Atlanta, Georgia — you could hear the rally before you could see it. Booming echo of shouts and sweet music beneath, in the Atlanta night. Dark highway down past a fast food strip, suddenly falling away at one side. Behind trees a vast car park, a huge hole in the land and the night, within which a mid-size mall, struggling, down at the heel. American cities are big, but Atlanta is biiiiiig. Its sprawl defies comprehension, nothing relates to anything.
This is Decatur to the south-west. Part of the city or a city unto itself, who knows. Part of the biggest black city in the south, in the country, a place that feels black wherever you go, not merely in some parts, and when you’re in a white ‘burb, that feels like the white side of town. Across the United States, ways of life over the past half-century have been made and unmade by white flight from the cities. Sprawl was a way of getting what could no longer be achieved by racist local ordinances, etc (outlawed from the mid 1960s onwards by the Civil Rights Act), the population moving beyond the city limits. But in Atlanta, that’s been a class rather than race thing — here it’s the black middle class that has sprawled.
Georgia is a Republican state due to, well, everywhere except Atlanta, and the mass of white cities has until recently been sufficient to outnumber the overwhelmingly Democratic black vote. That has held even as Atlanta became a magnet city for higher-income black people in other states, because of lower levels of voter enrollment compared to a white population keenly aware that their state is the front line of demographic change. Even the rise of Obama wasn’t sufficient to get enrollment over the hump. The New Georgia Project estimated that there were 600,000 unregistered potential black voters in the state, enough, presuming a 90% Democratic support ratio, to turn Georgia blue. Bill Clinton, “the first black president”, ha ha, won the state in ‘92, but he had help from Ross Perot, whose 300,000 votes might have included up to eight black ones. Clinton lost it in ’96 by a whisker, and Barack Obama lost it by 5% to John McCain in 2008, but by 8% in 2012, 2 million to 1.77 million. Those quarter-million votes can be found in the black community, which is what gives Georgia a political complexion unknown to compulsory-voting states — for Democrats it is all about getting registrations, then getting a commitment to vote, then getting out the vote. The occasional Republican you might drive to the polls of a Sunday is acceptable collateral damage if there are seven Democrats in the bus as well. “You can still register here today, though you won’t be able to vote in this election.” That’s the game in a two-year election cycle. Everything is the election after, and after the election after.
It’s also about voting early. The poll is on a Tuesday, there’s no enforced requirement for our boss to give you time off to vote, and in a post-city sprawlopolis like Atlanta you might be miles from a polling station. With most states having early voting — often three weeks before — and a full third of voters going early, polling day has receded to a notional horizon, since the deal may well have gone down before then. Pundits watch early returns and exit polls, not out of spectatorship but for vital clues on where to put resources in the days and hours remaining, who’s missing and who to get out. It’s a measure of the sort of social space you’re dealing with that this raucous, fired-up get-out-the-vote rally is happening in the corner of a parking lot of a mall that houses the polling station — doing so largely because there are so many empty stores in there that they are now being snapped up for government offices (ironically, the original idea of what a mall should be like).
The crowd here is 90% black, and 90% big. Broad of beam folks raised on southern cooking, dressed for an evening out, a lot of good suits and gold thread in the skirts and shawls, loud ties and glittering finger-bling. We’re exhorted to tell our friends, tell our congregation, “tell the barbershop”, “get Cousin Pookie off the couch!” Big cheers, the latter a proverbial figure, referenced by Obama week or so earlier, someone’s brother who moves in, takes the couch and never leaves. Lights flash and change, and we’re into full gospel rock. “Stand up!” she yells, and those who can do, there’s more than a few in wheelchairs, or on those semi-wheelchair walkers. People sway to the song, hold up their hands with peace signs, yell “with the Lord’s will”, “yes we can” and the call-and-return “fire it up/ready to go”. We get the local candidates, for the endless roll call of positions you have to vote on, in every county across the nation (and hence every county has a different ballot paper and control over how it’s laid out). Three middle-aged black women, a tanned bloke with a moustache, another black woman, and then the whitest guy I’ve ever seen, like toothpaste extruded into a suit. “If you went to a Republican event you wouldn’t be seeing this!” the MC yelled , “You’d be seeing … old white guys!” Then Congressman John Lewis, last living of the old civil rights leaders, came on. Shrunken by age — he was a big man when he copped a fractured skull leading the march across the bridge in Selma, 1965 — he can still bring a line down like a hammer:
“Now, look, almost 50 years ago, I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Alabama … I almost died for the right to vote. Some of my friends died. We’re still alive, so you have to go out there and vote like you never voted before.”
