Want to Protect the Freedom to Vote? Start Local.

Amid a pandemic, widespread disinformation campaigns, and a deliberate reduction in postal service by the previous administration, Americans turned out in 2020 in record numbers to vote. Despite unfounded objections and concerns, the November general election was widely heralded by election security experts as “the most secure in American history.”

Yet Republican-led state legislatures across the country are now using election-related falsehoods as a pretense to justify voting restrictions. As the first state to take steps against voters, Georgia passed SB 202, a notorious 98-page bill that restricts access to the ballot and offers more problems than solutions. As other states look to enact their own version of Georgia’s draconian electoral laws, advocates are also fighting another kind of attack on the right to vote: the decisions officials are making year-round at the local and state levels about how elections are run and funded. These decisions include where to place voting locations and what hours the DMV is open so people can get the photo ID needed to vote. These are not simple administrative decisions they are decisions about people’s freedom to vote and their civil rights.

Below is a discussion between All Voting is Local’s Georgia State Director Aklima Khondoker and Arizona Campaign Manager Rosemary Avila, who discuss anti-voter legislation and the local decision-making that people can engage in right now to protect our freedom to vote. 

Rosemary Avila:

All right, Aklima: Georgia recently passed SB 202, which is basically a huge power grab not rooted in any facts or data. Can you tell us about SB 202 and who will be most impacted by it?

Aklima Khondoker:

YES! SB 202 is a massive anti-voter law, but let me tell you what it doesn’t do — it doesn’t do anything to combat long voter lines that wrapped around buildings. It does nothing to combat the machine malfunctions that caused the long lines. It doesn’t address a lack of poll workers or a lack of effective election administration over the last cycle. It doesn’t do anything to address actual issues. 

What it does instead is gives more power to our Georgia legislature to contest our elections and challenge results they don’t like. It limits ballot drop box availability, mandating that they be inside early voting locations — which are only open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. — and Georgians who don’t have a driver’s license or a state ID are now required to provide a photocopy or scan copy of another form of ID to request an absentee ballot.

But what’s really absurd about this bill is that it also makes it illegal for a good Samaritan or a nonprofit to provide water or snacks as you wait in line. So, as a voter, if you’re standing in that long line, you now have to choose between quenching your thirst or waiting to cast your ballot. 

But I know that Georgia isn’t the only state facing issues. Tell me about Arizona — what’s happening there?

RA: You mentioned a lot about limited access, and that’s essentially what is happening here in Arizona. We’ve seen a ton of bills that attack our mail-in ballot system. If these bills are passed, they would have dire consequences for our voters here in Arizona, particularly indigenous voters and elderly voters, and people who come from Black and Brown communities would be disproportionately affected by these bills as well. 

With so many bad bills in multiple states, it’s important to discuss solutions at a national level, like H.R.1 and H.R. 4, that can counter these attacks on our freedom to vote. 

AK: These bills propose a lot of common sense, baseline standards and best practice election administration reforms that states need to adopt. I’ll let you speak on H.R.1, but H.R.4 is vital because it restores the full strength of the Voting Rights Act. Without the preclearance requirement, which was stripped by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013, counties across Georgia closed more than 200 polling place locations, resulting in voter confusion, long lines, and decisions that led to discrimination at the ballot box. 

RA: Absolutely. And H.R.1 is an opportunity for us to implement measures across the nation that will make the promise of democracy real for us all. And it’s an opportunity for us to use that as a catalyst to enact broader voting rights protections. 

Regardless of state and federal legislation, there will always be work needed at the local level to ensure policies are enacted fairly for voters.

For example, in Arizona, we have the Election Procedures Manual (EPM). The manual details the procedures that election officials must follow to ensure that our practices are consistent and efficient throughout Arizona, such as when to send mailed ballots, how to establish emergency vote centers, and what is required to register to vote. The secretary of state, who is our chief election officer in the state, works with the local county election officials to draft the EPM. Then there’s an opportunity for the public to comment on the draft. Finally, the EPM goes to the attorney general and the governor, and once they approve it, it essentially has the force and effect of law. It’s an important election planning process that the community can and should weigh in on.

What are y’all working on in Georgia at the local level?

AK: We’re focused on supporting voters and our local election boards. One thing that SB 202 does is takes a lot of county control away from our county supervisors. Through the Peanut Gallery Initiative (a project spearheaded by the New Georgia Project in partnership with the ACLU of Georgia), we train volunteers to monitor boards of elections meetings. In Georgia, we have 159 counties that independently conduct their own elections. Because this system tends to operate independently of each other, Peanut Gallery volunteers serve as the one-to-one contact between these tremendous nonprofit organizations and these boards of elections. 

Our goal is to bring transparency back to our democracy, which our Peanut Gallery volunteers do by attending, monitoring, and reporting events that transpire at the boards of elections meetings. 

What are your thoughts, Rosemary, on other sorts of non-legislative work that’s happening in Arizona? What else are you all working on?

RA: We don’t have nearly as many counties as y’all do in Georgia; we only have 15. So, we’re doing 15 meetings — calling each of the county election officials to look back at what happened in past election cycles and to plan for the future. We’re creating an issue list of priorities to bring to the county so we can have continued dialogue and partner with them. And we can serve, hopefully, as a resource on the best way to support and protect voters.

AK: There’s a lot happening and a lot to keep track of. How can voters stay in the know and advocate for their freedom to vote?

RA: Get involved at the local level. Learn the names of your local election officials. See when board meetings are happening. If you’re in Georgia, volunteer with the Peanut Gallery Initiative. If you’re in Arizona, plan to comment on the Election Procedures Manual in August. Find local organizations that are working on voting rights, then take action with them to protect your voice — not just in an election year, but during off cycles, too. In each of the eight All Voting is Local states, there’s always a way to take action and bring power back to voters. Visit the Fighting Back 2021 action center on All Voting is Local’s website to learn more about what’s happening in your state, and tell officials to safeguard our fundamental right to vote.