Publisher’s Perspective: Glad to live in a state where democracy is both a value and a practice
By Suzanne Dean
I’m often reminded of how glad I am to live in Utah.
I was reminded again when I attended a meeting of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago.
Dubose Porter, a publisher who owns nine newspaper in Georgia talked to the group about voter suppression in Georgia.
Granted, the publisher is chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party and a former Democratic legislator. But his descriptions were graphic. And they are backed up by a half dozen lawsuits, most of which resulted in decisions that went against the secretary of state. And his observations are corroborated by independent statistical analyses and first-hand reports.
In 2018, Brian Kemp, the Republican secretary of state, ran against Stacy Abrams, an attorney, a long-time state legislator, an African-American and a Democrat.
As an aside, Porter told us Abrams is one of the most brilliant people he’s ever met. He said Abrams knew the state budget almost down to the dollar. If anybody in the Legislature had a question about state finance, Porter told the person, “Why don’t you ask Stacey?”
Abrams is also widely regarded as a political genius. She believes in her heart that if people who don’t vote understood how much power they could wield if they did vote, they would register and they would vote.
Nearly a decade ago, she started organizations to get African-Americans, other minorities and low-income residents of Georgia to register to vote. In some leaked audio of a talk at a Republican breakfast in a county outside Atlanta, Kemp said, “…You know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines, if they can do that, they can win these elections in November.”
Then Kemp set out to make sure that didn’t happen.
For starters, even though he was a candidate himself, and lawsuits were flying challenging the way elections are run, he refused to step away from administration of the election and permit his deputies to take over.
In 2017 and 2018, his office purged 750,000 voters from the roll for failing to vote in as little as one election.
Greg Palast, an investigative reporter for the Guardian, a British newspaper that has a U.S. edition and U.S. news website, started looking into the voters on the purged list one by one, and conducting some statistical analysis.
He estimated that 200,000 of the purges were legitimate—the voter had died or moved out of the district. But in 340,000 cases, the voter was still at the same address as the last time he or she had voted.
The effect of the program was to disproportionately remove African-American and low-income voters who don’t vote as regularly as whites. Needless to say, a big majority of the voters who were purged were Democrats.
When new voter registrations were submitted, Kemp, and election officials around the state followed something called the “exact-match” rule. If the name the voter wrote on his or her registration application was not an identical match with the name as recorded on his or her driver’s license or social security card, the registration was put in “pending” status.
I know how easy it is for your name to be wrong on a government record. A few years ago, the Social Security Administration told me it had my name as Suzanne D. Dean. I don’t have a middle name, and I’ve never written my name with a middle initial. If I’d been in Georgia, that would have thrown me off the voting rolls.
The exact-match rule assigned 53,000 voters to “pending” status, which meant they were not registered.
If the voters who flunked the exact-match test showed up at the polls, the only way they could vote was by provisional ballot. Yet Palast, the Guardian reporter, found “massive numbers” of provisional ballots were not accepted for inclusion in final tallies.
Then there were the malfunctioning voting machines in several counties. According to Porter, the publisher who spoke to the weekly newspaper editors, the machines had no paper backup as a record of votes. In fact, he said, it was later shown that when someone voted for one candidate, the machine recorded a vote for the candidate of the other party.
And irony of ironies, Kemp got caught in his own trap. Even as he declared that “it is easy to vote and hard to cheat” in Georgia, when he went to his own polling place, his voting card came up as “invalid.”
Kemp defeated Abrams in one of the closest elections in contemporary Georgia history. In a race in which more than 4 million votes were cast, Kemp won by 55,000. Palast, the investigative reporter, said the voter suppression tactics clearly could have spelled the difference.
Contrast that with how things work in Utah. According to Sandy Neill, Sanpete County clerk, if you miss two general elections, your name is moved to “inactive status,” and the clerk does not mail you a ballot.
Before moving you to inactive status, the clerk sends a notice asking you to contact her office and verify your address. If you call in, you go back to active status whether you vote or not.
Even if you don’t respond to the notice, if you call to complain about not getting a ballot, you’re still registered. If there’s time, the clerk will mail out a ballot. Or you can vote in person at the clerk’s office.
If Neill mails a ballot, and it comes back “undeliverable,” the clerk’s office “does everything possible” to find you and get you registered in the correct district, Neill says. That can include contacting your family members, calling you on the phone or emailing you if you’ve provided an email address on your registration form.
If you fail to vote in four general elections, and fail to respond to notices, you are moved to “holding” status. That means you have to reregister in order to vote.
If you show up at the clerk’s office to vote after the registration deadline, and if you present a photo ID and proof of address, you will be given a provisional ballot. But with the documentation you present, that vote will count.
If you show up and have no documentation, you’ll be given a provisional ballot. But, and get this, you can provide ID and address information, after the election—up to the time of the canvass.
And anywhere in the process, if there are discrepancies between what you write on a registration form or ballot, and information on government records, Neill is empowered to use common sense. If your name matches the government record, if your address matches, but one digit of your social security number doesn’t match, the clerk knows that you’re you, and can proceed accordingly.
Not to mention that Utah is one of a few states where you can register and vote right up to 8 p.m. on election night.
Clearly, we here in Utah believe in democracy, at least as far as general elections go. And we live that value. I’ve never heard of charges of voter fraud or voter suppression here. God willing, may that ethic and practice continue.