It was a single question about continuing a penny sales tax in his rural southwest Georgia county, but voter Stancil Tootle will never know if his answer was what he intended.
Tootle is blind, and while sighted voters take for granted their ability to visually verify their ballot choices, it requires the use of an iPhone and assistive technology device for Tootle to be able to do the same thing.
“To this day I don’t know if what was on the paper was what I selected at the booth because they denied me the ability to verify it,” Tootle told Atlanta Civic Circle. “Since I don’t have the ability to look with my eyes, they treated me like a criminal.”
The 58-year-old Bainbridge resident voted, with the help of technology, “yes” for continuing the penny tax. He was unable to verify his vote during the March 16 special election because he was forced to erase from his phone the picture he took of his ballot. His wife, who is not blind, had to verify he erased it.
Georgia law allows disabled people and those having trouble reading or understanding their ballot to use assistive devices.
“I felt like I was being treated like a child,” said Tootle, who is in the process of filing a complaint with the Georgia Advocacy Office. The GAO is compiling a list of accessibility complaints to present to federal officials.
Decatur County’s elections chief called what happened to Tootle “an unfortunate situation.” Poll workers had been told about state laws allowing visually-impaired voters the right to use apps and their cellphones when voting, Carol Heard, Chief Elections Official of the Decatur County Board of Elections, told Atlanta Civic Circle. However, she said, they ran into problems with people taking photos of their ballots in precincts during the 2020 presidential election and senate runoff races.
“Our poll workers became hypersensitive to that,” Heard said.
Having easy access to voting became a big political issue during the past year’s election season. National attention mostly centered on voting barriers that included, for example, requiring more photo IDs, fewer drop boxes, or reduced early voting hours. Tootle’s experience is a lesser-known version of voter suppression, voting rights advocates say.
“Suppression is often convoluted and subtle, that’s why people can’t recognize it,” Aklima Khondoker, Atlanta-based Georgia State Director at All Voting is Local, told Atlanta Civic Circle.
All Voting is Local is a campaign within the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a Washington, D.C.-based group of 200 national organizations. “It includes overt and subtle practices that keep people from voting, like specific laws, lack of resources, and poorly-trained staff,” said Khondoker, a former staff attorney and senior manager for the Voting Access Project at the ACLU of Georgia. “Not fixing existing election infrastructure problems is a way to allow suppression to breed.”
Dorothy Griffin, affiliate president of the National Federation of the Blind of Georgia, told Atlanta Civic Circle she personally knows of a half-dozen blind people who faced obstacles to voting this past election cycle. Griffin, who lives in DeKalb County, suspects there are far more who haven’t come forward with their stories. The Georgia affiliate of NFB has 250 members.
“We have individuals who showed up to their polls and the accessible voting devices were not set up and they had to wait hours in order to get them set up and be able to vote,” Griffin said. “Some people went ahead and let the person who was with them help them vote which didn’t allow for that [visually-impaired] person to vote independently and privately.”
“It’s a problem,” she added.
And the problem is not a modern one. Voter suppression has been around since the founding of the United States when white men who owned land were the first — and only — Americans allowed to vote.
“It was a very restricted electorate,” Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political science professor, told Atlanta Civic Circle.
Later constitutional amendments and congressional measures abolished slavery, enabled black men and white women to vote and created the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 which, among other things, required southern states to get federal approval before making changes to their voting processes.
But just as those advancements emerged, so too did efforts to hamstring individual rights. Jim Crow laws doggedly kept Black people subjugated. It also led to regressive and restrictive practices that made it hard not only for Blacks but the poor, isolated, disabled, and disenfranchised to cast ballots. Poll taxes and literacy tests became prerequisites to voting.
The biggest recent blow to voting rights, experts say, occurred in 2013 with the case of Shelby County vs. Holder. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down key provisions — sections 4(b) and 5 — in the Voting Rights Act that monitored southern states’ voting procedures.
“It was a blank check to enact voter suppression,” Khondoker said.
The decision subsequently unleashed a flood of restrictive measures. Between 2014 and 2016, states removed nearly 16 million voters from voting rolls, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
In 2018, public outcry thwarted a cost-saving plan by officials in Randolph County, a rural, mostly-black community in south Georgia, from closing seven of its nine precincts. That same year, a Georgia law requiring voter signatures match exactly led to the cancellation of 53,000 voter registrations. Seven in 10 of those canceled were Black voters. An exact match is no longer required, and in 2019, Georgia elections officials purged 309,000 registered voters from voting rolls.
