Nov. 4 could be a game-changing day in the life and career of Karen Handel, and she is not even standing for re-election.
As Georgia secretary of state, however, she is in charge of the conduct of the general election in our state this year. We wish her luck in carrying out her duties in a proper and legal way. The coming election is likely to feature a record number of voters, black and white, across the state. How Handel performs may determine her future as well as decide whether Georgia elections remain under the control of the federal Voting Rights Act.
As you know, our state was one of a handful placed under federal jurisdiction years go. We could not seem to hold a straight-up election in which black voters and candidates participated.
In view of our ugly history on the racial front, our behavior was easily explained. Georgia was not used to having blacks vote. Like most of the South, Georgia suffered from a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws, Ku Klux Klan activity, white primaries, church burnings and the rest of the shameful stuff that went along with then-legal segregation.
Nearly all the anti-black activities were organized or at least not discouraged by entrenched Democratic office holders. The party of Lincoln at the time was true to its legacy. But then came Democrat Lyndon Johnson and his civil rights laws, followed by Republican Richard Nixon and the Southern strategy.
Southern politics changed almost overnight. The old-time wool-hat crowd dropped their allegiance to the Democrats and joined the Republican Party. Many of the newly minted elephants did not understand that some northern Republicans were more liberal on social issues than any Democrat they had ever met down South. They also didn't grasp the notion that GOP fiscal policies were often anathema to the South. Didn't matter. The Democrats had sold them out on the most important issue of all - race - or so they believed.
So much for history. Let's get back to the immediate future: Nov. 4 and Karen Handel - our election chief and a Republican cheerleader as full of enthusiasm for her party as, say, Sarah Palin or Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state who botched the 2000 Sunshine State election that gave us George W. Bush as president.
Enough complaints have already piled up to make us wonder if Handel is not well on her way to getting Georgia just where we don't want to be: on the network news and page one of The New York Times.
Consider the following:
· Handel has decided to require a waiting period between registration and voting. For instance, you show up to register, and you have to come back to vote absentee. There is no basis in law for such a regulation.
· The secretary has instituted checks on citizenship and ID at registration. The Republican Justice Department has already warned that such procedures cannot be used until they are pre-cleared under the Voting Rights Act.
· Handel admits that, with the election looming, more than 100,000 voter registration applications have not been processed. Nonpartisan observers have looked at county figures and told us the number of unprocessed applications may be twice as high as the Handel estimate. Handel contends Georgia has experienced no great surge in registration, so there is no reason to hire additional help to process applications. (That's a little joke, right? The Cobb County voter registration office is constantly jammed with new registrants, at least half of whom are African-Americans. Not too long ago, Cobb was ground zero for Republican activities in Georgia.)
Election sources say Georgia is shaping up as another Ohio 2004, where election officials failed to provide enough staff or voting machines in minority precincts. The result was chaos, and many voters never cast ballots.
Say it ain't so, Madam Secretary. Say you and your staff will do their doggone best to hold an election with no funny business. Then keep that pledge.
After all, Georgia is certain to go for John McCain, so why risk cheating Barack Obama supporters? After all, they are in the minority and can't win anyway. Don't give my state another black eye for nothing.
Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at email@example.com.