The crowd roared, and the only twist was that Lewis was introducing Michelle Nunn, Senate candidate, daughter of former senator Sam Nunn. She’s shiny white under the lights too, but that’s not the issue. The issue is that for the whole campaign Michelle Nunn has been running as if she doesn’t know who this Obama guy is. She didn’t even mention him in the speech tonight, conscious of TV cameras. Because Michelle Nunn needs a record black turnout, but she also needs a white vote as well, really about 40% of whites who vote, at a minimum, and Georgia’s white working-class are tetchy about the economy, about pallid recovery, about assertiveness in the world, and the gap of 2012 is widening, not narrowing. Nunn’s dad held the state from ‘72 to ‘97, and his departure was a measure of the cultural-political turn the state was undergoing. Sam Nunn played a careful game, conservative on things like prayer in schools, but pro-choice, and one of the very few in Congress to vote against the 1990 Gulf War, but in the end, none of that would save him. Over the course of his quarter-century tenure, the percentage of Georgians saying they believed in a 6000-year-old earth nearly doubled, to 50%, the home fundamentalist home-schooling movement boomed, and the state returned a congressman who claims that the Big Bang is an idea implanted by Satan — and now sits on the science sub-committee. Meanwhile, out west of state, the cotton-textile industry collapsed, leaving a chain of ghost towns from top to bottom, and the “right-to-work” car plants came in, offering half the wage offered a decade earlier — and then started going again, to Mexico.
It was to close that gap that the Democrats turned to supercharging voter registration, with a group called The New Georgia Project, led by the state Democratic House leader Stacey Abrams. They just signed everyone up, without worrying about likely intent, and got nearly 90,000 new voters on the rolls. Or close to them, because 40,000 of those registrations simply disappeared, the state’s Republican Attorney-General has no idea where they are, and a court has refused to push him to find them, ruling only that said voters can cast provisional ballots.
The A-G’s department did take some action early in the year, however — it subpoenaed the New Georgia Project’s records, alleging voter fraud, and found a grand total of 25 fake applications out of the near 90,000. It is plain, simply, out in the open, voter suppression, of the old school for changing times, a different sort of new Georgia Project. Across the south it’s the same, in part because the Supreme Court removed some civil rights laws that allowed for federal scrutiny of southern states. The most common tactic has been a demand for photo ID to vote, a move the Republicans have backed for a decade, despite the fact that the practice of multiple voting has been shown to be minimal. Beaten back in places like Ohio, they’ve succeeded in Texas, with a law requiring a specific application using multiple proof of identity — multiple and capricious. Student ID is not acceptable, a gun licence is.
It’s pretty amazing to see it in action, even suppression lite. In the DeKalb mall, half-empty, half-sad, with the gospel booming in from outside, I watched the queue snake out of the former dress shop where the polling booth is based. Voters turning up get a form so long that each person is supplied with their own clipboard, like you get in a doctor’s surgery. Addresses, past addresses, etc, etc, people puzzle over it. The line snakes in slowly. When they get to the booth, they will have to vote for more than 40 names, people they’ve never heard of, offices they’ve never heard of. It’s an arduous process, made excruciating. It’s 15 minutes to closing. People pass, glance, and keep passing. They’ll go back another day, but the Republican state legislature have that covered too — they’ve reduced the early voting period, so that it cuts out at the end of this week. And on it goes. Recently, some have suggested that this approach is backfiring for the GOP, because it is making a link back to the civil rights era, and a clear politics of meaning.
Maybe, but it’s going need to do a hella lot of that to overcome the natural drift of a society atomised in part by the fruits of those victories. It’s not the bridge in Selma to cross now, it’s the freeway overpass, the miles of them. Maybe Georgia is where it will all come down, because this is a run-off state — if no one gets 50%+1, there’s a two-way election in December. Add lawsuits, a Supreme Court case, and a hung Senate, and attention, attention may be paid. For the moment however, there’s nothing to do but make enough noise so they can hear you in the mall.