Despite the right to vote being enshrined as a central pillar of American democracy, the path to the ballot box has historically produced many hurdles for women and minorities. In addition to intimidation and other forms of voter suppression, millions of registered voters have increasingly found themselves purged from the voter roles, sometimes without notification.
Former vice president Joe Biden, among other prominent public servants, has recently voiced concerns that some of these purges are racially motivated -- particularly in Georgia, whose population of 9.7 million is about 30 percent black. Its secretary of state Brian Kemp is running for governor against Stacey Abrams, who was recently the minority leader of Georgia's House of Representatives.
Since 2012, Kemp's office has cancelled approximately 1.4 million voter registrations, which adds up to a significant percentage of the state's residents and is historically unprecedented. Given the possibility that some of these cancellations are illegitimate, regional organizations like the New Georgia Project (NGP) have been responding with ambitious registration drives for both new and possibly illegally purged citizens.
But in this state, you must register to vote no later than 28 days before an election, so the NGP has turned its attention to the events that may occur on November 6, when the Democratic party is likely to take control of the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate.
Needless to say, the stakes are high, and the New Georgia Project is approaching the historic problem of voter suppression with a 21st-century solution: a mobile-optimized web app that voters can use in Georgia to report instances of suspected voter suppression.
Spearheading this project is NGP executive director Nse Ufot, a naturalized citizen born in Nigeria who was raised in southwest Atlanta. With a juris doctorate from the University of Dayton School of Law and a background in helping to run teachers' unions and college professor associations, she is familiar with the areas where law, education, and politics overlap.
We spoke with her about the web app, her work, and her personal experiences with getting people registered to vote.
In a nutshell, Ufot wants the NGP's web app and downloadable app for Android and iOS to "make it easier for people to vote. And to make it easy for people to go into the polling location with confidence, informed about the people that they're going to vote for. We've registered 300,000 people to vote in all 159 of Georgia's counties."
Ufot continues, "Over the past couple years, we've been surveying people and asking, 'Are you registered to vote?'" In addition to complications that Ufot identifies as voter suppression, she says that the New Georgia Project also got answers such as, "'I didn't exactly know who I was going to vote for,' or 'I didn't feel super confident that I knew all the issues,' et cetera.
"We definitely designed [the mobile app] to make it easier for people to feel more informed and confident when they go vote. And because of Georgia's long and recent history of voter suppression, it was really important that people not only knew what their rights were -- and not only knew the things they need to bring with them to vote -- but that they also need to know who they're going to vote for, to know the ballot initiatives.
"I've been doing this work for almost two decades," she says, "and I've never 100 percent gone into the polling booth super-confident about every candidate and every measure on the ballot. There's always a judge or a county supervisor who I totally forgot to research, or there wasn't a ton of information ... and I just didn't want to do that anymore."
Ufot says that the New Georgia Project is primed to respond to reports of voter suppression coming from the web app: "We have a network of about a hundred volunteers who will be covering about three hundred 'bellwether' precincts -- a combination of precincts with a history of voter suppression or just election day shenanigans, the highest number of African-American voters, and the highest number of young voters and first-time voters, based on the people who we've registered to vote.
"The idea is that the [web] app is also a dashboard. Via the dashboard, we will be finding out about voter suppression through social media monitoring." To help reduce instances of fake reports, she says, "They're required to include their email address or phone number, so we'll be communicating directly with the voter."
She continues, "If there are really long lines at the five o'clock hour when people are getting off work, some situations may require a 'comfort captain' or an attorney. So if someone says, 'Go file a temporary restraining order' -- so that we can keep the polls open for another two hours because the line is pretty long -- then we'll have one of our comfort captains bring water and snacks, and we'll likely send over a DJ and one of the marching bands that we hired for the day, to keep the people encouraged and to keep them in the line."
She adds, "This isn't your father's civil rights movement. Ultimately, we are using everything -- we're leveraging every resource that we have to fight voter suppression in Georgia and to make it easier for people to participate in our elections. And so this is only the first of several iterations to come, but we're really excited about it. I think that there is a space for a specific technology and civic engagement that comes from civil rights groups and is not necessarily for profit, and I'm super excited to be a citizen of that space."
According to Ufot, voter purging has been a serious problem in Georgia in recent years. "1.4 million people have been purged from the voting rolls in recent years under Brian Kemp's watch, and we know that there are about 107,000 people on the 'pending' list right now. Meaning that they applied to vote but are not being added to the active voter rolls in Georgia for a number of reasons.
"For some of them," she says, "it's a citizenship question. For example, we identified about 250 Georgians that we registered to vote at a naturalization ceremony. They became US citizens, and we were waiting on the other side with ...voter registration forms. And we had copies of their naturalization certificates and mailed them with the voter registration forms. So we know that they at the County Board of Elections have proof of their citizenship. Many of them are on a pending list and were not actually added to the voter rolls."
As a result, she says, "They would likely have to show proof of citizenship again. The [Georgia] secretary of state keeps saying that if people show up with their state ID, they'll be fine, they'll be allowed to vote. But we know that's not true. So we've been working with the attorney general's office. But the point is that you shouldn't have to have a team of the country's best election lawyers in order for ordinary people to vote and force it. And that is by definition voter suppression, when they construct all of these additional barriers to participation."
As a result of these experiences when dealing with the state offices run by Brian Kemp, Ufot says, "We've joined our allies in the faith community and in the civil rights and justice community asking for him to resign."
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So what motivated Ufot to work for the New Georgia Project in particular? She says, "I traveled the world working on campaigns literally across the entire globe. I was introduced to Stacey Abrams via a mutual friend and former campaign colleague who said 'Hey, there's this interesting woman -- she's the minority leader in the Georgia state legislature, and she has a plan to register a million African Americans and Latinos, and I think that you guys should talk.'"
Ufot continues, "I never thought that I would have a career doing the kind of political organizing that I do, in the American style. We had lunch, we talked -- I had 31 reasons why the New Georgia Project would not work, and she had one reason why it would," in the form of a systematic breakdown of how many potential voters in Georgia remained unregistered, or whose registrations had been purged under questionable circumstances.
Ufot was convinced and says, "I packed up my truck and drove 24 hours to come home to Atlanta to run the New Georgia Project and hit the ground running, and we've been going ever since."
Her experiences with registration irregularities have also been personal at times. "My brother has a hyphenated first name and was prevented from getting added to the voter rolls in 2016. And so I brought a team of attorneys to the Fulton County Board of Elections office, to have them find and then sign his application.
"They had to manually add him to the voting rolls," she adds, "because the person who [originally] did the data entry dropped the hyphen. I suppose they aren't used to seeing those names together, I'm not sure. But my brother was caught in the 'exact match' system."
She concludes, "I believe that America can be the land of the free and home of the brave, and so I work really hard to move us from hypocrisy to actually living up to the ideals that are expressed in our founding documents."
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