The Rev. Zachary Holmes spent part of last weekend assembling people to head to the polls ahead of Tuesday’s primaries. But the church parking lot was a lot less crowded than it normally would have been.
That’s because it was Saturday, not Sunday.
Previously, Holmes had conducted voting efforts on Sundays after church, as early voting on that day was popular for Black churchgoers. But, amid an ongoing fight over voting access in Georgia and nationwide, the Spalding County election board in April voted to eliminate the option. It is one of seven Georgia counties that had Sunday early voting in the 2020 election but will not have the option available for the midterms.
In a show of resistance against the change in weekend voting options, Holmes, along with other community leaders in the county, held a so-called “Souls to the Polls” event last Saturday.
“We’re doing this mainly because we felt like the Sunday voting issue – it was a success. It got people out to vote and that should be our ultimate goal,” said Holmes, a member of the school board running for reelection in this town of about 23,000 people an hour south of Atlanta.
“No matter what party affiliation you have, we should want to increase participation in the voting process. And that was something that Sunday voting had done,” Holmes said.
Critics of Sunday early voting argue that the option is costly, but Spalding County community leaders don’t buy that argument. They pushed back, arguing the change seemed racially motivated.
“That’s the strongest day for Black people. And I think this is something that is racial, and this is a way to control our numbers at the poll,” said Michael Lawrence, the pastor at Griffin’s Breakthrough Deliverance Church, from which organizers led a convoy of about 12 cars, complete with a police escort, to the local polling location.
Before setting out, a group of about 10 people formed a circle in the sunny church parking lot and bowed their heads in prayer before breaking out into “We Shall Overcome.”
Republicans take over local election boards
In the Peach State, local boards of elections oversee voter registration lists and certifications of elections and decide when voting can take place.
But those elections boards have been restructured under the state’s voting law passed last year. Known as SB 202, the law allows for partisan takeovers of local election boards deemed low performing by state election officials.
The GOP-led legislature also handed control of more election board appointments to conservative local judges or GOP-controlled county commissions in at least five counties – including Spalding – which shifted the balance of power on these boards.
Spalding’s new election board chair, Ben Johnson, was appointed last year by the county commissioner, James Dutton. He had argued against Sunday voting, saying that plenty of other options exist, including mail-in voting and the ability to cast ballots on two Saturdays during Georgia’s 17-day early voting window.
“I still haven’t heard anything that leads me to say that we absolutely have to do it,” Johnson said of Sunday balloting when he voted to eliminate the option in April. “I’ve heard lots of emotional arguments and I sympathize with all of them. Anyone who only has Sunday off – God bless them – but we do have mail-in ballots available.”
The decision by the board to get rid of Sunday voting has brought concerns about voter suppression to the forefront for community members in Spalding.
“It’s clear that Republicans are engaged in an effort to chill the right to vote in this state. It’s so in your face. They’re not even trying to hide it,” said Dexter Wimbish, an attorney who participated in last Saturday’s convoy to a Spalding County polling location.
Wimbish sees Spalding County and the others that have eliminated Sunday voting as “ground zero” for a Republican strategy to hold on to power in a diversifying area.
“You have people who, you know, historically have been able to control the power structure in these communities, and they’re not willing to give up that power without a struggle,” he said.
Backlash against new voting laws
Spalding County is a predominantly Republican area – former President Donald Trump won about 60% of the vote here in 2020. But leaders here pointed out that the top-of-the-ticket results belie the demographics of a town like Griffin, where Black voters are actually the majority of the population; they just haven’t traditionally turned out to vote.
“We’re trying to educate people about why we are going to the polls a little bit at a time,” added Elbert Solomon, co-chair of the Spalding County Voting Project, which helped put on last Saturday’s event. His group has been handing out door-hanging literature complete with a QR code that prompts people to check their voter registration status. “VOTER SUPPRESSION is Alive & Well in Spalding County!” reads the text on another piece of literature. “VOTE ANYWAY!”