“I would prefer more educated voters than a greater increase in the number of voters.”
- Georgia State Senator Fran Millar (R)
In Political Science 101 you quickly learn that power is taken and not freely given. The recent outrageous statements of State Senator Fran Millar (R-DeKalb) complaining about the innovative idea of voting on Sunday as a “loop hole in the law” that needs closing is just blatantly ridiculous. The battle to register and empower Atlanta’s minority communities has a lengthy history that we must remember.
In the 1970’s Maynard Jackson campaigned for Mayor on a platform pledge to open the doors to City Hall for neighborhood leaders to join business leaders whose influence was a mainstay of local politics. The creation of the Neighborhood Planning Unit, a citywide grassroots community engagement municipal program, deliberately tied policy to the opinions and counsel of city residents and business owners. This dramatically shifted the expectation of everyday folks and empowered their opinions on city governance.
By the mid 1970’s new political coalitions were forming led by young people at the center of the political action. As a young visionary leader Jackson symbolized change. Maynard Jackson was joined by other young leaders like Arthur Langford, Jr. who was elected to the Atlanta City Council at the age of 23. As a councilman, he worked tirelessly to end gun violence and lessen the drug trade in low income communities. Similarly, Mayor Maynard Jackson was the first elected official in the state of Georgia to anticipate the rise of the LBGTQ community as a growing political influence. Jackson was the first to appoint a liaison at the Mayoral level at City Hall.
In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the LBGTQ community was just beginning to coalesce around their common political interests as a result of the impact of the A.I.D.S epidemic. Though many in the Democratically controlled state leadership held voter registration drives in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, the LBGTQ community through L.E.G.A.L (Legislate Equality for Gays and Lesbians) also held voter registration drives in the 1st, 5th and 6th City Council Districts almost every weekend. In fact, a friend, Gary Cox, won an award in 1989 from the Fulton County Voter Registrar’s Office for registering more voters than anyone else in the county. The LGBTQ community set up at Ansley Mall, Grant Park, Piedmont Park, (at the annual Gay Pride Festival) and outside Backstreet (within the legal distance of a drinking establishment) to specifically target their community. L.E.G.A.L. actually received criticism for “targeting” gay people because it was considered “partisan and limited” to target a specific social minority.
In much the same way, the New Georgia Project, whose specific goal is to register the estimated 600,000 plus voting age African Americans in the state, is now being criticized and targeted by the Office of the Secretary of State. If the new Georgia Project were successful in just registering 40% or more of unregistered African American voters, 260,000 new voters would forever change the dynamic of Georgia elections, according to Benjamin Jealous, formerly of the NAACP.
The New Georgia Project is courageously attempting to change Georgia’s voting dynamics through its efforts. Likewise, the LBGTQ voter registration drives were started to change the voting dynamics and empower the gay community in City Council Districts 6, 5 and 1. Those efforts, along with the 1991 redistricting process led to the election of Cathy Woolard as the City’s first openly gay city council member.
The 1990 census documented the 6th City Council District was comprised with the most male same-sex households than anywhere in the entire state. The 5th City Council District at that time, had more same-sex female households than anywhere in the state. In the city redistricting of 1991, which was based on the 1990 census, Cathy Woolard, Richard Jones, Gary Cox and others worked to connect Midtown to Little Five Points, Inman Park and Candler Park. They were successful in their efforts to reconfigure the 6th City Council District.
The map they drew, was used as the basis for city redistricting in 1991. For the first time in LBGTQ history in Atlanta the tool of redistricting was used to empower the gay community. The LBGTQ leadership of the early 1990’s was surely taking notes from the African American civil rights struggle and applying those lessons to what they had learned to impact the political process for their community.
Fast-forward to the present, now comes Governor Nathan Deal endorsing the idea of banning Sunday voting. Additionally, the Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp has issued subpoenas to “investigate” the New Georgia Project. It is extremely clear to Georgia Democrats that when it comes to voting rights we have not reached Dr. King’s “promised land”. The basic and fundamental right to vote is one of the most defining issues in the 2014 November election.
In the 1970’s and ‘80’s the tag line “If you don’t vote, you don’t count” was commonly used to rally voter registration. Georgia, according to the web site “Census Viewer,” has 4,960,073 qualified registered voters. Of this number, 54.53% are women and 45.46% are men, and some 200 individuals did not list their gender. Some of these four million plus voters are straight, others are gay. Some are African American and others are White, Asian or Latino. The category doesn’t matter. Each registered voter counts equally when voting.
If we are to reach the promised land, it requires honest leadership who cares about all Georgians not just the privileged few … isn’t it time we reach the promised land of 1 person = one vote?