings in Arizona and in other states, in Texas, who are fighting similar fights. And the consensus is across the board that the majority of the Americans know that it is not fair. And that public sentiment and public opinion is on our side. What we have are unaccountable elected officials who know that they are about to get fired and they are doing everything that they can to, again, break the machinery of our democracy. And unfortunately, I don’t know, like we have made our most persuasive and our best arguments. I think all that’s left now is to vote them out of office and to go to court. And to get H.R. 1 and H.R. 4 passed as a way to supersede these trash state laws.

MARTIN: I know that at the core of other activists like Stacey Abrams, for example, and other activists have said that, you know, at the core of this is this kind of notion of who is actually a citizen, right. I mean, if the core of it is this notion that only certain people are Americans and, if by definition, if you don’t look like that person, if you don’t adhere to those beliefs, you therefore are foreign and therefore you are not allowed to participate. What do you do about that?

UFOT: I think that I believe in the American people. I believe in us. And I believe that, ultimately, we’ll prevail. I believe that there has been a continuous expansion of who is a citizen and the definition of an American, right, and who can vote. When this experiment started, you had to be a white man who owned land. right. Like — and so, it has been a constant expansion of the definition of citizen since the very founding of this country. And guess what, it’s uncomfortable when you stretch, it’s somebody that’s put on a few pounds during quarantine, I know that being stretched is uncomfortable, but that is how we grow. And that is what we’re witnessing in this moment. And that — so, you know, I think that black Americans, I think that women, I think that poor people and folks without wealth, without land who didn’t own other humans have constantly been working to credential themselves, to identify themselves as Americans, as citizens, as people who are due and owed the rights and the responsibilities of citizenship, and that is our fight. That is the fight of a democracy. And that will continue.

MARTIN: Nse Ufot, thank you so much for talking with us.

UFOT: Thank you again.

About This Episode EXPAND

Walter Isaacson discusses CRISPR and “The Code Breaker.” Plus, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby explains how the Biden administration will approach tensions with China and Taiwan. And Nse Ufot, CEO of The New Georgia Project, explains how she’s working to make voting easier and more accessible.