Groups are mobilizing to help voters deal with new election laws

ATLANTA (AP) — Rhonda Briggins spent much of Election Day 2020 at a polling place in Atlanta handing out water and snacks to encourage voters to stay in the hours-long line to vote, something her historic black sorority has done for decades in Georgia.

This election, Briggins and some of her thousands of sorority sisters are trading that role for a potentially more contentious one: making sure voters aren’t disenfranchised by a slew of new voting restrictions passed by the Republican-led Legislature. They include a ban on giving food and drink to waiting voters.

The law, which a federal judge allowed it moving forward this election cycle, it was too confusing for the sorority to risk doing its traditional “line easing,” said Briggins, president of Delta Sigma Theta’s Strategic Partnerships Task Force and a member of the sorority’s Decatur alumnae chapter.

“The line between criminalizing and helping is too close,” she said. “We don’t want to get to that point.”

Georgia is one of several states where voters will face new barriers to voting during the November election under laws passed by Republican-led legislatures following former President Donald Trump’s decision false claims that voter fraud cost him re-election in 2020. The restrictions prompted groups that help reorient voters to avoid encountering new barriers.

They anticipate confusion and conflict at the polls and are redoubling efforts to register and educate voters.

As of 2021, lawmakers in 21 states have passed at least 42 restrictive laws, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice. At least 33 of them are in effect for this year’s halftime. Some involve multiple changes, such as the legislative packages in Georgia and Texas. Others, like Arizona, are less expansive or in some cases still not applicable.

Georgia’s 98-page bill contained dozens of changes to the state’s voting law. They include shortening the time it takes to claim mail-in ballots, reversing the spread of ballot boxes caused by the pandemic, and reducing early voting before runoffs.

The state argued that the ban on water and refreshments was necessary to protect against the potential for illegal campaigning or vote-buying. State attorneys also argued that it was too close to the upcoming election to make changes.

“Again, we’re not telling anyone who to vote for,” Briggins said of the help the sorority has offered in previous years. “We’re offering water because you’ve been in line for eight hours.”

Faith Works, a group organized by black church leaders in response to the Georgia law, provides grants to help more than 1,000 churches mobilize voters. It also aims to deploy 200 chaplains across the state to ease any tensions at polling stations.

Bishop Reginald Jackson, who presides over more than 500 African Methodist Episcopal churches in Georgia and helped create the group, denounced the new law as an attempt to suppress black voters after they helped Democrats win the Georgia presidential contest two years ago for the first time since 1992

“This is designed and intended to be a punishment for black people for turning out in such large numbers in 2020,” he said.

Republicans have rejected criticism that their new law restricts voting, noting that it also expands early voting on weekends.

Voting rights groups in Georgia and elsewhere are adjusting to the changed landscape. In Arizona, Mi Familia Vota is focused on voter education, including letting people know that a law passed this year requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote in federal elections is not in effect this cycle.

The provision is expected to have a strong impact on Latino voters, in part because one element of the law requires local election officials to notify prosecutors if a potential voter does not provide proof of citizenship, and state election officials cannot find proof in various government databases.

“It’s part of continuing to make it harder for people to vote,” said Hector Sanchez Barba, executive director of Mi Familia Vota. His group joined the US Department of Justice in submitting objections to the law.

A sweeping law pushed through the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature in 2021 led to thousands of rejected ballots during the state’s March primary, according to an Associated Press analysis.

Texas Secretary of State John Scott said one county largely avoided rejections by including an insert with instructions on how to fill out a mail-in ballot and its return envelope. He said the practice has since been proposed to every district.

The Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonpartisan group that challenged the new law, has conducted much of its recent training for lawyers on the law’s requirement to identify mail-in ballots and the greater difficulty the law creates in removing problematic vote watchers.

Claude Cummings Jr., first vice president of the Houston chapter of the NAACP, said the legal ID requirement is especially difficult for older black voters.

“There’s only one way to fix this — educate, educate, educate,” Cummings said. It’s a theme picked up by other groups like MOVE Texas, which held over 60 voter registration day events in the state, all targeting younger people. – to be voters.

Georgia Senate Bill 202 — signed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp last year — was one of the first ballot measures passed after Trump’s defeat. In addition to making it a misdemeanor to hand out food or drink to any voter standing in line, the law limits voters’ ability to cast a provisional ballot if they go to the wrong place. It also allows any Georgia voter to challenge the eligibility of an unlimited number of other voters within the same district.

Electoral offices have already entered the field challenges entitle thousands of voters in metro Atlanta.

The New Georgia Project, a group founded by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, has trained legal experts to fight any baseless attempts to disqualify voters, bar them from voting or wrongly deny them the right to cast a provisional ballot, she said. is Aklima Khondoker, Group Chief Legal Officer.

Khondoker said the group will be “extremely cautious about issues of election administration, disenfranchisement, criminalization of voters and everyday good volunteer activities.”

The Georgia Coalition for a People’s Agenda, another group that aims to increase access to the polls, helped organize information sessions about the new law in Savannah, Macon, Augusta and other cities over the summer. The group bought the scanners so people can copy bank statements or other forms to request an absentee ballot if they don’t have a driver’s license or state-issued identification, said Helen Butler, the group’s executive director. SB202 replaced signature verification for absentee ballots with an identification requirement.

Community organizing group Georgia STAND-UP will host parties near some polling places so people can get water and food before they line up to vote, said executive director Deborah Scott. The group plans to use a tape measure to ensure events are more than 150 feet (46 meters) from the station to comply with the new law.

Rev. Timothy McDonald, III, senior pastor of First Iconic Baptist Church in Atlanta and another Faith Works leader, recently moderated a session that included a discussion on how to stand up to constituent challenges. McDonald urged groups in the room to post a voter protection hotline and said voters should bring their utility bill, along with identification, to verify their address.

“There will be some shenanigans that day,” he warned.

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