Few outside the state of Georgia know about the prosecution of Douglas City Commissioner Olivia Pearson. While casual observers see a legal argument over when voter assistance becomes fraud, those long familiar with vote suppression tactics recognize an attack when they see one.
Last year, Ian Sansot, Coffee County assistant district attorney, claimed Pearson illegally instructed voters on how to use county voting machines during the 2012 election. The prosecution also accused her of “swearing falsely,” of lying about whether her guidance was necessary when she signed Georgia voter assistance authorization forms.
Georgia law restricts voting assistance only to those who are illiterate or disabled, but when prosecutors called voter Diewanna Robinson to the stand in March, she admitted that she could read. She added, however, that she’d requested the help, that Pearson neither touched her nor told her who to vote for, and that her instruction stopped at how to operate the machine. Pearson then walked away, without seeing whom Robinson voted for.
A jury of nine White people and three minorities failed to reach a verdict on March 29, triggering a mistrial and a declaration by Sansot that he’d try the case again.
Political observers see this trial as a local skirmish in a much bigger stealth war on voting, motivated by changing demographics not just in places like Douglas, but also in red and blue states across the country. Sansot’s ill-fated pursuit comes not from confidence in the facts of his case, they say, but from something more sinister.
“We know what this was,” said Nefertara Clark, Pearson’s former attorney. “This was an attempt to suppress voter participation, particularly among minority demographics, such as those my client attempts to get registered to vote.”
Douglas is a community with a changing demographic. Although town leadership is heavily Republican, and the place sports a statue celebrating its Confederate past, its African American population increased more than 24 percent between 2000 and 2010 while the presence of Whites declined 8 percent, recalibrating local voting trends.
Pearson led voter registration drives throughout President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. While Obama failed to carry the county in either election, Democrat-leaning voters, stirred by the success of the nation’s first Black president, did help elect Democratic Doyle Wooten as sheriff office in 2012.
This may have annoyed Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican who is throttling Black voter registration efforts with massive, time-consuming subpoenas. Kemp’s office handed Pearson’s case down to Sansot, who sat on it for years before finally bringing charges in the middle of the critical 2016 election.
The Southern Center for Human Rights apparently sees enough of a witch-hunt to commit to defending Pearson in the upcoming retrial. The nonprofit law firm has made a name for itself enforcing civil rights by challenging warrantless searches, “debtor’s prison” schemes, and similar issues.
A numbers game
Like Douglas, national population and political trends are making it increasingly difficult for conservative Whites to be elected. When President Donald Trump took the White House with a nearly 3 million deficit in the popular vote, he quickly went after so-called voter fraud.
“Suddenly, out came the howls of fraud,” said Michele Jawando, legal progress vice president for the Center for American Progress, a progressive public policy research and advocacy organization. “[Trump] loses the popular vote by 3 million votes, then surprisingly there were 3 million ‘illegal votes’ cast in this last election. One of his first executive orders was not about jobs, pay, or trade, but about setting up the [Presidential Commission on Election Integrity] to investigate vote fraud.”
Critics like former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder say the commission leader, Kansas Secretary Kris Kobach – a decorated general in the war on voting and a court-acknowledged liar – is fishing for state voter information with which to undermine democracy.
“Make no mistake: This commission, led by a fact-challenged zealot, will come up with bogus reasons why further restrictions should be placed on the right to vote,” Holder told an NAACP gathering in July. “They always say it’s about voter fraud, but voter fraud did not become an issue … until people of color started to cast ballots in record numbers and became an item of urgency with the emergence of the presidency of Barack Obama.”
With enforced laws now buttressing the right to vote, suppression efforts these days come disguised as “fraud prevention.” Some examples include Election Day voting restrictions, typically applied through burdensome voting requirements. Some states have engaged in voter purges and reduction of both polling places and voting days. An additional tactic includes restrictive gerrymandering schemes that pack minority and largely Democratic voters into a few impotent districts. Nastier attacks include targeting get-out-the-vote workers, like Pearson, with clumsy fraud prosecution.
Many of these efforts got a boost in 2013 when the infamous Shelby v. Holder decision blasted preclearance, allowing racist legislators to impose restrictive new laws without automatic federal scrutiny.
