Despite Georgia’s Voter Suppression Law, A Progressive Lawmaker Keeps Fighting

An interview with Georgia State Representative Park Cannon.

When Georgia State Representative Park Cannon paid a recent visit last month to her 100-year-old great aunt, who grew up in the Jim Crow South, her aunt had one message for her: “Baby, please protect my right to vote.”

Cannon is trying to do just that. As Georgia Republicans have passed restrictions on voting access, she has been on the frontlines of the opposition. On March 25, a video of Cannon went viral after she was arrested for knocking on the door of Governor Brian Kemp’s office during a private signing ceremony for suppressive voting. Cannon was handcuffed, dragged away by the police, and charged with two felonies.

The law Kemp signed requires absentee voters to submit a driver’s license number or other documentation, tightens the deadline for requesting a provisional ballot, and limits the number of ballot drop boxes. It forbids people from handing out food or water in polling lines, a restriction that voting rights advocates have argued will target Atlanta precincts with large Black populations. It also includes a provision that allows the GOP-controlled state legislature to take over county election boards, undermining the authority of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Experts worry this provision will give partisans greater influence over elections, such as the certification process. It also gave the state legislature the power to review and fire members of county election boards. Newly elected Senator Raphael Warnock and voting rights groups have called the legislation “Jim Crow in new clothes.”

Cannon represents a district that includes the home of newly elected Sen. Raphael and Atlanta’s historic Old Fourth Ward, where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up and later preached at the Ebenezer Baptist Church as did Warnock. In 2016, Cannon was elected to the Georgia state house at 24, making her the youngest member of the state legislature at the time and one of three openly gay lawmakers. Now 29, Cannon is a Democratic star and among the most promising faces of progressive politics in the South.

She is no stranger to protest. Just a few weeks before her arrest, Cannon was at the center of another altercation with Georgia’s capitol police. At a voting rights demonstration at the state capitol building, an officer grabbed Cannon’s arm, which led to a two-hour sit-in while  lawmakers and activists mediated the confrontation. For voting rights activists, the incident was part of a pattern. Back in 2018, then-State Senator (now Congresswoman) Nikema Williams was arrested by Georgia capitol police after a similar clash.

A few days before her arrest for obstruction, I sat down for an interview with Cannon, who is also the secretary of the Democratic caucus, to discuss what was then the voting bill and what it means for Georgia’s citizens.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

LG: There are a number of voting restrictions that are included in the different pieces of legislation that have been going through the House and Senate. Which of the ones that passed are you most concerned about?

PC: There are three. One is that the bill limits provisional ballots that are cast outside of your registered precinct, which will impact over 21,000 voters. The second is a provision that created a new deadline for voters to return their ballots. Previously the law allowed ballots to be returned up until 7 p.m. on election day. This bill pushed the deadline to 11 days prior to the election. This will impact over 34,000 voters. The third is a law that reduces the runoff early voting period, which will generate longer lines.

It is very difficult for the House Democratic leadership team, of which I serve as the Secretary, to be impactful. Even Calvin Smyre, the dean of the Georgia House of Representatives, a member who has been serving continuously in the House of Representatives for 43 years and was appointed to the special committee on election integrity, could not get his amendments included. He wasn’t able to get the provisions that he sees as negative removed.

LG: Republicans ultimately wouldn’t eliminate no-excuse early voting. Does that mean the practice is safe going forward?

PC: No excuse absentee voting is codified in the bill, but Republicans are attacking vote by mail through other means. They’re framing the issue around conspiracy theories about fraudulent voting, including by promoting claims that people from outside of the state tried to use no-excuse absentee voting. The other way they’ve eroded absentee mail-in voting is by limiting the early voting period. When you do that, you are also limiting the period of time during which people can turn in their ballots, which will create longer lines. We should not do anything that creates longer lines when people are trying to vote, especially in a pandemic.

They are also attacking new voter drop boxes for early voting ballots. [The new law will likely cut the number of drop boxes in Atlanta’s four counties from 94 to 23.] Voters used drop boxes in 129 of 159 counties this election, but Republicans are saying, “Oh, there were only about 30 counties that actually needed to have these drop boxes,” when really it’s the opposite.

LG: Could you explain why no-excuse absentee voting has been such an important issue to voting rights advocates in Georgia?

PC: To answer that I’m going to read a story from a collection of stories we gathered from people who relied on no-excuse absentee voting.

This is from a 32-year-old woman who works for Home Depot as a human resources supervisor. She said, “I am an essential worker, as that term is known in the COVID-19 pandemic. This position involves hiring, training and development of employees, which has been difficult throughout the pandemic. I have worked in this role for over 10 years. I also typically work a second part-time job. I also help, along with my mother and sister, to care for my father who is fighting cancer. I feel that it is imperative to be able to vote by drop box. I want to be a part of the change in our country. I believe that every vote matters. As an African American, it is my duty to vote, since my ancestors had to fight hard to earn this basic right.”

I wanted to share that story because we look at voting access through an intersectional approach. We realize that people have been traumatized by trying to access their right to vote, whether they were growing up in the 60s and did not have the right to vote, but now have it and are facing those same litmus tests—whether they are being intimidated by those having guns, or law enforcement standing outside of the polls. No-excuse absentee voting helps them.

