Along country roads in northeast Georgia, a Baptist minister has been going door-to-door to raise opposition to official proposals to restrict significantly the number of locations where people can vote.
Lincoln County is heartland rural southern America. There are about 8,000 inhabitants, spread across roughly 650sq km. There is a mix of housing, ranging from large properties to the more modest to the dilapidated. Homes are frequently distant from each other. There are no buses, trains or taxis. People either have a car, take lifts from others or stay close to home.
There is some logging and agriculture but many people have to travel for work.
In the county seat of Lincolnton the number who live below the poverty line, at 21 per cent, is significantly higher than the national average of 12 per cent. There are several dollar shops. Among a strip of small stores and restaurants is a pawn shop which appears to accept guns in addition to the usual jewellery and other items.
Authorities in the county, which is just over two hours drive from Atlanta, want to close seven existing polling locations and have all voters use one centralised facility.
Officials argue centralisation would provide more space for equipment and for people with disabilities and that it would also facilitate social distancing as well as help to improve the overall management of elections.
However, sitting on a bench outside the historic courthouse in Lincolnton, Rev Denise Freeman is having none of this.
She views the initiative as simply a means to disenfranchise the poor and people of colour. “This is about the good ol’ boys and their will to stay in power and control,” she tells The Irish Times.
She says people in Georgia vote not just for the president and members of Congress who will go to Washington, but also for a range of local office holders such as county commissioners, tax commissioners, the sheriff and members of school boards.
Freeman, a former election candidate for the Democratic Party, contends that the moves in Lincoln County are aimed at reducing the number of people who will actually vote in these regular elections, and the county could represent a test case not just for elsewhere in Georgia but also other parts of the United States.
Freeman says Lincoln County is very rural and if people cannot easily get to a polling station in many cases, they simply won't vote. "There are no jobs here. The school system is the largest employer. We have people who drive two hours, one way, just to get to their jobs, as far as Augusta or Athens, Georgia or even into parts of [neighbouring state] South Carolina. "
She believes the new plan would mean people returning from their commute would have to go much further to vote.
“You have to have a car and a lot of people do not have cars. A lot of people do not have drivers’ licences for one reason or another. There is a law in this state where if you fall behind on child support, your driver’s licence gets suspended.”
She says some politicians have defended the rationalisation plan on the basis that early voting provisions would be expanded. She responds that it doesn’t matter how long in advance people can vote if it is made logistically difficult for them to get to polling centres.
Freeman says the planned consolidation of the polling venues was put forward following the restructuring of the board of elections which governs the entire voting process. Up to now various different groups – including the two main political parties – could nominate one representative to a five-person board. She says now the county commissioners, who are all Republicans, can nominate three members.
Freeman’s door-to-door canvassing has generated a sufficiently large petition of concern to have the consolidation plan reviewed. Under Georgia law if more than 20 per cent of people living in a polling precinct area object in a petition to proposed changes, the proposal is deemed null and void.
Freeman hopes to have sufficient numbers of petitions in four or five precincts to oppose the local polling station closure proposal by the time of the next board of election meeting.
A dispute over polling centres in a small rural community may seem insignificant overall.
However for some voting rights activists the story is a microcosm of a much bigger picture. They see a broader Republican strategy to suppress the vote, particularly among minorities and African Americans, in the name of election integrity.
Georgia is at the epicentre of the controversies over voting. These include the continuing legal fallout from the taped conversation of Donald Trump saying to the highest election official in the state – a Republican – that he wanted to find 11,780 votes that would allow him to overtake Joe Biden to win Georgia in the 2020 presidential election.
Biden has focused on voting changes in Georgia since the 2020 election. He maintains the Georgia Republican Party, which controls the state legislature, has "now given itself the power to make it easier for partisan actors – their cronies –to remove local election officials".
In Atlanta in January he warned this increased the prospect of election chaos and subversion “as partisans seek the result they want – no matter what the voters have said, no matter what the count”.
And then there are the changes to broader election rules in Georgia which will make voting less easy.
The time during which people can seek an absentee ballot has been cut while new identification requirements have been introduced. There will also be curbs on the number of drop boxes available for people to place their ballots. These will also no longer be available on a full-time basis outdoors but rather will be in government buildings or early voting centres, which will limit their availability mainly to regular business hours.
Perhaps most attention has been given to a ban on the provision of food or water by third parties to people queuing to vote – a development about which Biden was particularly scathing.
“When the Bible teaches us to feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, the new Georgia law actually makes it illegal – think of this – I mean, it’s 2020, and now ’22, going into that election – it makes it illegal to bring your neighbours, your fellow voters food or water while they wait in line to vote. What in the hell – heck are we talking about?”
