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Fighting Voter Suppression: Seeking equal and open access to voting in the Deep South

Editor’s Note: The legislation outlined below is current as of this story’s publication date of March 22, 2021. Bills may be amended throughout the legislative session.

The lies about a “stolen election” that fueled the Jan. 6 extremist attack on the U.S. Capitol are now being used by Republican lawmakers in a number of states to justify sweeping legislative proposals designed to make voting harder, bills that would specifically suppress the votes of Black people, low-income voters and other historically disenfranchised people.

In the Deep South, organizers are battling an onslaught of anti-voting bills in a region that is home to 54% of all Black people in the United States. The fight is particularly vigorous in Georgia, where historic voter turnout flipped two U.S. Senate seats from red to blue in 2020. Now, Republican lawmakers are pushing forward bills in both the House and Senate that, according to Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, represent the biggest overhaul to Georgia’s election process since 2005.

“I am just amazed that 56 years after Bloody Sunday here we are still fighting for voting rights  and people are still trying to deny Black people, especially, and other people of color their access to the ballot,” said Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda. “I think people misjudged the local voter. They understand what you're doing, and they will find ways to exercise their right to vote – and we will continue the fight, just as we did in the ’60s to get voting rights.”

State voting laws – current and futures ones – could be dramatically affected by developments at the federal level.

Earlier this month, as the work on the ground in the South intensified, the U.S. House passed the For the People Act, which aims to expand access to the ballot box by introducing mandatory automatic voting registration, re-enfranchising voters with prior felony convictions and requiring fairness and transparency in redistricting. It could, in effect, nullify many state voter suppression laws. The bill faces strong Republican opposition in the Senate, however. Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case challenging two restrictive voting laws in Arizona. A ruling in favor of the state could weaken another crucial section of the Voting Rights Act – one used to determine whether voting laws are racially discriminatory and prevent voters from challenging laws that harm them.

A lot is at stake for the future of elections nationwide, and while organizers in Southern states are hoping for positive federal intervention, they’re preparing to continue a decades-long battle – on their own soil – for access to the ballot.

The following is a synopsis of anti-voting legislation introduced in four Southern states so far in 2021:


Senate Bill 241 and House Bill 531: Republican lawmakers are advancing omnibus  legislation containing a number of voter suppression measures. Both bills have passed their chambers. Advocates anticipate the legislation may also absorb other smaller pieces of anti-voting legislation introduced earlier this year. Last week, Senate Republicans created a third omnibus bill by expanding SB 202 – originally intended to prevent third-party groups from sending absentee ballots – to a 93-page bill with 50 additional sections, largely combining provisions of SB 241 and HB 531. 

  • Absentee voting: HB 531 would limit absentee voting by restricting access to secure drop boxes and requiring they be inside early voting sites and available only during in-person voting hours. Among other provisions, it also reduces the period during which a voter can apply for an absentee ballot. Similar to some identification provisions in HB 531, SB 241 would require that absentee applications and ballots be accompanied by a Georgia driver’s license number, Georgia state ID card number or a copy of a form of acceptable ID.
  • Early voting: HB 531 mandates that all counties have the same early voting dates – three weeks of Monday-through-Friday voting, one mandatory Saturday and one additional third Saturday or Sunday before Election Day – significantly limiting Sunday voting, a day Black churches often use to mobilize voters for “souls to the polls” events.
  • Polling locations: HB 531 bars the use of buses or mobile voting facilities except in the case of a state-of-emergency declaration. It ends the practice of counting a person’s vote if they cast a provisional ballot at the wrong precinct on Election Day and bars the distribution of “money or gifts,” which is defined to include food and drinks, to voters standing in line to vote within 150 feet of a polling place. In Georgia, this means those who most need food or water to endure standing in hours-long voting lines may not receive it. 
  • Miscellaneous: HB 531 limits the ability of the state election board to issue emergency regulations in response to public health or safety concerns. It also eliminates the role of the secretary of state, an elected position, as chair of the state election board and calls for a nonpartisan chair who would be appointed by the partisan state Legislature. SB 241 requires that the attorney general establish a tip line to report election crimes, which can result in voter intimidation, and also makes it a felony for anyone to observe a voter in a manner that would allow them to see for whom they are casting their ballot.


