Sunday, 6 Dec 2020

US Election 2020: Georgia’s black voters fired up amid claims of intimidation and suppression

Joe Biden heads to Georgia on Tuesday in a final push for votes in the deep south Peach State which – for the first time in decades – has emerged as an electoral battleground.

If the Democrats win here, it’s likely to signal doom for Donald Trump’s re-election bid.

The state has already broken all previous records for early voting with an explosion in polling enthusiasm unmatched here before.

But the voting fever has been accompanied by escalating claims of voter suppression and other tactics to try to alter the outcome in an area where the black vote is seen as potentially crucial.

There have been daily long lines of voters queuing up to cast their ballots, with some waiting as long as 11 hours on 12 October, the first day of early voting.

“A lot of intimidation tactics have occurred in the state of Georgia,” says Fenika Miller of the Black Voters Matter campaign group.

“People seem to have a problem with black people exercising their right, as if we don’t belong. And we know that voter suppression and voter intimidation is as old as American pie.”

The rising tension could be because after decades of voting staunchly red the race in Georgia is now too close to call – latest polls suggest the candidates are neck and neck.

Huge billboards in downtown Atlanta urge people to vote and vote early.

Giant coloured murals exhort residents to have their say in what many see as the most important election of their lifetime. Even ATM machines carry messages to cast your ballot.

“I’m not voting to get a president in,” one elderly woman told us as she hobbled into the polling station at Cobb County. “I’m voting to get a president out.”

The tight race is due to myriad reasons. The first and possibly most substantive is the changing demographics of the state’s capital, Atlanta.

Over the past few years, there’s been an upsurge of black, Latino and Hispanic workers gravitating to the city.

Many are thought to be more likely to vote Democratic. Those we spoke to cited what they view as Donald Trump’s racist policies as their prime motivation for voting against him.

Police brutality and the disproportionately high number of black Americans killed by police – throughout the country as well as in Georgia – also appears to have galvanised the black vote, particularly among the young.

The president’s reluctance to condemn white supremacists is viewed as divisively inflammatory and many clearly feel threatened.

We saw several heavily armed men wearing body armour and carrying weapons marching alongside a group of mostly young voters on their way to vote at the city’s State Farm Arena. “V.O.T.E.”, they shouted, “Vote! Vote! Vote! Vote!”

“You never know when the attack is going to come… you never know who… or where it’ll come from,” one of those carrying guns told us.

Among the marchers was 22-year-old Destiny Britt.

“We are literally voting for our lives,” she said.

“If the president has said that the people who are directly fighting to kill black people are good people… I don’t know what else would make you feel frightened for your life… I’m fighting for my life and my children’s life and other generations.”

The Sky team in Georgia has spent the past few days visiting multiple early voting polling stations and found the overwhelming majority were deeply suspicious about the long queues and difficulties in casting ballots.

In Marietta, just north of Atlanta, many spoke of their concerns about the three-hour-long wait.

“Voter suppression is going on and there are various ways governments are now trying to suppress the vote,” Curtis Cheeks told us.

“And one of them is long lines keeping people from voting.”

In the offices of the Black Voters Matter group, in Warner Robins, a throng of volunteers was told by their organiser, Fenika Miller, that they had to find fresh reserves of energy to canvass as many potential voters as possible in the last full week.

“We need to really make a final push, a hard push, right?” she implored them.

She sent volunteers out in twos and threes “for safety reasons”. We weren’t on the campaign very long before we saw why.

”He just told us to get the eff out of his neighbourhood,” Takeria Mathis said, motioning towards a bare-chested white man a short distance down the same street.

Do you feel intimidated by that we asked: “No,” she replied with a smile.

Do you feel worried? “No.” Do you feel angry? “No.” What do you feel? “Strength,” she said – without missing a heartbeat.

Georgia’s not entirely unaccustomed to claims of voter suppression.

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They remember what happened in 2018 like it was last week. Then they saw the Democratic contender for governor, Stacey Abrams, lose by around 50,000 votes in a highly contentious ballot which many including Ms Abrams felt was ‘stolen’.

Many voters complained then of waiting an excessively long time. Many gave up or stayed at home, others complained of being removed from the electoral roll.

In the primary elections in June, there were complaints about the new electronic voting machines malfunctioning.

The doubts appear to have only enthused the voters even more, and there’s been a massive concerted effort to try to engage with Millennials and Generation Z voters.

By initial accounts, it seems to have worked.

Early voting among Georgians under 40 is thought to be more than three times what it was in 2016, with around 600,000 young voters already casting their ballot.

First-time voter Maddison Myers waited more than two hours to vote at Marietta: “I’m really surprised at myself that I stayed in the line because when I was at the end, at the back of it, I just wanted to get back in my car.”

He told us the main motivation was to try to push Donald Trump out.

“It’s not really about his politics,” the 18-year-old told us. “I just hate the man and what he stands for.”

Motivation to vote among his band of fresh school leavers though, he emphasised, was very high: “We’re all messaging each other, saying you’ve got to vote.”

But President Trump still retains popularity in the whiter Atlanta suburbs, making it the closest run presidential race here in decades. And while niggling problems exist and voting lines increase as the days count down to election day, the doubts are also likely to mount over the vote.

One of the city’s most famous rappers Jeezy, very publicly cast his vote at the State Farm Arena polling station. “This’ll probably be one of the most important elections ever, if I’m honest,” he told Sky News.

“There’s a lot at stake and we need some change. We got to get out here and let our voices be heard so that’s why we here.”

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