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Bookman: Trump allies work to undermine election safeguards that withstood 2020 pressure campaign

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Bookman: Trump allies work to undermine election safeguards that withstood 2020 pressure campaign

Jun 13, 2024 | 3:00 am ET
By Jay Bookman
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Bookman: Trump allies work to undermine election safeguards that withstood 2020 pressure campaign
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Opinion writer Jay Bookman writes that state leaders have compromised the safeguards that protected the integrity of the vote in 2020. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Last fall, James McWhorter was summoned to appear before the DeKalb County Board of Elections to save his precious right to vote.

It wasn’t the first time he had been forced to do so.

“Years ago, I had obtained a traffic felony, I was stripped of my right to vote,” he explained to the board during a hearing. “So I did everything I needed to do to regain that right to vote. After 15 years, I gained a pardon for my felony.”

This time, under a mass voter-registration challenge orchestrated by conservative “voter integrity” activists, McWhorter had become one of thousands of Georgians who are being forced to show up at hearings around the state, often based on spurious grounds, to avoid having their voter registrations revoked.

McWhorter had originally registered to vote in 2008, after regaining his rights. As McWhorter later explained to Capital B News, he had come back home a few years earlier from serving in the Army in Operation Desert Storm. He suffered from post-traumatic stress, and had racked up three DUI convictions.

After serving his time, he also had no permanent address.

“I was displaced. I was homeless,” he told the board, but he still wanted to vote. So he used his place of employment, where he sometimes slept, as his mailing address. That’s how he had ended up in the crosshairs of activists looking to strip people of their voting rights, because that business, a barber shop, wasn’t zoned for residential use.

As McWhorter told a reporter, he had taken the time to show up for his hearing because his late grandmother had stressed the importance of the right to vote, given the struggle that black Americans had faced to win that right.

“They endured water hoses. They endured dogs. They endured heinous things,” McWhorter said. “They endured stories that I heard of dragging her grandfather out and putting him on a tree just for the right to say, ‘I would like this individual to represent me in my local, my state or my national elections.’”

That day, McWhorter was able to salvage his right to vote by re-registering at his now-permanent residential address. But in the weeks ahead, hundreds of thousands of other Georgia voters will probably face similar mass challenges to their eligibility, thanks to state laws adopted after the 2020 election giving activists the right to file an unlimited number of challenges to voter registrations. Election boards fear chaos in trying to handle that upsurge.

Unfortunately, those changes in state law are just part of the changed landscape since 2020, when Donald Trump and his supporters tried and failed to overturn the election results here in Georgia and in other swing states.

Consider what’s been done to the state Board of Elections. After the 2020 debacle, Georgia Republicans passed a law that removed Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger as chair of the board and stripping him of his vote on the board. Later, it passed another law that removed him from the board altogether.

That was odd for a couple of reasons:

First, the state constitution gives Raffensperger, as secretary of state, primary responsibility for running elections. Cutting him off from the elections board makes it difficult to carry out that important duty. Second, the move reeks of punishment for Raffensperger having dared to run clean, fair elections and for standing by the results, refusing to “find” the 11,800 votes that Trump had demanded in that notorious phone call.

In addition to removing Raffensperger, Republicans in the Legislature have removed three other members of the five-member election board, all of whom had previously expressed confidence in the outcome of the 2020 election. They’ve been replaced with new appointees who have each expressed doubt that Joe Biden was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election, meaning that a new majority of the state board is unwilling to acknowledge Biden’s legitimacy.

Others who had played important roles in protecting the outcome of the 2020 election have also left the scene.

In 2020, then-Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan had refused to participate in the conspiracy to overturn Georgia’s election results. He has been replaced by Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who was an active participant in that conspiracy.

In the House, then-Speaker David Ralston had also refused demands from Trump and others to push for a special legislative session to overturn the election. Ralston has since died, replaced by state Rep. Jon Burns. Burns has a moderate reputation but may lack the influence Ralston was able to wield to fend off demands the election be overturned.

Republicans have also worked to place election-doubters in local boards of election. A newly appointed GOP member of the Fulton County election board, for example, recently refused to certify the results of the 2024 primary, claiming she had vague concerns about process.

There are two ways to look at all these changes. One is that they are the minimum necessary to placate a Republican base still somehow convinced that the 2020 election was stolen. The second is that they have weakened the system that successfully stood up to pressure four years ago.

If we had actual evidence of vote fraud, such changes might be justified. We do not have that evidence. To the contrary, the biggest demonstrated threat to election integrity in Georgia is the willingness of some to overturn an election whose outcome they do not like, based on no evidence whatsoever.

And instead of bolstering the system’s ability to withstand a similar threat in 2024, state leaders have compromised those safeguards.