  • House Bill 285: This bill would ban curbside voting by explicitly forbidding election workers from setting up drop-off sites or voting machines outside of a polling place. It would codify Secretary of State John Merrill’s interpretation that curbside voting is prohibited by existing state law. The House passed the bill in late March and it will move on to the Senate.
  • Senate Bill 235: This companion bill to HB 285 would also bar curbside voting by prohibiting poll workers from taking ballots into or out of polling places. It was passed by a Senate committee in February.
  • House Bill 167: This bill would make it a crime to vote in both Alabama and another state in the same election, though there is zero evidence to indicate that this sort of “double voting” occurs. The original bill made this practice a Class C felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, but House Democrats were able to secure an amendment to lower the classification to a Class A misdemeanor. The amended bill was passed by the House in March.
  • House Bill 399: This bill would limit the power of the secretary of state to make accommodations for voters affected by serious emergencies such as tornadoes, hurricanes or public health emergencies like COVID-19.


Senate Bill 90: Much like Georgia’s omnibus bills, Florida’s SB 90 introduces many provisions that would make it difficult for voters to cast absentee ballots. The measures include a requirement that absentee ballot applicants include a driver’s license number, ID card number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on their application. Additionally, it changes mail ballot verification to require a ballot signature to be compared to the most recent signature on file. The bill also limits the request for absentee ballots to one election cycle, while current law allows voters who ask for an absentee ballot to maintain their request for two general election cycles unless they opt out. SB 90 also eliminates ballot drop boxes and criminalizes all third-party returns of ballots except by immediate family members. The bill is pending in the Senate Rules Committee.


Anti-voting bills introduced in Mississippi’s legislature this year died during this past session, though they could be reintroduced in future sessions. Some of the bills that advocates were fighting against included:

  • Senate Bill 2588: This bill would require election commissioners to purge a name from the voter rolls if that voter failed to cast a ballot during a two-year period and then failed to respond to a notice from the county seeking confirmation of their address and failed to vote over the next four years.
  • House Bill 4: A companion bill to SB 2588, HB 4 also intended to purge the voter rolls by removing registrations of voters who didn’t vote within a two-year period, didn’t update their address, didn’t respond to confirmation notices and failed to vote over another four years.
  • House Bill 586: House Bill 586 proposed to match voter rolls with county, state and federal databases with the intention of identifying and purging non-citizens from voter rolls, an unnecessary measure that would create additional barriers for lawful voters and give more power to the secretary of state to purge voters.

Bills like these – ostensibly designed to promote election security and integrity – are being justified by the myth of voter fraud perpetrated by former President Donald Trump, his political allies and right-wing media. Yet, allegations of voter fraud continue to be debunked over and over again.

“There hasn't been any fraud,” said Butler of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda.  “Our secretary of state said we had a gold standard for voting. So, what are you trying to cure? There is nothing to cure. You're listening to lies of people who don't understand the process. You’re trying to legislate to correct lies. You can’t legislate to correct lies.”

What’s more, there’s been little transparency in the legislative process itself, particularly in Southern states as legislators have been able to circumvent opportunities for public comment during hearings and conduct more work behind closed doors because of limited access to statehouses during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to organizers, opportunities for virtual testimony have been few and far between.

“It's an egregious attack on our democracy, because we should be able to provide commentary and provide testimony about our concerns regarding legislation that would impact all of our communities – and we haven't been given that opportunity,” said LaVita Tuff, policy director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta.

Organizers faced similar issues in Mississippi.

“Unfortunately, because it’s on YouTube, legislators can vote a certain way and we can send them an email about why we disagree, but they can dodge an email,” said Jarrius Adams, advocacy and outreach coordinator for Mississippi Votes. “If we were in person, they couldn’t dodge us. It’s tough because we know why it’s that way, but at the same time it's some serious stuff that’s being voted on and has huge implications for Mississippi voters.”

While advocates in Southern states are pushing for more federal action through the For the People Act, as well as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, to add a layer of protection against state-led voter suppression, they’re also preparing for what might come next – including the racial and partisan gerrymandering that will be attempted during the next round of redistricting, which will begin when the U.S. Census results are delivered to the states.

“I'm afraid of, even if the federal bills do cover some of it, what's next,” said Tuff. “The fact that we have to ask ourselves what's next and always be slated for war is a very horrible way to live, always in defense mode. At some point all of us have to get sick and tired of being sick and tired and move from being in defense mode to voting people out of the way who put us in this place. I don't want a trauma bond with any other organizer or community member over the Georgia Legislature. I want to move people out of the way so we can break the trauma bonds that come from the reinstatement of Jim Crow-like policies.”

Photo by MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images