Investigative journalist Greg Palast has made a new documentary, “Vigilante: Georgia’s Vote Suppression Hitman,” that shines a light on the extensive voter suppression that has taken place in the state of Georgia.
The film shows how attempts at voter suppression often target Black voters. This is an old racist story that goes back to the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, when the ruling class tried to drive a wedge between newly freed Black people who were enslaved, and poor white people, by putting forward a false narrative that Black people abused the small political power that they had won, stuffing ballot boxes and engaging in widespread corruption. This narrative infamously gained widespread promotion in the openly racist film, “Birth of a Nation.”
As a consequence of this manufactured, racist trope, not only were Black people subsequently denied the right to vote through a variety of mechanisms, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, they also faced extreme violence and terror designed to prevent them from even attempting to vote. Black people heroically challenged these repressive laws in the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
But as we see now with the various attempts to disenfranchise large numbers of disproportionately Black people, these victories previously won in the arena of voting rights have been partial at best, and are able to be stripped away.
The film investigates voter suppression in Georgia, where it is now legal for a citizen to challenge the legitimacy of another citizen’s vote cast on the most arbitrary criteria, such as people changing their home addresses, or when a common name such as “William Brown” appears more than once on a list of voters. These vote vigilantes can challenge as many ballots as they want to without any consequence or repercussion to themselves. One individual interviewed in the film challenged four thousand votes in one county alone.
In anticipation to the 2022 midterm elections, the film estimated that 168,000 people were targeted by these “vigilantes” and had their ability to vote challenged in Georgia. When this happens, these people’s votes would be annulled and not counted if the challenge is not overturned. The only way that a challenge can be overturned is if people fight in the courts to restore the vote. As you might imagine, of those hundreds of thousands of people, most do not have the time or the resources to fight in court to restore their voting rights. It is still not clear how many of their votes were ultimately discounted in the latest midterms.
These vigilantes are empowered by Georgia law, SB 202, which was recently signed by Brian Kemp, the current right-wing governor, who just won reelection. In addition, the bill also potentially allows the conservative-controlled government to throw out ballots, making it harder to vote by mail. The bill also makes it a crime to bring food or water for people who are waiting in line to vote, which is a clear effort to discourage people from voting who might be waiting in line for as many as three hours (or longer, as happened in Georgia in 2020).
What’s going on is as racist as it is partisan. Every single one of these self-appointed vigilantes are activists within the Georgian Republican Party, with many of them holding high positions of leadership. The goal is two-fold and obvious: take away the political power of Black people and those who will likely vote for the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party’s hands are not necessarily clean either. While not discussed in the film, the Democratic Party of North Carolina recently engaged in an array of underhanded maneuvers to keep the Green Party off of the ballot. One of the tactics that the Democrats engaged in was to pose as members of the Green Party, then calling and pressuring people who previously signed a petition to get the Green Party candidate to remove their names from that petition.
While the film is focused on the state of Georgia, in fact the realities of voter suppression are not limited to that state. Georgia is arguably one of the test cases to see how far this agenda of voter suppression can be pushed, with similar efforts being carried out in other states. There are currently nine other states where mass voter challenges can be carried out. Since the 2020 election, hundreds of bills restricting voting rights have been passed in various states.
Lat year, as the Supreme Court was hearing cases about voter suppression, an attorney for the Arizona Republican Party, Michael Carvin, openly admitted the strategy behind Republican efforts to suppress votes. When asked about voter suppression laws, he explained they were necessary to defeat the Democrats, saying that without them “it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats. Politics is a zero-sum game.”
Democracy in the United States has always been very limited. In a variety of ways, from the enormous influence of wealthy campaign contributors to politicians, to gerrymandering, to the undemocratic structures such as the Electoral College, the Senate and more, this system is set up to shut working class people, poor people and minorities out of the political process. It is a system designed to protect the interests of banks, corporations, and the extremely wealthy.
The right to vote for African Americans, women and others only became a reality because of powerful struggles. As was true in the past, regardless of how limited it is, it is still essential that we fight for these basic democratic rights against any and all attempts to cut them back or take them away.
The film Vigilante: Georgia’s Vote Suppression Hitman is an excellent glimpse at the incredibly repressive voter restriction laws in Georgia, and it would be educational for anyone who wants to better understand some of the history behind voter suppression and its impacts today.