LG: It seems important for framing this issue that, in rankings about ease of voting, Georgia has consistently fallen towards the bottom. Beyond the recent bill, what are the biggest obstacles to voting access in Georgia?

PC: We have seen a rise in conspiracy theories impact our voting systems, even before 2020. We’ve seen plenty of false information coming through the legislature to justify these bills, including lies about people voting out of state. That’s a form of voter intimidation. We’ve also seen more explicit voter intimidation, including people showing up in full militia gear with guns, with the intent of waiting outside for people who come out at night after they have voted. This year, Republican legislators voted to repeal automatic voter registration in the Senate. That hasn’t become law yet, but to give you a sense of what it could mean if it does, 5.7 million out of the 7 million registered voters on the rolls right now registered automatically at the DMV.

LG: At a recent voting rights demonstration that you led back in February, there were reports of an incident between you and a state capitol police officer. As the officer was announcing that protestors had to leave the building, you stood in front of his bullhorn which led another officer to forcefully grab your arm. What was your experience with that incident, and how do you plan to combat similar confrontations going forward?

PC: That day was an example of law enforcement taking voting rights into their own hands and trying to intimidate people from speaking up about what is happening. Going forward, the police could get involved in our elections in even more ways. It is a misdemeanor in Georgia to take a selfie with your ballot, and some politicians want law enforcement to sit at drop boxes and arrest people who take photos. [The police could now also punish people for handing out water.] We will continue to stand up against law enforcement getting in the way of voting rights, especially when they are disrespecting Georgia voters by not even having the courtesy to wear a mask around the state capitol during Covid-19.

LG: I know that in 2016, and again in 2019, when state Republicans tried to pass the Religious Freedoms Restoration Act (RFRA), Georgia Democrats were able to kill the legislation by getting corporations to say that they would boycott the state or take their business elsewhere. I understand that some state representatives and Black Lives Matter activists have formed a “corporate accountability campaign” to use a similar strategy for these voting rights restrictions. How does this tactic work exactly?

PC: This is an economic development and tourism strategy. With the NCAA, for example, and the Final Four, we want to make it very clear that they would be coming into a suppressive environment, and we simply don’t recommend they do that kind of business with the state. I’ll add that in our corporate accountability campaign, we’ve seen lobbying firms give campaign contributions to the same Republicans who sponsored RFRA, the abortion ban, and now these voting measures. These contributions far exceed what they have given to legislators who support all faith communities, who believe in people’s rights to determine their families, and who want increased voter turnout. We are putting pressure on them by making it clear that we are watching to see if they put their money where their mouth is.

Now it is time for them to take a stand and use their economic power to kill these voting restrictions. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce, followed by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, put out very weak statements last week, saying that they support voter access, but they have not made it clear that they will work to kill the bills. Until that happens, we will continue our corporate accountability campaign. [After Cannon and I spoke, Major League Baseball moved its All Star game out of Atlanta. Coca Cola and Delta also criticized the legislation, but only after it was passed into law.]

LG: I know your district includes the historic Old Fourth Ward where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up, and which has been a hub for civil rights activism. How does that history inform your approach to the voting rights struggle in Georgia today? 

PC: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was known at the end of his career to speak about “our beloved community.” Our beloved community is a term that includes marginalized families of all types. So as one of the few Spanish speakers in the legislature, I know firsthand that Latino people have informed our approach to inclusive voting bills. For example, there’s an organization called GALEO, which is the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. Because of GALEO and partners in the Latino community, we saw Georgia Latino voters increase turnout by more than 70% in 2020. So we are proud of the turnout of our beloved community, and we will fight anything that aims to stop that.

I am also really proud to know the King family, including Dr. King’s granddaughter, Yolanda King. She is not even 10 years old, and she is on the front lines fighting so that young people like her have access to vote in eight years.

LG: There’s of course been a lot of national attention on Stacey Abrams since her run in 2018 and she’s been credited for a lot of the success that Democrats had in the 2020 Georgia elections. Why do you think Stacey Abrams and Fair Fight have been so successful at voter mobilization?

PC: Trauma-informed voting is an important way to look at what Stacey Abrams and we have done. We understand the violent history of intimidation people have suffered at the polls might make them less likely to want to vote. We try to bring that understanding to bear when we do outreach with voters.

That means meeting people where they are at, be it the gas station or wherever else. It means that when they were standing in a long line, we brought them bottles of water, and said: “We don’t care who you vote for, we just want to make sure that you don’t pass out here.” It means reaching out to nonprofit groups to tap into their specific focuses on the environment, on health safety, or on health care and saying, “Can you call your base to ask them if they’re experiencing any barriers to voting? And if so, please send them to our hotline.”

LG: What kind of an impact do you think this legislative fight will have for the upcoming municipal elections in Atlanta, when residents will vote on the next mayor?

PC: We are already seeing a chilling effect. Voters are asking us: Can I vote early before the bill takes effect? And we’re really having to be clear with people that we will not know the final status of these measures and how they will impact municipal elections until July. It’s going to be very tricky timing.

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Luke Goldstein

Luke Goldstein is an editorial intern at the Washington Monthly and a recent graduate from Wesleyan University.