The speed with which the 2018 midterm frenzy turned into the 2020 presidential election frenzy makes it hard to remember that less than a year ago, the outlook for Georgia residents was starkly different than it is today.
Last Fall, Georgians were ebullient with a hope that we might, for once, have a governor who wasn’t hellbent on maintaining a power structure that inflicts a vast array of miseries on many thousands of people—particularly Black communities and communities of color—while enriching a privileged few.
The promising candidate was, of course, Stacey Abrams, who was poised to become the nation’s first Black woman governor until her opponent, Brian Kemp, stole the election via an assemblage of voter suppression tactics funneled through his role as Secretary of State.
A new documentary by director Robert Greenwald and Brave New Films brings the energy of that time rushing back, along with a scalpel in a post-mortem analysis. Suppressed: The Fight to Vote is a to-the-point 38-minute film that breaks down the key forms of voter suppression that enabled Kemp to pull ahead of Abrams by a slim 1.4 percent margin.
The film uplifts the experiences of impacted voters and some of the organizations that fought hard for a fair election. And it comes packaged with a toolkit of action steps aimed at getting viewers involved in strengthening that fight ahead of the 2020 elections. Because Suppressed makes clear that without action, we can only expect to see more of the same––not only in Georgia, but nationwide.
“We’ve got to understand, this isn’t a Klan cross-burning,” says Carol Anderson, Emory University Chair of African American Studies, in the opening of the film.
“This stuff is very bureaucratic, is very mundane, is very routine. But it is lethal.”
As an example of the kind of seemingly small measures that can have a big impact, Anderson says that moving a polling place just four miles leads to a 20 percent drop in Black voter turnout.
Now consider seven out of nine polling places disappearing from a rural county––that’s what nearly happened in Randolph County, Georgia where 62 percent of the population is Black.
Louis Brooks, an 89-year-old retired mill worker, had lived in the county his entire life, except for two years he spent in the military fighting in Korea. In the film, Brooks recalls when he first tried to register to vote in the 1950s.
“It was tough. They asked me all kind of questions, trying to keep me from registering,” Brooks says. “I passed the test. Once I got my voting rights, I decided I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from voting.”
Until 2016, Brooks could walk a few blocks to his polling place. But then it was closed as part of the plan to shutter all but two precincts. People like Brooks, who doesn’t have reliable transportation, would have had to walk three and a half hours to vote.
“We’ve got to understand, this isn’t a Klan cross-burning. This stuff is very bureaucratic, is very mundane, is very routine. But it is lethal.”
A massive public outcry stopped that plan, but it was a rare victory. While Brian Kemp was Secretary of State, his office closed 214 polling places in just six years, affecting nearly 1.3 million voters. Seventy-five percent of those voters were in majority-Black counties.
That was just the beginning. Purges also laid the groundwork for voter suppression during the 2018 midterms. Beginning in 2013, Kemp booted 890,000 voters, 14 percent of the electorate, from the voting rolls.
Once the 2018 midterms were underway, problems with registration, absentee ballots, and provisional ballots further undermined voting rights.
In the lead up to the elections, Kemp inexplicably put 53,260 registrations hold (he won by about 55,000 votes), and 80 percent of those belonged to people of color.
A record-breaking number of people of color were requesting absentee ballots, but tens of thousands never received them. Filmmakers interviewed a military veteran who said voting absentee from Baghdad was easier than in Georgia.
On election day, lines were hours-long at precincts in majority-Black districts while in white districts voters breezed through. And thousands of people of color had to contend with the confounding experience of filling out a provisional ballot.
Filmmakers interviewed a military veteran who said voting absentee from Baghdad had been easier than in Georgia.
“Provisional ballots are basically placebos,” says Myrna Perez, Director of Voting Rights and Elections Programs at the Brennan Center for Justice. “They’re being given to voters to kind of shut them up, make them go away.”
Poll workers gave provisional ballots to voters whose information they called into question––sometimes because of Georgia’s “exact match” law, which disqualified voters based on tiny discrepancies, such as a hyphen, in how their name appeared on their voter registrations compared to other official identification documents. Voters could fill out provisional ballots on site, but they were required to return within three days to present additional documents. Voting rights groups found that many voters weren’t aware that they needed to return in order for their vote to count. And for some, returning was too big of an obstacle.
“When you have a large working-class population that has to punch a clock, that’s really tough,” explains Anderson. “You’ve lost pay from work for trying to vote. That’s a poll tax.”
“We must stop saying Southern states are red states. They are voter suppression, racially gerrymandered states.”
According to filmmakers, of the 21,190 provisional ballots cast, 83 percent belonged to people of color. Only 11,872 were counted.
Altogether, the receipts that Suppressed presents call to mind an insight that Rev. Dr. William Barber recently tweeted:
“We must stop saying Southern states are red states. They are voter suppression, racially gerrymandered states where the demographics now provide a path to change if we build a movement & mobilize. If this wasn’t true extremists wouldn’t be fighting & cheating so hard.”
Mobilizing and movement-building is what the creators of Suppressed hope viewers will join in on. And there are plenty of ways to plug in.
After Abrams boldly refused to concede to Kemp, she went on to form an organization called Fair Fight, which has sued Georgia officials in an effort to bring the state back under the purview of the Voting Rights Act. Until the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the VRA in 2013, Georgia was among nine states that were subject to federal oversight of voting laws and practices.
The group has also compiled extensive documentation of corruption among Georgia officials and the top voting machine vendor in the country, Election Systems and Software.
Fair Fight is one of several voting rights groups that have partnered with Brave New Films, which aims to support 2,020 screenings of Suppressed before the 2020 elections. Schools, civic organizations, faith groups, and individuals can sign up to host a screening and receive a Discussion and Action Guide.
At the premiere screening of Suppressed in Atlanta last month, Lauren Groh-Wargo––Abrams’ former campaign manager and CEO of Fair Fight––made a call to action for people to get involved in a multi-pronged strategy. The priorities she named included winning the lawsuit, flipping the Georgia statehouse to a Democratic majority, ensuring a fair census count, and electing a Democrat to the presidency.
“Communities of color, progressive whites, we’re the majority now,” Groh-Wargo told the audience.
“We have the knowledge and the power. We have the votes. We won. They know it. So, take your power and your privilege, in whatever space it is that you have it, and wield it. We need you.”