The registration deadline to vote in the state of Georgia is 30 days before the Nov. 6 election. But Georgia voting rights activist Olivia Pearson is wasting no time: The Douglas City commissioner has been beating on doors, making noise and preaching the importance of voting.
She’s undaunted, even after twice being prosecuted – and acquitted – for daring to register new voters and bring them to the polls. There is a slight tint of bitterness to her crusade, however. Encouraging voter participation is already difficult, as conservative state governments across the country increasingly make voting more arduous. And the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday further added to the stress by declaring that Ohio’s recent aggressive voter purge does not violate state law. Other states are sure to follow suit.
But Pearson’s problems extend beyond onerous new voter restrictions; she knows firsthand that registering voters in Georgia can be downright perilous.
“The importance of voting cannot be overstated,” Pearson said. “There are people out there who do not want certain people to vote because they are afraid of how they will vote. They are afraid of democracy.”
Hers is not just a metaphorical fight against voter indifference, or new voting barriers. The enemy here is real and aggressive. They have institutional and legal leverage, and they use the power of the system to hit – and hit hard.
Pearson’s work registering people to vote caught the attention of Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp in 2012, the same year her get-out-the-vote effort helped flip the Coffee County sheriff’s office from Republican to Democrat. Kemp has more than once been accused of attempting to suppress the minority vote, and is currently a Republican candidate for governor of Georgia. If he survives a July 24 runoff, he will face Stacey Abrams, a candidate who made history as the first Black woman to capture a major party’s nomination for governor in Georgia.
Kemp, as secretary of state, chairs the Georgia State Election Board, which had noted Pearson’s work assisting voters, and recommended a fraud case against her be referred to the state attorney general’s office. The local district attorney’s office made the 2012 charges a criminal case four years later, at the height of the 2016 presidential election. The charges carried a five-year maximum sentence and would make her ineligible to hold her city commission seat.
Assistant District Attorney Ian Sansot argued at the time that Pearson had no right showing first-time voter Diewanna Robinson how to vote because Robinson could read. Georgia voters only qualify for instruction if they have a physical disability or are illiterate, but Robinson testified that she asked Pearson for help because, as a first-time voter, she didn’t know how to work the machine.
Sansot failed to get a verdict during his first attempt to prosecute Pearson, resulting in a mistrial, and the jury entered a “not guilty” verdict the second time, in February.
Sansot denied the charges were an attempt to intimidate minority voters. “I’ve got my job to do, and I did it, and that’s all there is to it for me,” Sansot said.
Pearson was not the first get-out-the-vote activist to find herself in Kemp’s crosshairs, however.
When Black Georgia citizens cobbled together a huge registration effort in 2010 and elected Brooks County’s first majority-Black school board, Kemp unleashed investigators to grill residents over absentee ballots. Twelve activists were charged, and the governor temporarily removed three Black women charged with voter fraud from the school board, even though nobody was ever convicted.
Kemp has also tried to derail registration efforts in minority communities with frivolous subpoenas, and has attempted to cut off voter registration beyond Georgia’s current 30-day deadline. He has even been recorded warning supporters that “Democrats are working hard … registering all these minority voters” so they “can win these elections in November.”
Kemp has claimed that numerous allegations of voter suppression against him amount to liberal groups “making blind accusations to drive voter turnout in an election year.”
“Our office is committed to making it easy to vote but hard to cheat,” Kemp said.
As a candidate for governor, Kemp has launched commercials promoting guns and promising to use his own “big truck” to personally round up “illegals” – in a state with the fastest-growing Hispanic population among states with high Latino populations.
Abrams takes a different approach when it comes to voting rights. She embraces inclusivity at the polls. She endorses automatic voting registration, same-day voter registration, and the fair allocation of polling places and polling resources during early voting and on Election Day, among other things.
A Kemp/Abrams matchup, if it happens, could decide how Georgia democracy will look in the coming years, and get-out-the-vote activist and Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Mariah Parker says more voters need to have a say in it.
Parker, 26, is a linguistics student and a hip-hop artist who was sworn in this month as one of the most progressive politicians to hit the state. She is particularly passionate about voter participation work, having spent countless months registering new voters. She knows that every vote counts – considering that she won her seat by only 13 votes.
Like Pearson, she believes the rot of Jim Crow endures in Georgia as voter suppression efforts persist across the state. But that, she says, is not the entirety of the problem.
“In addition to proactive efforts on the part of our state government to attack folks who are attempting to get out and help people exercise their right to vote, there are a lot of systemic issues keeping people from getting out and voting,” said Parker. “Access to affordable and reliable transportation, affordable childcare, peoples’ work schedules and low wages make it difficult for them to get to the polls.”
She added that overcoming these barriers takes more than the willingness to call out suppression when and where you see it. You also have to be ready to counter it, right there on the doorstep. One visit from a get-out-the-vote worker and some registration paperwork won’t cut it anymore.
“It’s all about relationship-building,” Parker said. “If someone shows up at your door once and registers you to vote and says how important it is and then you never see them again, it’s not effective. Going back to them time and time again really shows them that this is something that we’re doing together, that you don’t have to do by yourself.”