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‘Cannot wait for Washington:’ How voting rights activists are navigating new restrictions ahead of November elections

By Fredreka Schouten, Dianne Gallagher and Wesley Bruer, CNN

When activist Tammye Pettyjohn Jones knocks on voters’ doors in her rural corner of Georgia this month, she’ll have a new tool in hand: a portable printer.

A sweeping voting law Georgia enacted this year now requires voters who do not have a driver’s license or state ID to provide a copy of another form of identification with their absentee ballot application.

So Pettyjohn Jones and other volunteers with Sisters in Service of Southwest Georgia plan to take photos of that identification and print them out on the spot for voters to submit along with their absentee ballot applications.

“You don’t have time to hem and haw about how hard it is” to vote, said PettyJohn Jones, who is working to turn out voters ahead of November’s municipal elections in places like Americus, Georgia. “You’ve got to go into a problem-solving mode.”

In states from Georgia to Montana, activists are scrambling to help voters navigate the new restrictions passed largely in Republican-controlled states after record turnout in 2020 helped elect President Joe Biden and flipped control of the US Senate to Democrats. In Florida, for example, some organizations have taken iPads into the field so voters could use the devices to register to vote on their own, said Brad Ashwell of All Voting is Local Florida.

That helps the organizations bypass a little-noticed provision of Florida’s new law — one that requires third-party groups registering voters to deliver a mandatory disclaimer that they “might not” deliver registration materials to election offices in time. Activists say that’s a misleading statement aimed at curbing voter registration drives.

In neighboring Georgia, meanwhile, the New Georgia Project plans to train a cadre of criminal and civil rights lawyers on the nuances of the state’s 98-page voting law so they can assist voters who encounter problems on Election Day.

The lawyers will be deployed to help next month in Atlanta, during the city’s high-profile mayoral election, and their work will serve as a pilot project for the 2022 midterms, said Aklima Khondoker, the group’s chief legal officer.

Georgia is one of 19 states that have passed 33 new laws this year to restrict voting, according to an updated tally by the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school. But some of the most extensive changes are clustered in just a handful. Four states — Iowa, Georgia, Florida and Texas — enacted sweeping revisions of their existing laws, bundled together in single omnibus bills.

In addition, Texas and three others — Montana, Arizona and Arkansas — have passed multiple laws with new restrictions, according to the Brennan Center.

Efforts to pass federal legislation to overcome the raft of new state voting restrictions remain at a standstill in Congress, despite intense lobbying by voting rights groups. So, organizations say they are plunging ahead with voter-education efforts and using next month’s off-year contests to test tactics for future elections. Next year, the governor’s mansion and a key US Senate seat are in the ballot in this key swing state.

“We cannot wait for Washington,” Khondoker told CNN. “Nobody is here to save us. We have to save ourselves and democracy here in Georgia.”

‘Voices are being silenced’

In Montana, new laws outlaw paying anyone to collect ballots and bar the use of some tribal IDs in voter registration.

“We are seeing Native voters question whether or not voting is really worth it,” said Keaton Sunchild, political director of the nonprofit Western Native Voice, based in Billings, Montana.

His group collected ballots on behalf of 555 Montanans from seven reservations in last year’s general election, he said.

“The excitement we saw in 2020 to vote is simply not there anymore because, despite a record number of Native voters, their voices still weren’t heard,” he said. “With these new laws, their voices are being silenced before the election even takes place.”

Activists also worry about overloading voters with too much information about the new requirements.

In Texas, the state’s new voting law doesn’t take effect until early December.

Sarah Labowitz of the ACLU of Texas said her group is working behind the scenes on its voter-education materials but wants to avoid sowing confusion because Texans won’t confront real change until the March 2022 primaries.

“We’re not doing a ton now of ‘Watch out! Things are coming in March!’ she said, “You want to be careful with voter education because people can get confused really easily and discouraged.”

And Texas still could make further changes to its election statutes.

Lawmakers, meeting in a special session this month, are weighing reinstituting stiffer penalties for illegal voting.

Leaning in

Back in Georgia, officials with the voting rights group, Black Voters Matter, are urging voters to cast their ballots early in municipal elections to avoid confusion on Election Day. The group and its partners, such as Sisters in Service, played a key role in driving Black turnout during last year’s general election and in runoffs this year that saw two Democrats elected to the US Senate.

The new Georgia law changes an array of practices. Among other provisions: It bars election officials from sending out absentee voting applications to all voters, and it requires voters to submit identification to request an absentee ballot.

Previously, Georgia law only required voters to sign the application.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” Fenika Miller, the senior state coordinator in Georgia for Black Voters Matter, said of the new rules.

“But we’re encouraging our partners to lean into their power,” she said. “We can look at what we delivered in the last Senate race and the runoff and know that we can transform the landscape of our country and our communities.”

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