When Jo Handy-Sewell graduated from Burney-Harris High School in 1969, she was part of the last segregated high school class in Athens. She said she wasn’t allowed to stand on the steps of the University of Georgia’s Arch back then.
Handy-Sewell, now approaching 70, spoke on those steps Saturday at a protest against the newly-passed Georgia Senate Bill 202. The bill was touted as a measure to increase election integrity, but many say it undermines voting rights of Georgians, particularly for low-income communities and communities of color.
The bill places restrictions on absentee voting and allows the state election board and lawmakers to take over local elections offices temporarily. The window to request an absentee ballot now begins 11 weeks before the election and ends 11 days before. In previous elections, absentee ballots could be requested 180 days before an election and could be returned until Election Day.
The bill also creates an election fraud hotline to the state attorney general and limits the number of absentee ballot boxes. One of the most contested provisions of the bill is the prohibition from providing food or water to people waiting in line to vote. The rule garnered much attention during the protest, which was presented by the Economic Justice Coalition and The Peoples’ Agenda and co-sponsored by a number of other social justice organizations.
Handy-Sewell said one of the main goals of the protest was to raise awareness of the new provisions in the bill and to encourage people to vote. Workers at the event had voter registration forms to help people register.
A ‘power grab’
“Why can’t we give people waiting in line snacks and water for any other reason besides trying to dissuade those who are standing in long lines?” said Deborah Gonzalez, the district attorney in Athens-Clarke County.
Gonzalez said state leadership was trying to take the vote away because they realized how valuable the vote is. “This was a power grab,” she said. “They’re not even hiding it at this point.”
Other speakers also emphasized the power that voters have, citing the large voter turnout in the 2020 elections. Georgia voted for a Democratic president for the first time since 1992 and elected two Democratic senators.
Tim Denson, the county’s District 5 commissioner, said the bill was an attempt to repackage voter suppression tactics as solutions to nonexistent problems with Georgia’s elections. Denson said the bill carries on Jim Crow traditions to disproportionately impact voters of color.
Handy-Sewell said the bill was repressive for all people. She said she still feels the legacy of racism and segregation every day, and that fighting for equal rights is a constant effort.
“We’ve come so far, and we still got to fight,” Handy-Sewell said. “Only when you vote will it make any difference.”
Clarissa Hardy works to get people registered to vote. She said the bill makes voting less accessible, and that people may not be able to get off work or pick up kids before the 7 p.m. cutoff during early voting.
“You got this right — use it,” Hardy said in an interview. “It’s a lot of people that didn’t have this right to vote.”
The Peoples’ Agenda, one of the co-hosts of the event, aims to empower voters through education and registration. Cindy Battles, policy and engagement director at The Peoples’ Agenda, called the bill “94 pages of voter suppression.”
Battles said the organization told state officials the bill would make it harder for communities of color to vote before it was passed, but it still made it through the legislature.
Along with Handy-Sewell, many of the speakers said the most important thing to counter the bill was to vote.
“We are going to show up on Election Day,” Battles said. “They thought 2020 was a turnout, just wait till 2022.”