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Laven: Big chickens rig the voting in Georgia

When I first moved to Georgia, I received a quick education on a different way of life.

As an icebreaker for my first day of teaching at Kennesaw State, I asked my students, “Why did I see so many Confederate flags when I went for a jog through my neighborhood?” One of them responded, “My uncle says there wasn’t a lawful surrender, so he still flies his because we’re still at war.”

I remember the first time I heard about the Big Chicken. It was part of directions I received many times:

“If you see the Big Chicken, you’ve gone too far,” or, “Turn left at the Big Chicken.” But it all made sense when I drove up Cobb Parkway, as the local Kentucky Fried Chicken was marked with a 40-foot-tall red chicken.

There were more Peachtree streets in Atlanta than a person could count, and directions in Marietta never made sense. But the Big Chicken was a landmark I could work with.

It is an understatement to say people do things differently in Georgia. That made the election for governor in 2018 exhausting and cringe-worthy.

Brian Kemp ran an ad that featured him pointing a shotgun at a teenager who presumably wanted to date one of his daughters. I must have suffered that sight 10,000 times.

He said that dating his daughter would require “a healthy appreciation for the Second Amendment,” even though he didn’t practice basic gun safety when he pointed the weapon at the child.

The race for the Republican nomination featured many guns and explosions. The best I could tell was they were trying to out-crazy one another. Pointing a shotgun at a teenager sure seemed insane to me.

It would come as no surprise that I supported Stacey Abrams. She did not point guns at teenagers. She championed free and fair elections.

Many of the people where I lived supported her as well. In fact, she beat Kemp by 30,000 votes in Cobb County.

But it gets tricky. For one thing, Kemp continued to serve as secretary of state, allowing him to run the election he was running in.

I took the opportunity to vote early. As I told the New York Times, it turned out to be a surprisingly hot and humid day, and I had to stand in line for two hours.

Emergency medical personnel were summoned twice for people who collapsed of heat exhaustion while waiting. I wouldn’t have believed what was happening if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.

The demographics were clear. Kemp had a vested interest in making it more difficult for the voters where I lived to exercise the constitutionally guaranteed franchise because we supported his opponent.

Increased turnout was expected. But instead of adding polling locations, the state reduced the number of polling sites in areas with high concentrations of liberal and minority voters.

Kemp was able to make our line stretch exceptionally long with a combination of reduced polling locations, fewer voting machines per location, reduced access to early voting and understaffing of polling locations in areas likely to favor the opposition.

The bottleneck was completely avoidable. The suppression was either intentional or the result of complete incompetence.

Georgia Republicans have now proven themselves to be big chickens. They cannot win a fair fight, so they are investing in every strategy they can to limit access to the democratic franchise of voting.

Republicans have had years to consider adjusting their platform to appeal to minority voters, but they have decided they would rather stifle minority voices instead.

I watched two people collapse from heat exhaustion while they waited to vote. I saw people get bottled water from their cars to help those standing in line treat symptoms of dehydration.

I heard paramedics tell a woman, “We really would like to get you checked out at the hospital,” citing abnormally low blood pressure. But she responded, “Not until after I’ve voted.” And I remember the triumphant fist she thrust into the air after she had succeeded in making her voice heard.

Now, thanks to Georgia’s Republican-dominated Legislature, the state has a new voter suppression law on the books. And it’s not just a crime, but a felony, to provide water to a voter waiting in line in Georgia.

Less dramatic but more anti-democratic measures include a sharp reduction in dropboxes and several other limitations on voting, clearly designed to impact districts that tend to vote Democrat. The few window-dressing assists to voters in the 98-page law are meant to give Republicans rhetorical cover.

It is heinous corruption and the goal is clear: Republicans have decided the only way they can win is to discourage and suppress the people’s vote.

This round of Jim Crow will give the chickens sweeping powers to reject and throw away votes. And other states with Republican-controlled legislatures and governors are following suit, with the Brennan Center reporting more than 350 such bills in the hopper in 47 states.

The only fix is federal passage of the For the People Act. It is the natural sequalae to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and is needed now.

I received messages and threats after being quoted by The New York Times on my 2018 experience. People accused me of everything from being a liar to a race traitor. They posted fake reviews calling me a bad professor, and contacted the department where I taught.

But I will still speak out. And I hope all patriotic Americans join me in condemning these big chickens.

The repeated efforts to undermine black votes and black voices is disgusting. We need to make sure the racist strategies are punished.

Sadly, for the moment at least, Georgia’s big chickens are getting away with it.

Dr. Wim Laven teaches political science and conflict resolution courses at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University. His work is syndicated through PeaceVoice, based in Portland.

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