ATLANTA — Varana King said she was excited to vote early with her husband Gregory in last fall’s presidential election.
But by the time they got to the South Cobb Regional Library in Mableton, Georgia, at 9 a.m., she said at least 1,500 people were already waiting in line. More than eight hours later, the two, who both served in the US Army, finally cast their ballots.
“Everything that could happen happened while we were waiting in line,” said Varana, 56. That included a downpour and swollen feet.
“In my opinion, if we’re still having these kinds of issues, it’s on purpose,” she said.
Varana believes things are only going to get worse in some places since Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed a restrictive voting rights bill into law last year. The measure, Senate Bill 202, restricts early voting locations and restricts both the number and available hours of Dropboxes. And she is not alone.
A recent poll by Quinnipiac University found that among Georgia’s black registered voters, only 40 percent expect it will be very easy to vote in 2022, compared to 73 percent of white registered voters. Less than 20 percent of black people polled believe all eligible voters in Georgia will have a fair chance to vote in the 2022 general election.
Varana, who is a retired government worker, said she will not be deterred but fears other people will be discouraged. Many voting organizations try to allay concerns in the run-up to the primary and midterm elections.
At least 19 states passed 34 restrictive laws in the past year, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, which tracks election laws and advocates for federal election laws.
Georgia’s law, passed last March, requires identification for postal voting, makes it illegal to bring food or water to voters waiting in line, and allows state election officials to administer district elections. Kemp said the law would make it “easy to vote and hard to cheat”.
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Atlanta NAACP President Richard Rose said that one of the biggest concerns he’s heard from black voters is that the law makes it harder for people to cast absentee and absentee ballots and that it has allowed for a reduction in the number of polling stations in Republican-controlled counties.
He said it was reminiscent of Jim Crow-era laws that suppressed black voting.
“If Republicans could discourage just 300 voters from each county — there are 159 counties in Georgia — that would have been enough to change Georgia’s outcome in 2020,” Rose, 73, said in a recent interview while he was speaking to the state left the legislature. “We are very concerned about how these things will affect voting rights.”
That’s clear to other black Georgia residents like Ted Winn, a recording artist, podcast host and social justice advocate.
“A lot of people are concerned about the new laws that are in place and the way those laws are affecting black people and poor people,” he said. “What is fascinating about this is that it is not a covert approach to voter suppression. It’s very open and direct and without apologies. And I think that’s frustrating, off-putting and upsetting for a lot of people on the ground.”
Image: Ted Winn (Aboubacar Kante for NBC News)
Carl and Chandra Abbott, who live in Southwest Atlanta, said they were concerned about potential changes in voting times that wouldn’t be conducive to working parents like them.
In some areas, the smallest change can alter someone’s willingness to vote, said Carl, 44, who works in medical sales.
“It’s very clear that it’s largely intentional so it has to be a hurdle,” said his wife Chandra, 45. “And that’s very unfortunate with everything that we, definitely as black people, have worked for, to get that equality.” in relation to our right to vote.”
Still, the couple said it won’t affect whether they vote.
Chandra, a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry, said she worries some black people also suffer from “combat fatigue.”
“I think despite all the other struggles — the pandemic, the racial injustice … there’s a weariness, I think too. A battle fatigue,” she said. “So what topic are you going to focus on?”
Image: (Aboubacar Kante for NBC News)
Hillary Holley, organizing director of Fair Fight Action, a voting rights organization, said one goal of the voter-suppression laws is to confuse people to the extent that they discourage black and other black voters from voting. Her group was founded by Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her run for governor of Georgia in a contest marred by allegations of voter suppression that primarily affected black voters.
However, over the years there has been greater turnout among black voters, despite attempts to suppress their votes, Holley said.
“What I’m hearing from black voters today is that they’re upset about voter-suppression laws,” she said. “They are angry that people are trying to restrict their access to the ballot.”
But after expressing that frustration and anger, she said, “Your next question is always, ‘Okay, so what do we do?’ I hear that all over the state.”
“A lot of young voters, and I’m a black voter who was born and raised in Georgia, we were taught to think that this is over, that our nation has overcome this,” Holley said. “And the fact that we still have to deal with that is frustrating.”
She said that during the 2018 gubernatorial election, when Abrams challenged Kemp, the Georgia Democratic Party received more than 50,000 calls through its voter protection hotline, mostly from voters of color across the state who encountered problems casting their vote.
“So think about it: if those 50,000 people hadn’t called, it would have had a significant impact on the results,” Holley said.
Fair Fight Action and several of its allies have begun reaching out to voters of color to forestall the confusion, she said. Among other things, the organization will rely on paid visibility campaigns through partnerships with restaurants across the state to distribute bipartisan voter education materials.
“Voters often have questions about the new electoral laws, and voters come to us with their concerns,” she said. “And then we respond to them, but we also do a lot of proactive programs to educate voters.”
Varana grew up in Greenwood, Mississippi, where historical landmarks mark sites of the civil rights movement and where black people protested for the right to vote in the 1960s. She said she was taught the importance of voting by her parents and grandparents as a child, but is not entirely confident that future elections will be conducted properly or that her vote will count. She still wants to exercise her right to vote.
“Before that, I was always cautious,” she said.