State Sens. Clint Dixon, rear left, and Sheikh Rahman, D-Lawrenceville, confer inside the Senate Chambers during the second day of the 2021 legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

In the past few weeks, the lion’s share of the media attention and discussion about politics in Georgia has focused on two recent gubernatorial candidacy announcements, one by Democrat Stacey Abrams and the other by Republican David Perdue, recent outgoing U.S. senator from the state who lost reelection a year ago. Both are challenging the incumbent, Governor Brian Kemp.

Less attention has been paid to the pernicious maneuvers of the state’s GOP-controlled legislature, which is pushing through a series of measures that, in no uncertain terms, are designed to subvert the will of the voters.

During a special session of Georgia’s state legislature that began November 3, a handful of right-wing politicians led by state Senator Clint Dixon met to craft a new threat to democracy.

Giving no notice to legislators representing the state’s Gwinnett County, and no voice to voters who live there, Dixon and a handful of other politicians hijacked the special session for statewide redistricting to introduce legislation that would force Gwinnett to restructure its school board and board of commissioners. Specifically, the bill would force the county to adopt new legislative maps that dilute the voices of voters of color and form districts more advantageous to Republicans.

Dixon’s ploy failed—but the Georgia legislature’s regular session opens January 10, and this power play is sure to be back on the agenda.

The timing comes as no surprise. Gwinnett County, part of Atlanta’s metropolitan area, is the state’s second-most-populous county. Its population has changed rapidly in the past four years. Once predominantly white, the Gwinnett has grown increasingly diverse, with a demographic makeup that is 28 percent Black, 22 percent Hispanic, and 13 percent Asian American/Pacific Islander.

Gwinnett’s local government has grown to reflect that diversity. The first person of color to win a seat on the Gwinnett County School Board was elected in 2018, and after the 2020 elections, people of color represented a majority on the board. Similarly, 2020 ushered in a Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners entirely made up of people of color, including the first Black woman to chair the commission.

These attempts to dilute the voting strength of people of color are part of an obvious effort to roll back the strides Democrats made in the last election, in which a diversifying electorate ushered in a Biden victory and two Democratic senators from a historically red state.

As a Georgia-based voting rights attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Action Fund, I regularly work alongside voting rights advocates across the state to fight voting restrictions that disproportionately affect voters of color—everything from rural county polling place closures to unfair statewide policies that create barriers to voters trying to cast an absentee ballot. The Gwinnett County bills are far from the first attempt I’ve witnessed to dilute and restrict the voting rights of people of color. But the bills are most notable for the way Dixon and his accomplices have weaponized disinformation to advance their agenda and rationalize the restructuring over the interests and wishes of the voters. For instance, he claimed, incorrectly and with no evidence, that graduate-level inclusive educational theories were being taught in public schools and attempted to stoke racialized fears based on this lie. Similar excuses were made to justify splitting county commission districts and doubling the commission’s size.

The strategy Republicans introduced with this bill is set to become a scheme for Georgia politics for years to come: Inject a lie into the public discourse, generate hysteria, and entrench politics based on the manufactured controversy.

State and national politicians used these tactics earlier this year when they pedaled myths about the 2020 election to pass anti-voter laws like S.B. 202 in Georgia, which installed sweeping barriers to voting by mail, returning a ballot by drop box, voting early in runoff elections, and voting on Election Day with a provisional ballot, and authorized the biased state legislature to usurp control of election administration from counties of their choosing.

The new Georgia Senate Study Committee on school board elections, of which Dixon has been appointed chair, is only further indication of this repeat strategy at work. The committee used its only two public hearings to give oxygen to Dixon’s lies and disinformation, such as the school board’s direction in teaching graduate-level inclusive educational theories. Again, these theories are not part of the K–12 curriculum in Gwinnett.

Georgia’s legislative leaders are again positioning themselves to take advantage of the fabrications they have deployed, and the hysteria they’ve generated, as pretext to force restructuring on school boards in potentially dozens of counties during next month’s legislative session.

Democracy is in critical danger when its politicians can weaponize disinformation to seize control over elections, manipulate district lines, and trample on the right to vote.

While litigators have grown restless waiting for federal legislation that will enhance our legal tools, the public can still stop these bills before they pass. Again, Gwinnett shows us the way.

In Gwinnett’s case, advocates across racial, ethnic, gender, age, and socioeconomic lines flooded the hearing room and unanimously testified against the bills. Fellow legislators, including those representing the county, who were not consulted before the bill’s introduction, peppered Dixon with questions. The media swiftly picked up the senator’s problematic premise and corrected for disinformation where appropriate.

As a result of the public pressure, Dixon decided against moving the bills forward. But these bills and other similar legislation are certain to be back next week during Georgia’s regular session.

Every threat to democracy based on disinformation will require this vigilance, organization, and immediacy.

Bills like the ones affecting Gwinnett that force restructuring of local governments hide their true purpose among claims to address problems that don’t really exist. Dixon’s study committee and the legislation it is pushing aims to manipulate district lines, dilute the votes of people of color, and move existing partisan school board elections—like those in diverse counties such as Cobb and Gwinnet—to the nonpartisan, municipal off-cycle election calendar, where turnout is much lower and skews older, whiter, and more conservative.

To stop this onslaught, Georgians will need all hands on deck. By appealing to their elected officials via emails and phone calls and participating in public testimony, residents can make a difference. They have to be prepared to call out lies, to illustrate to the public their opponents’ brazen manipulations, and to fight honorably and fiercely for the ideals of representative democracy. The future of our country depends on it.