Voting case mirrors national struggle | www.myajc.com

14
Dec

Voting case mirrors national struggle | www.myajc.com

 

QUITMAN, Ga. — Four years ago, black candidates won a majority of seats on the Brooks County school board, which had always been controlled by whites. They did it through an organized absentee ballot effort that generated close to 1,000 votes.

Here’s what happened next: Armed agents of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Secretary of State questioned more than 400 of those voters, a small percentage of whom said they did not fill out their own ballot or could not recall doing so. A dozen organizers, all of them black, were indicted for more than 100 election law violations, each of which carried the potential of up to 10 years in prison.

The most common charge was illegal possession of a ballot, often for the act of taking a willing voter’s completed, sealed ballot, which they said they had voted as they wished, to the mailbox for them.

Only one defendant was tried. She went through two mistrials on 32 counts before a multiracial jury acquitted her this fall on a stripped-down list of 19 counts. One defendant died while under indictment. Three defendants elected to the school board were suspended by Gov. Nathan Deal in 2012 but later reinstated. Last week, the remaining 10 cases were dropped.

Although it has attracted little notice outside Brooks County, the case exemplifies one of the signal issues of our time: the struggle to balance concern for the sanctity of the ballot box against the drive to involve as many citizens as possible in the electoral process, especially those who, in the past, were barred or discouraged from voting. It raises the thorny and emotionally laden question of when vote protection becomes voter suppression.

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