Biden was not alone in criticising the Georgia election reforms.
Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda – an umbrella body consisting of civil rights, human rights, labour, women's and youth groups – says the new rules for absentee ballots require the production of a driver's licence, or if unavailable, a copy to be submitted of other forms of identification.
She says in parts of rural Georgia there are no facilities to make copies of documentation outside of libraries, which have limited opening hours.
She also worries about changes that allowed the state legislature to alter the composition of board of elections and put in place partisan activists.
Butler says “the people that control the elections, they get to determine who gets registered to vote, to determine whether my absentee ballot will count, they get to certify the election, to determine the polling locations and who will be hired for the election”.
The Georgia Republican Party did not respond to approaches from The Irish Times on the election reforms.
However last year it argued the changes were all about election integrity.
“Our principles are clear: We want to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat. We want every lawful vote counted, every unlawful vote rejected and the counting to be done in the open and in accordance with law.”
Biden's attempts to override voting changes introduced in Georgia and other states have so far come to nothing. Voting rights legislation passed the House of Representatives. However in the Senate a super-majority is needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. Two centrist Democrats refused to agree to change the filibuster rules to allow an exemption for the initiative on voting rights.
Senate Republicans believe it should be up to states and not the federal government to determine how elections are conducted in their jurisdictions.
The conservative Heritage Foundation contends that Biden's legislation would "overturn state election laws that are critical to securing our elections, outlawing basic safeguards such as voter ID requirements while enabling practices like mass ballot trafficking".
It says the legislation would have made it easier to cheat in US elections and undermined confidence in the electoral process.
The foundation hit out at the criticism of the restrictions on the provision of sustenance to voters in Georgia.
“Like most other states, Georgia prohibits electioneering within 150 feet of a polling place or within 25 feet of any voters waiting in line to vote. The new law simply added that within such distances, no one can ‘give, offer to give, or participate in the giving of any money or gift, including, but not limited to, food and drink, to any elector’. In other words, a candidate, his supporters, or an activist group can’t show up at a polling place with a truckload of Happy Meals and start handing them out to voters standing in line. The clear intent here is to prevent operatives from any party from unduly influencing voters with money or gifts, including food and drink.”
At Emory University in Atlanta, the professor of African American studies, Dr Carol Anderson laughs uproariously at the argument of Republicans that the new laws on voting in Georgia and other states across the country are aimed at tackling fraud.
“They are lying like a bad toupee,” she says.
She maintains the real strategy in play is to suppress voting among minority and other groups, who tend to support Democrats, thereby allowing Republicans to hold on to power.
“What has been happening in Georgia are laws that are targeted particularly at minorities to make it much more difficult for them to vote. Because minorities make up a much smaller share of the voting population of the Republican Party.”
She says that white voters make up between 85 and 90 per cent of the Republican Party constituency.
Anderson, who is the author of a book , One Person, No Vote, points to a study from California that found that that between 2000 and 2014, out of one billion votes cast in elections there were just 31 documented cases of voter impersonating fraud.
She argues the Republican Party has ideologically moved further and further to the right over time and that demographic changes in Georgia and elsewhere in the United States mean that its policies do not resonate with the broader American public.
“And they know that.”
“Instead of modifying their policies what they’ve decided to do is double down on stopping the people who generally won’t vote for them from accessing the ballot box.”
Anderson says that it was the use of absentee ballots and drop boxes by more Democrats and African Americans in 2020 that prompted the backlash from Republicans against such arrangements.
She maintains that at one election last year some voters had to queue for up to 11 hours to vote. She says black precincts are disproportionately more likely to be affected by longer waiting times to vote than others. She says while Republicans were clamping down on the provision of food or water, they did nothing to tackle why there were such lengthy queues in the first place.
Anderson argues: “We are in a battle for American democracy right now.”
She maintains that while many people believe that legislation to suppress the vote is being introduced in southern states such as Georgia or Texas, similar measures are also being mooted in the north.
Biden’s failure to have the voting rights legislation passed may have political consequences for him.
The African American community played a key role in Biden securing the White House. A number of civil right activists have criticised what they see as a lack of urgency on the part of the administration in tackling the voting restrictions being introduced in Republican statehouses.
In an article in the New York Times Bishop Reginald Jackson of the African Methodist Episcopal Church said: "African Americans, and most specifically faith leaders, have cried out during the last year, challenging various racist anti-voting bills – and we have heard virtually nothing from the White House or the Democratic Party."
“The late-to-the-game DC-focused strategy allowed extremists to march state to state and change our local election laws.”