The failure of Democrats to pass a voting rights bill leaves state authorities as the last line of defense to protect fair elections—nowhere more so than in Georgia, where a special grand jury investigation may provide guidance on ways to blunt efforts to sabotage the Black vote.
For President Joe Biden to fulfill his promise to protect voting rights, the administration must commit resources to support initiatives at the state level. The most prominent initiative in the Peach State is the investigation by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis into the 2020 presidential election.
The criminal probe centers on the phone call that then-President Donald Trump placed to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Jan. 2, 2021, in which the president urged the state’s top election official to “find” the 11,780 votes needed to overcome Biden’s victory.
Willis, in a January 2022 request to the Fulton County Superior Court to impanel a special grand jury, claimed to have received “information indicating a reasonable probability that the State of Georgia’s administration of elections in 2020, including the State’s election of the President of the United States, was subject to possible criminal disruptions.”
She wrote that other Georgia agencies with the power to investigate were contacted by the participants, including the secretary of state, the attorney general, and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia. As a result, she noted, her office is “the sole agency with jurisdiction that is not a potential witness to conduct related to the matter.”
The grand jury will convene in May to consider wrongdoings pertinent to state laws covering solicitation to commit election fraud, intentional interference with the performance of election duties, and conspiracy and racketeering. Willis plans to issue subpoenas in May, to gather a large amount of information in June and July, and to wrap up in spring 2023, if not sooner.
The Biden administration would be wise to support the work of this under-resourced county prosecutor, where possible. This includes helping to ensure that the inquiry proceeds without fear of intimidation or disruption. Willis recently asked for an FBI risk assessment after Trump used threatening rhetoric at a Texas rally that sparked concerns over security.
She has reportedly faced racial insults and threats as well. “I get called an ‘N’ very regularly,” she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s really silly to me that they believe that by hurling those kind of insults that it is going to impact the way we do our investigation.”
The probe has the potential to discover facts beyond the scope of the presidential election as well. It could gather information on GOP schemes to use the state legislature to sabotage fair elections for Black Georgians going forward. Were there connections between Trump loyalists and the creation of the draconian election law known as S.B. 202?
Even if the grand jury fails to uncover evidence sufficient for prosecution under existing state laws, it may find materials of value for state reforms and for the Election Threat Taskforce of the U.S. Department of Justice, among others. Created last July, the task force leads the Justice Department’s mandate to “address threats of violence against election workers, and to ensure that all election workers are permitted to do their jobs free from threats and intimidation.”
What is at stake is the integrity of the American political system: At what point do partisan party shenanigans rise to the level of election fraud or political corruption subject to prosecution?
According to the Brennan Center, the GOP-controlled Georgia legislature enacted S.B. 202 in the wake of Trump’s false claims about the election. It is a restrictive law that creates obstacles to fair elections by inserting partisan actors in the process. For example, it replaced the secretary of state on the State Election Board with a chairperson handpicked by the GOP-led legislature. It permits the board to dismiss local election officials and take control of the elections for flimsy reasons.
Furthermore, it enables mass challenges to voter eligibility and punishes county election boards with sanctions for failing to respond to voter roll challenges. It requires voters to provide either an ID number or a photocopy of an ID document with a mail ballot application, shortens the time to apply for a mail ballot, restricts the use of mail ballot drop boxes, and criminalizes efforts to comfort people waiting in long lines such as passing out water.
Georgia is one of 19 states that passed laws restricting access to voting last year—the most in a decade. Of course, this is not the first time the country has faced problems with partisan designs of election procedures for political or personal gain. During the Progressive Era, reformers tried to find ways to thwart the practices of political syndicates at the turn of the 20th century.
Journalist Lincoln Steffens, writing in The Shame of the Cities (published in 1904), sounded the alarm over practices that may seem familiar today—acts of election fraud, such as intimidation at the polls or improper vote counting, and political corruption, such as graft and misuse of legislative positions to repress opponents. Reformers used investigations of powerful syndicates to tailor correctives, like the referendum petition and the recall of officials.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on the level of entrenched Trump loyalists in the state machinery.
Among these are David Shafer, Georgia Republican Party chairman, who allegedly helped to organize a scheme to send fake presidential electors to Washington to challenge the real 16 state electors. This event is under investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attempted insurrection.
The committee has subpoenaed Shafer to learn more about the incident. It also has subpoenaed Shaw Still, the former finance chair of the Georgia GOP, to find out what he knows about the fake electors scheme. Still is now running for a seat on the Georgia Senate.
There is also Georgia Republican congressman Jody Hice, who shared false allegations of voting fraud and sided with a lawsuit to invalidate Georgia’s presidential election results. He is challenging the incumbent, Raffensperger, to lead the office that oversees elections. And then there’s former Sen. David Perdue, who also supported the lawsuit and called on Raffensperger to resign (Perdue is currently running for governor against the incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp).
Finally, it was revealed in court documents that the secretary of state ignored credible information on the susceptibility of Georgia voting machines to hacking. A University of Michigan computer expert discovered a software flaw that could make the machines subject to hackers in the upcoming election.
With this much corruption at the local level, Biden must prioritize supporting efforts to protect the Black vote at the local level. Democrats need to understand that the inability to pass federal legislation has raised urgent questions within the Black community about their status in the Democratic coalition. What does it imply when defending the Senate filibuster is more important than defending voting rights?
The failure to pass legislation showed the Democratic Party to be an unreliable ally—and fostered interest in political alternatives. One is the project to establish Georgia as a Black safe haven state under the system of federalism, like the Mormon history in Utah.
In 1846, about 150 Mormon pioneers left Illinois to escape persecution. They traveled in 72 wagons under the direction of church president Brigham Young and followed the Oregon Trail in search of a land where they could establish a state of “Zion.” They found a site in the Salt Lake Valley in July, 1847—it was the unsettled common land of the Ute Indians and other tribal nations. By 1850, there were 11,380 Mormon settlers living in the newly created Utah Territory.
While many people—and even some Black people—find the project of a Black majority state controversial, it holds appeal for some modern-day pioneers in light of the increasingly violent culture of Trumpism. The belief of national Democrats that appointing a few Black professionals to prominent offices will compensate for the lack of equal rights is wrong-headed. Such was the motivation for 19 families to forge the community called “Freedom” near Macon.
Georgia is arguably the state with the best prospect to become the new capital of Black America—and a reliable blue state in the deep South. That’s due to critical factors like grassroots organizations, business ownership, mayors, county commissioners, district attorneys, state legislators, congressional representatives, and the first Black Georgian elected to the U.S. Senate, the Rev. Raphael Warnock.
Warnock is up for reelection in November, and Stacey Abrams is expected to run for governor. They would be the first Black candidates to run for governor and senator for a major party in American history. (It is highly likely that a Black candidate will be the Democratic nominee for secretary of state as well.)
In addition, the steady flow of retirees, professionals, skilled workers, and university students contributes to the state’s nearly 35 percent Black population; many are drawn to the depiction of middle-class life in the popular FX comedy-drama, Atlanta.
Such demographic trends are behind the desperate shenanigans of the state GOP. Nonetheless, there is more to achieving statewide power than a voting majority and fair elections. In recent years, for instance, GOP legislators have enacted laws meant to cripple emergent Democratic state leaders in North Carolina and Wisconsin—attempts largely reversed in the courts, but still of concern.
All of which returns to the importance of identifying local instruments to counter a reactionary state legislature.
In closing, the Biden administration must pay heed to the Georgia investigation. It has the potential to test the limits of local political offices to blunt efforts to sabotage elections. This is in the interest of the Democratic Party, the Black vote, and American democracy.