Republican insiders in Georgia are warning after a balloting meltdown in Fulton County that Democrats could wield voting rights like a cudgel, galvanizing turnout this fall to defeat President Trump in the traditionally red state.
Georgia Republicans blame problems that plagued Georgia’s primary on Democratic officials running Fulton County, a diverse enclave in metro Atlanta with a population nearly 44% black.
But Republicans worry they are arguing in vain. Democratic turnout among white and black voters was high in this week’s elections, even in predominantly GOP precincts. They fear it could reach historic levels in November if Democrats manage to demonize Republicans as actively suppressing minorities from voting.
In a state trending competitive, that could cost Trump Georgia’s critical 16 votes in the Electoral College against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. A sunbelt loss would jeopardize his reelection.
“It scares me to death. I’ve gotten very little sleep,” a veteran Republican strategist in Georgia said following the primary. “They’re going to fire up an already fired-up base, and that concerns me for November.”
There are myriad voting options in Georgia, from early voting to mail-in voting to Election Day voting. Although the secretary of state, who oversees elections statewide, is a Republican, political leaders in Fulton County are Democrats. Republicans claim the local Democrats are more responsible for the snafus that affected voter participation in Fulton County on Tuesday. There were problems with electronic voting machines, confusion with mail-in ballots, and too few in-person polling places.
Vivid coverage featured black voters waiting hours in long lines in metro Atlanta, juxtaposed against pictures of white voters in rural areas waltzing in and out of precincts. Amid nationwide protests for racial equality sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, Georgia Republicans fear Democrats will weaponize Fulton County against them, no matter whose fault the snafus were.
“It gives Democrats a rallying cry by painting GOP elected officials as backwoods racists to large swaths of independent-minded suburban voters,” a Republican operative in Atlanta said. “They skew younger and are often transplants. Thus, they would tend to be prone to vote against a ‘good ole boy’ system.”
Democrats say the rallying cry is deserved, accusing Republicans of “waging an orchestrated campaign” to deny ethnic minorities the franchise.
Democrats deployed the attack long before Floyd’s death in May, and before problems that surfaced in Fulton County during the primary, delayed from March because of the coronavirus. Trump barely won Georgia four years ago, attracting just under 51% of the vote. Liberals are hopeful that adding voting rights to the president’s vulnerabilities could turn the state blue for the first time since 1992.
“Georgia Democrats are calling for the secretary of state to own up to his mistakes from [Tuesday] and do his job and make sure that every voter has fair and equitable access to the ballot,” said Maggie Chambers, a Georgia Democratic Party spokeswoman.
The Republican National Committee rejected the allegations, countering that the malfunction in Fulton County is a prime example of why Democrats cannot be trusted to preserve voting access. Republican leaders in Washington particularly take issue with the Democratic Party’s push for expanded mail-in voting to mitigate health risks posed by the coronavirus, saying what happened in Georgia would replicate across the country on Election Day and cause chaos.
“The fumbled response in Georgia yesterday and the voting disasters we’ve seen across the country are exactly why the RNC is fighting back against the Democrats’ assault on the integrity of our elections process,” RNC spokeswoman Mandi Merritt said. “States just don’t have the experience to switch to a universal vote-by-mail system when the election is merely months away.”
Republicans in the key Rust Belt states of the upper Midwest offered a mixed assessment when asked whether the issue of voting rights was a strong enough issue to supercharge the black vote for Biden and push urban voting levels back to the historic highs reached during Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012.
Biden holds narrow leads over Trump in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, but there are signs he is saddled with an enthusiasm gap.
Republicans concede voting rights could deliver extra votes for Democrats and help Biden overcome a lack of enthusiasm. But some GOP insiders said hurdles to voting in urban Democratic municipalities, if they exist, might just as easily benefit Republicans.
The Trump and Biden campaigns did not respond to a request for comment.