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In Georgia, Expect Record Numbers of Black Voters and Serious Tally Troubles

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Half the voters who cast ballots in the Democratic primary in Georgia this past February were African-American (the state went to Obama). Despite long lines, incidents in which machines broke down and polls closed unexpectedly (rather than staying open late), black voters managed to show in record numbers.

Voting has begun again in the state of Georgia and one white voter, based in Atlanta, revealed his experience trying for an early shot at the ballot box on Tuesday, "A long line folded itself three times in a relatively hot October sun, shortly before lunch-time. Perhaps a dozen people couldn't stick it out -- they left before getting to the front of the line... Every one of those who gave up the effort was white."

Whether or not their votes get counted entirely accurately, sufficiently, or on time this season, black Georgians have waited long enough for a fair shot at electing the first African American president. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act first laid the groundwork in 1965 by requiring that any changes made to an electoral voting process had first to be submitted to the Attorney General for federal review. The reason was that President Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner and a Texan himself, no longer trusted the South to promote burgeoning civil-rights legislation. The Voting Rights Act rallied 60 percent of Southern blacks to sign up for the next presidential election, a rate in keeping with Southern whites (ten years earlier, only one in five blacks had been registered.)

This year, the state mandated a single machine be allocated for every five hundred of the state's voters. By comparison, in Ohio, a state about the same size, that number is closer to one in a hundred and seventy five. In Ohio, black voters are part of a community comprising 12 percent of the state while in Georgia, a third of residents are African American.

The state of Georgia is one of those places northerners would likely choke to death in -- it's endlessly hot, sticky, and riddled with historical iniquities; as evinced by a Superior Court decision as recently as July in which the court ruled all voters must show state-issued ID cards when they arrive at the polls. (GOP Sec. of State Karen Handel said later she was pleased a "frivolous" attempt to block the law had been thwarted.) As part of the case, Democrats submitted that nearly half of the state's registered black citizens lacked a driver's license or state-issued identification.

Then, a few weeks ago, Georgian officials asked the Justice Department to check social security numbers for 2 million new voters, a request more ambitious than any other state (note Georgia has just 9 million people). Rep. John Lewis of the state's 5th Congressional district, in which over half the constituents are black, made a plea to his state's voters on Monday.

Lewis is a civil rights advocate-turned-politician and was relatively plain:

there is a deliberate, systematic effort to depress the turn out of African American, Latino and other minority voters on November 4th. This is harassment. It is intimidation ... Who decides, based on what standards which 2 million voters deserve greater scrutiny than any others? ...I urge all the registered voters of Georgia to become informed and know your rights so that no one can discourage you from casting your vote on Election Day.

What Lewis means (and hasn't said in as many words) is that he's taking the long view. In 1963, he and others his age were intimidated when they tried to vote, mostly by local officials. Howard Zinn laid out the incidents in "Battle-Scarred Youngsters," an account of voting struggles in the South underway while President Kennedy was in office. Zinn described the sister of a student he taught, a

tall, beautiful, dark-skinned girl, beaten by police and found in jail swollen and marked, barely able to speak.

The violence from that period is impossible to imagine but the disenfranchisement may not be. Voting rights groups have now sued Georgia saying broad voter-checks will protract out the voting process, and have urged the federal government investigate. Sec of State Handel once again countered that officials were "simply trying to follow the law." The issue has gotten particularly heated over the case of one immigrant voter, Jose Morales, who turned citizen last year and registered to vote last month. When Morales tried to submit his voter registration form, county and state officials asked for proof he was a citizen, something they now wish to do by mail for thousands more new immigrant voters.

If that doesn't exhaust your patience, requirements for provisional ballots - yes, those that must be filled by hand and left in a dusty corner until voters return to the polling booth with valid enough ID- don't exist in Georgia (or any other battleground states for that matter save for New Mexico.). Which means nobody in these states needs to have a clear sense how many extra provisional ballots officials should keep handy in case they have to reject unforeseen numbers of "ID-less" or "ID-imperfect" voters. And if you're waiting in line past official polling hours in Georgia, you'll have to fill out a provisional ballot even if you have a state-issued ID. (Weird ol' Georgia! Ain't it grand?)

Hard to say whether provisional ballots will be top anyone's agenda when the much of the work is done and vote-counters are in the final throes. And African Americans who live in Georgia fortunately aren't as distrait and short-tempered as many of us. I'll bet that they'll have a pretty clear impression of what's in store (courtesy some of their trusty government officials) come Election Day.

For more on voting in Georgia and the Deep South, check out the Voting Rights Act, the "Bloody Sunday" riot of the same year (in which John Lewis, quoted, was beaten along with hundreds of others for participating in a voting rights march) and Howard Zinn's 1963 article (quoted) in The Nation on young, black activists fighting for a shot at freedom.