Turning to the courts
Even Shelby can’t overcome the fact that there is very little fraud to justify these disguised attacks. The Brennan Center for Justice, a voter protection nonprofit, argues that allegations of widespread voter fraud are greatly exaggerated and that headlines claiming “thousands” voted illegally typically dissolve after follow-up. This makes a Pearson conviction more than just cold water on get-out-the-vote work. A genuine fraud conviction, however wobbly, will be paraded around the nation, giving the enemy its elusive proof of fraud, as well as cover for even more voter discrimination.
In the meantime, courts are stepping in to fill the void left by Shelby. In 2011, Texas Republicans passed SB 14, which reduced permissible voter identification to only seven flavors. Republican-friendly gun licenses were acceptable, for example, while IDs for students, who typically lean Democrat, were not. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act initially blocked the onerous law until the Shelby ruling in 2013 allowed Texas to enforce it.
In 2014, the District Court for the Southern District of Texas concluded that the restriction violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by disproportionately slashing Black and Latino ballot access. The Fifth Circuit agreed two years later.
The courts struck down voter suppression in North Carolina, as well, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit calling N.C legislators’ voter-restricting attempts an attack of “almost surgical precision” on Black voters.
The N.C. legislators appealed that decision up to the Supreme Court, which ignored them.
Cautious judges have also been reversing overtly GOP-friendly gerrymandering. Within the past few weeks, a three-judge federal panel ordered the North Carolina General Assembly to quit dawdling and assigned a Sept. 1 deadline for redrawing its racially gerrymandered 2011 district map. Republican mapmakers had requested a Nov. 15 extension, but the panel determined that lawmakers had already squandered a year.
The courts aren’t doing all the work. Some lawmakers are willingly making voting easier by relaxing longstanding restrictions. Felony disenfranchisement – or “moral turpitude” – laws are a holdover from the Jim Crow years, designed to strip voting rights from minority offenders. Nearly ubiquitous in former Confederate states, the laws specifically target impoverished Blacks by focusing on poverty-related money crimes, including robbery, larceny, and felony bad check. Alabama’s own statute helped disenfranchise about a quarter of a million mostly Black voters. While the law still stands, legislators did remove many drug possession offenses from its list of disenfranchising crimes, potentially reestablishing thousands of individuals’ voting rights.
Pearson’s home state of Georgia has had its own victories. Julie Houk, senior special counsel of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said her organization, which promotes voter freedom, helped kill an egregious attempt by White members of the Hancock County Board of Elections to purge voters who did not confirm their county address fast enough. Houk said the purge initially eliminated about 5 percent of the electorate from the Georgia town of Sparta, just in time to boost the campaign of the town’s White mayoral candidate, R. Allen Haywood, over that of the Black incumbent mayor, Williams Evans Jr.
“The whole point was to try to undermine the African American mayoral candidate’s chances of winning election,” Houk said. “In fact, the White candidate did win that election.”
In a fit of irony, Haywood had been convicted of stealing $69,000 in the 1980s, but had falsely sworn in his notice of candidacy for mayor that he was not a convicted felon “of a crime involving moral turpitude.” A judge found that Haywood was ineligible for election, guilty of precisely the kind of “moral turpitude” law that Georgia segregationists had originally aimed at minorities. The judge ordered a new election, which Evans then won.
“We’re winning this war. That’s the thing about it,” said Rev. William Barber, who is behind the Moral Mondays protests, launched in North Carolina four years ago by progressive religious leaders to push back against voter suppression and GOP overreach. “We won against the racist redistricting that we’d found in 2011 back in North Carolina, and in another racist gerrymandering case in Georgia. We beat both those cases, and we’ve also won in court against some monstrous anti-voting laws. When the Constitution is applied to these issues, we win, often with unanimous decisions.”
There is no guarantee that this trend will translate into victory for Pearson, but she refuses to take a plea deal. She also remains more determined than ever to register new voters.
“African Americans didn’t once have the right to vote. Now we have the right to vote, and it’s being challenged from every end,” she said. “I won’t run from this. They don’t scare me.”