The Arc Georgia: Nonprofit that helps folks with disabilities forged ballots joins SPLC swimsuit in opposition to voter suppression legislation

The legislature was two hours in LaGrange, Georgia when the black woman in her seventies was dropped at the side of the courthouse. She clutched a walker and walked through the building to the end of the line. When she got there exhausted, the poll workers didn’t offer her a chair.

That was when Lee Jones found out about it. Jones himself lives with two autoimmune diseases and takes care of older parents with cancer. She is the founder of a nonprofit called Inspire Positivity, Inc. She is also a volunteer with The Arc Georgia, an office of The Arc of the United States that supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities throughout their lives.

Jones spends her days helping people in the small town of LaGrange and beyond overcome obstacles. During the early voting for the 2020 general election, Jones posted her cell phone number on Facebook every day for anyone with disabilities who might need help with voting.

Someone in line that day called Jones and she called the election officer in the courthouse. Instead of giving up and going home, the woman with the walker got the support she needed to vote safely.

Voters will receive refreshments after they cast their ballots in the Senate runoff election on January 5, 2021. The refreshment table was set up near the constituency of the Griggs Center in LaGrange, Georgia.

Across Georgia and across the country, the story was the same in 2020. Even amid a pandemic that presented them with unique health risks, people with disabilities who may have been held off by polls in the past have rallied the determination and urge to speak out. Lawyers like Jones gave them rides, helped them fill out forms, leveled out harassment, and allayed their fears.

But now fear is again the buzzword for people with disabilities in Georgia. A new state law largely limits voter support. It criminalizes offering food and water to people near voter lines, makes it difficult to vote in postal votes, and makes it difficult to provide the emotional and physical support that is essential for many voters with disabilities. Among other things, the law severely limits the number of secure ballot boxes, disqualifies most preliminary ballots outside the district, reduces early voting for runoffs, and removes local control over elections.

“We started a voting process here that was already difficult to access for people with disabilities,” said Stacey Ramirez, acting state director of The Arc Georgia. “Now with this law they have built walls around the process that will be difficult to scale for people with disabilities.”

The Arc Georgia this week joined a number of civil rights organizations on whose behalf the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit in federal court to challenge the new law, along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Georgia, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. (LDF); and the law firms WilmerHale and Davis Wright Tremaine.

Issued amid proven false claims of “electoral fraud” after the 2020 elections, SB 202 is a widespread and overt denial of electoral rights in a southern state with a long history of disenfranchisement, especially for people of color.

In the lawsuit, African Methodist Episcopal Church Sixth District v Kemp, charges that several provisions of the Act violate Section 2 of the Suffrage Act and the Disabled Americans Act and violate the rights of Georgians under the 14th and 15th amendments as well the first change related to the ban on the free distribution of food and water.

The law is part of a wave of laws designed to suppress the votes that have been passed across the country in recent months. Earlier this month, Florida’s governor signed a long list of new electoral restrictions while the Texan legislature tabled a comprehensive bill in a similar fashion. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, more than 250 bills restricting voting in the name of “combating electoral fraud” were pending in 43 states in March. The courts found no evidence of systemic, widespread electoral fraud during the 2020 election cycle.

“This law hits right at the intersection of race, class and disability,” said Nancy Abudu, associate legal director of the SPLC’s Voting Rights Practice Group. “Restrict voter access and you are causing particular harm to people with a variety of disabilities. Some of these voters need this support side by side to get to the voting booth. They need mobile voting centers that come to them wherever they live. And they need a safe and easy way to register, vote and receive absentee ballots so they don’t have to go through the often significant difficulties they face in physically voting. “

The Arc Georgia saw the obstacles coming. Ramirez, a fiery attorney who turned the challenge and joy of having an autistic son into passionate community engagement, said she realized at some point in the past year that it would be uniquely difficult for people with disabilities while vote on a pandemic.

“When you start to see these civil rights violations, you can’t miss it,” Ramirez said. “I had to start acting.”

Ramirez made zoom calls to grassroots organizers from across the state every Friday to discuss voting rights in the disabled community. She called people from Rev Up Georgia, a nationwide, non-partisan network of individuals and groups dedicated to increasing the participation of people with disabilities in the electoral process. Ramirez and others spread the word on social media and community networks for the disabled advocate.

Soon lawyers were arranging trips to the elections. One organizer, Zan Thornton, a wheelchair user, put together 500 trips for the runoff election alone, 40 trips for deaf or hard of hearing voters and more than 50 for blind voters. Often drivers were also helpers. They helped voters navigate the lines, made sure they had water and food, and made sure they could read their ballot papers.

The Arc volunteers secured funding to ship food trucks to polling stations and helped direct mobile polling stations to the homes of people with disabilities. A blind man in rural southwest Georgia named Stancil Tootle, a lifelong disability attorney, set up weekly Zoom forums, called “Tuesdays with Tootle,” to inform people with visual or other disabilities about registration and voting.

An organizer with autism, Derek Heard, made a series of drawings of voting rights that were distributed by the network of lawyers across the country. The group prompted US Senate candidates to share videos of their attitudes on disability issues and broadcast them to disability networks. They sent out postcards reminding people to vote and created a collection of videos to post on YouTube of people with disabilities who shared their voting stories. Disability advocates felt they made a difference.

But late that winter, when SB 202 began to move quickly through the legislative process, proponents felt left out. While video testimonies had been accepted at most of the hearings in Georgia since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the process for doing so was opaque and exclusive, excluding most members of the public who were unable to testify in person. This would make it difficult and, in many cases, impossible for people with disabilities – at a higher risk of contracting infection and fatal complications from COVID-19 – to testify in person. Ramirez remembers, “like a boulder rolling us down the hill”.

The new law will explicitly discriminate against voters with disabilities by restricting early voting and access to dropboxes. The ban on mobile polling stations harms people with disabilities who do not have easy access to transport. And at each stage, the voting process becomes more complex, with stricter ID requirements and restrictions on how voters can get support.

For people with disabilities in Georgia, this means a new set of obstacles on their already rocky path.

Despite everything: “We will not stop fighting for the rights of people with disabilities,” said Ramirez. “The right to vote is a fundamental human right and it is crucial that people with disabilities have equal access to the democratic process. For years, people with disabilities have been excluded from buses, classrooms and community life, but we continue to fight discrimination to ensure that the voice of the disabled community is heard. “

Read more stories from the “Struggle for Representation: The Ongoing Struggle for Voting Rights” series here.

Photo above: Alonso Roberts, left, election observer and advocate for the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, sits down at a table with a volunteer from the Confidence Missionary Baptist Church on Jan. 5, 2021 to have refreshments for voters near the vote Griggs Center district in LaGrange, Georgia. The table also contained information on voting rights for people with disabilities.

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