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In Georgia, Republicans Take Aim at Role of Black Churches in Elections

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The bill that passed the House would limit voting to at most one Sunday in October, but even that would be up to the discretion of the local registrar. It would also severely cut early voting hours in total, limit voting by mail and greatly restrict the use of drop boxes — all measures that activists say would disproportionately affect Black voters.

A similar bill is awaiting a vote in the Senate. Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, has indicated he supports new laws to “secure the vote” but has not committed to all of the restrictions.

Voting rights advocates say there is deep hypocrisy embedded in some of the new proposals. It was Georgia Republicans, they point out, who championed mail balloting in the early 2000s and automatic voting registration just five years ago, only to say they need to be limited now that more Black voters have embraced them.

Georgia was one of nine mostly Southern states and scores of counties and municipalities — including the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan — whose records of racist voter suppression required them to get federal clearance for changes to their election rules. The requirement fell under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the civil rights era law that curtailed the disenfranchisement of Blacks in the South.

The changes Republicans are now pursuing would have faced stiff federal review and possible blockage under the part of the act known as Section 5. But the Supreme Court, with a conservative majority, effectively gutted that section in a 2013 ruling.

Even after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, churches played a key role in civic engagement, often organizing nonpartisan political action committees during the 1970s and ’80s that provided, among other resources, trips to vote on Sunday where it was permitted. The phrase “souls to the polls” took root in Florida in the 1990s, according to David D. Daniels III, a professor of church history at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Raphael Warnock, one of the Democrats who won a special Senate race in January, is himself the pastor of the storied Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

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