Rev. Carl McCrae, bishop and founding pastor of Exousia Lighthouse International Christian Ministries in Lithonia, Ga., remembers that his grandfather was one of the first people to vote in Georgia’s Montgomery County. Government officials attempted to prevent his grandfather from voting — until a white man vouched for him. Now, McCrae sees his ministry as continuing his grandfather’s fight for Black and brown Americans’ voting rights.
“I don't see a discontinuation between what I do in the pulpit on Sundays and what I do every day of the week,” McCrae told Sojourners. “That is to advocate for people of color and marginalized people as the systems that are rigged against them seek to destroy them.”
McCrae, along with other faith leaders, is currently suing to repeal the Election Integrity Act of 2021, originally known as Georgia Senate Bill 202, which Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law on March 25. The lawsuit, Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta v. Brad Raffensperger, was filed by the Advancement Project National Office on behalf of a coalition of faith groups. Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta, Inc.; the Justice Initiative; the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights; Sankofa United Church of Christ; Faith in Action; McCrae's Exousia Lighthouse International; and other faith groups are listed as plaintiffs in the suit.
Touted by supporters as a measure to ensure fair elections, the law extends voter identification requirements to absentee voting; widens the state legislature’s power over the State Board of Elections and grants the board more power to take over local election boards; makes it illegal for political entities to give food and water to voters at polling stations; bans traveling polling stations during early voting except for emergencies; and mandates that provisional ballots cast in wrong precinct before 5 p.m. on Election Day will no longer be counted.
According to faith leaders in Georgia, they brought the suit because the new election law violates the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution. Worse, it is not a good-faith attempt at election integrity, but is instead a “a surgical attempt to cut Black, Latinx and Asian voters from the voting process,” they allege in the lawsuit.
Despite three audits by Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger that found no fraud, current and former Republican officials — from former President Donald Trump to former Georgia Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue — have alleged the election was fraudulent and stolen.
McCrae said that the bill was motivated by the erroneous belief that the 2020 election was stolen, a belief he sees as dangerous as the provisions themselves.
“Even though the Georgia governor and secretary of state forcefully and adequately pushed back against Donald Trump’s assertions that the election was stolen ... lawmakers still turned around and created laws to justify that same lie that the election was stolen,” McCrae said. “It’s unconscionable that we could sit idly by and allow them to do this in the face of what is right and what is true.”
Now, faith leaders are advocating against Georgia's Election Integrity Act and similar bills across the country.
“We’re reminded of the text of [Isaiah 10:1-3] that says ‘Woe to those who make unjust laws, who issue oppressive decrees to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed,’” Rev. Derrick Rice, a plaintiff representing Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, told Sojourners. “It’s our responsibility to push back.” SDPC is a nonprofit that seeks to represent a progressive African American faith leaders and their congregations.
Targeting communities of color
In its introduction, the lawsuit filed by faith groups states that Kemp and members of the Georgia legislature “engaged in legislative warfare against their own constituents” when they signed “a law that instantly attacks and, in no uncertain terms, criminalizes traditional organizing methods used by Black and Latinx groups to encourage an inclusive and diverse democracy.” The lawsuit also noted that the bill was signed by a group of white men sitting beneath a painting of a former plantation.
According to Esperanza Segarra, a senior attorney with the Advancement Project, the law is an “attack not only on Black and brown communities, but on democracy.”
The lawsuit argues that the law seeks to block the type of organizing that led to increased voter turnout in 2020.
According to the Pew Research Center, Black voter registration accounted for 25 percent of the newly registered voters in Georgia between 2016 and 2020, the largest increase for any racial group in that time period. Segarra said that popular church-sponsored Souls to the Polls programs were largely responsible for the 36.5 percent of Sunday early voters who were Black — Black voters comprised approximately 30 percent of all registered voters in Georgia and 26.8 percent of early in-person voters on other days according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
However, the new law gives county registrars discretion to make Sunday early voting optional, which may weigh more heavily on Black voters and other voters of color. It also adds new voter identification mandates and nearly cuts in half the amount of time allowed for voters to request a mail-in ballot.
The restrictions to mail-in voting reverse what had been the trend for Republican-controlled states in previous decades. As Georgia Public Broadcasting reported, Republicans gained control of Georgia state government in 2005 and instituted no-excuse absentee voting for the state, which gave Georgians the option to vote absentee without needing to explain why they can’t make it to the polls. Thirty-four states and Washington, D.C., currently offer no-excuse absentee voting.
Segarra said the new limits on absentee voting stems directly from Black and brown voters utilizing it in the 2020 election. The attempt to restrict absentee voting, she said, implies that the votes of Black and brown Georgians’ weren’t legitimate.
Segarra said the bill follows a similar formula with ballot drop boxes. While 38 drop boxes were available in Fulton County in 2020, just eight boxes, or about one for every 100,000 registered voters, will be in the county for Georgia’s 2022 election. It’s not a coincidence that this reduction is happening in a county that’s 44.5 percent Black, according to Segarra.
On June 25, the U.S. Department of Justice took unprecedented action and issued its own lawsuit against Georgia, alleging that “several provisions" of the state's new law were passed with a "discriminatory purpose in violation of the Voting Rights Act," Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general, said in a speech.
Pattern of legislation across U.S.
“As 47 states entertain the same type of horrible laws, it’s important that we endure to fight like hell to end it,” McCrae said. “When they've shopped the same law across this country with only minor nuances, it’s clear this whole effort is born out of a conservative think tank process that is gunning for the right to vote of minorities and people of color and persons that are poor. It’s not just the draconian elements outlined in this law that angers us, it’s the environment that created it, which is permeating the soil of this entire country.”
At least one conservative think tank is connected to the act. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative advocacy organization, wrote on their website in February that Georgia's voting legislation is based on Heritage recommendations. Jessica Anderson, executive director of the Heritage Foundation's sister organization Heritage Action, said similarly in a video leaked to the progressive outlet Mother Jones.
“Heritage Action worked with over 20,000 volunteers who supported election reform, many of whom met with legislators at the very beginning of this process,” Anderson is quoted saying on heritage.org. The foundation also hired four lobbyists during the Georgia legislature’s last session, and brought in most of them about a week before the Senate gave SB 202 final passage, according to GPB.
Although records show that Kemp met with Anderson, Republican Sen. Mike Dugan, Georgia’s senate majority leader, denied that Heritage Action helped write the bill. Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, an author of a similar election bill in Iowa, also denied Heritage’s involvement in creating the law.
For McCrae and the other plaintiffs on the lawsuit, their objection to Georgia’s law is pivotal in defending democracy across the country.
“With Georgia being the root of this scourge that’s taking place around this country, we need to make sure that this law doesn’t hold up in court and that it certainly never sees the implementation in our lives,” McCrae said.