For many, the latest runoff Senate elections in Georgia are crucial in determining the balance of power in Congress. For voters in Hancock County, the latest runoff elections are a much more personal affair.
Johnny Thorton is a retired Drug Enforcement Agency officer and owner of a catfish farm in Sparta, Georgia. In 2016, Thorton joined a group of Black voters who were suing the Hancock County Board of Elections and Registration for throwing out votes during an election. The dispute first emerged in 2015 when the board attempted to remove 174 voters from Sparta records by claiming they didn't live in the area. In an city with less than 1,000 voters, removing 174 votes is a major action. Making the situation more troubling, an overwhelming majority of the voters who were removed from the city's rolls were Black
"A lot of the individuals that they were targeting, they either worked out of town or did not have the means or resources to push back," Thorton said.
"Voter suppression through administrative chaos is my term for it."
Ultimately, more than 50 voters were removed from city records and unable to have their ballots counted. Thorton was able to vote in the election, but his situation is rare as he has the economic means to fight back. Hancock County is 71% Black with a per capita income hovering just above $16,000.
"What they did was beyond voter suppression. If something is wrong with your voter registration, they should call you and tell you what's wrong. What they were doing is taking you off the rolls, and you wouldn't find out until the election," Hancock County resident Larry Webb said.
"They were making Black votes disappear."
Actions like the ones taken in Hancock County five years ago are not uncommon. A 2013 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Count in the case of Shelby County vs. Holder allowed local officials to make changes to the voting process without any preclearance. As a result, voter suppression lawsuits running from Georgia to Alaska have been filed in recent years.
"Hancock County is just one example and probably one of the worst examples of how Shelby County is impacting individual voters," Julie Houk of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said.
"This type of change in process would've been governed by preclearance. It would've stopped this whole process. This is why preclearance was so important: Discriminating against Black voters would've been rejected."
With the Senate runoff elections bringing a spotlight to the state of Georgia, Thorton, Webb and many others are not only waiting for election results, but they are also fighting to have their ballots counted at all. As election results appear on national news outlets, don't forget about those in Hancock County.
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