In a backlash move to record voter turnout in 2020, lawmakers in 47 states have introduced 361 bills with restrictive provisions since January of this year, according to the Brennan Center’s Voting Laws Roundup.
Georgia lawmakers ended their contentious legislative session in March with a law that overhauled state election rules, drawing national outcry, protests, and threats of boycotts. Major League Baseball moved its All-Star Game, slated for Atlanta, to Denver in protest.
Backers of the new law say it will streamline elections and restore voter confidence. But critics say it radically alters Georgia’s election landscape. There will be fewer drop boxes, more rules around absentee ballots. It limits the secretary of state’s authority and makes it a crime to distribute food and drink to voters waiting in line. Mobile polls or voting buses also will be limited to emergencies, stripping Fulton County of its two mobile voting buses used to reduce voting wait times.
“It’s a direct attack on Fulton County, our most populous county in the state,” Khondoker said. “We are going to see how that affects Fulton County, especially ahead of the Atlanta mayoral race happening in November.”
Meanwhile, for the visually impaired, voting continues to be an arduous attempt at participating in a fundamental democratic right.
“One of the cornerstones of democracy is that everybody has the right to independently vote their conscience without anybody else knowing,” said Tootle, who is on the board of the National Federation of the Blind of Georgia. He also has a
weekly Zoom conference call for the visually impaired called Tuesdays with Tootle. It was initially started to encourage more visually impaired people to vote.
“A lot of my peers didn’t participate and those who did were willing to let somebody else help them. They chose to be treated as second-class citizens,” he said.
To that end, Decatur County’s elections czar Heard concedes: “There’s a long way to go to accommodate voters in every situation.”
“One of our mission statements is that we learn from our mistakes. We own them,” Heard added. “This was another example [where] we didn’t do it right this time. We’ll get there. We’re learning.”
What is Voter Suppression?
Many people have different views about what constitutes voter suppression. Here’s what voting rights expert and attorney Aklima Khondoker says about it:
First of all, voter suppression is real. It’s pervasive and it’s often silent, which is why people have a hard time identifying it. If you can’t identify something, it’s difficult for you to realize its impact or to see that it’s a problem and then to come up with targeted solutions.
Voter suppression is any attempt to make it more difficult or impossible for someone to vote. This is not just in the legal realm. It’s not just related to laws. It’s related to policy. It’s related to practices. It’s related to political violence. Voter suppression takes on many forms.
People throw terms around related to Georgia’s latest voter suppression law. Some have gone so far as to call it Jim Crow 2.0. A lot of people think about people being dragged out into the street, people being placed in handcuffs. They think about dogs being unleashed. They think about these big violent overtures that are intended to keep people from accessing the ballot.
What people don’t think about under that Jim Crow umbrella are things like the Grandfather Clause, poll taxes, and how many jelly beans are in this jar. All of those things are also voter suppression.
Typically, black voters are the ones who suffer vote suppression more than any other group, but it also targets poor white voters and others who do not have the same level of accessibility.
This concept of voter suppression is something much bigger than the overt images that we have in our minds from our modern Civil Rights movement. Voter suppression is something that’s a lot more subtle. It’s subversive.
Today, it shows up in these laws that are written in a way where it can apply to everybody and seem benign. But it targets particular segments of the population more than anybody else. It affects voters of color more than anybody else and that’s why it is voter suppression. That’s why it is a serious problem.
Looking to volunteer or learn more about how you can get involved with various organizations mentioned in this article?
Here’s where you can find out more about allvotingislocal.org.
If you’re interested in finding out about Georgia’s election system, visit georgiapeanutgallery.org, a nonpartisan organization of civil rights groups and an informal information resource.
You can also try the National Federation of the Blind of Georgia, for membership details and information about and for the visually impaired. The NFB has proposed two amendments to be added to the federal The For the People Act of 2021.
The first amendment would increase the number of ballot-marking devices in each polling place from one to two and require poll workers to actively and specifically offer ballot-marking devices to voters with and without disabilities.
The second amendment calls for having states adhere to the requirement of the Help America Vote Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act with regard to voting by mail.
“Together, these two amendments will ensure that blind Americans are able to vote and that our ballots will be indistinguishable from others,” Griffin said.
(Header image: Mural in Sweet Auburn. Photo Credit: Tammy Joyner)