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OPINION

Georgia voters expose the ‘Jim Crow’ smear as a lie

Early voting in the state’s primary election broke every previous record.

Voters fill out their ballots in the Georgia primary at the Metropolitan Library on May 24.Joe Raedle/Getty

When Republican legislators in Georgia last year passed S.B. 202, a law overhauling the state’s election procedures, Governor Brian Kemp made a prediction: “This new law,” he said as he signed the bill, “will expand voting access in the Peach State.”

He was right.

Turnout in Georgia’s primary election this month set new records, with more than 857,000 ballots cast during the three-week early voting period that ended on Friday. That was not only three times the number of early votes recorded in 2018, as The Washington Post noted, but higher even than the tally during the 2020 presidential election. Pointing with pride to the impressive results, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said the election law adopted last year was “coming through with straight A’s.”

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According to liberals and Democrats — who repeatedly and angrily described the Georgia law as a bigoted, antidemocratic obscenity — none of this was supposed to happen.

Just hours after Kemp signed the bill, in March 2021, President Biden slammed it as “an atrocity,” “pernicious,” and “un-American” and “a blatant attack on the Constitution.” In a subsequent speech, he excoriated Georgia for its “vicious anti-voting law,” which he called part of “the most dangerous threat to voting and the integrity of free and fair elections in our history” — nothing less than a “21st-century Jim Crow assault” on the right of every American to vote.

Again and again and again, that’s how the Georgia law was described — as a racist scheme to suppress Black votes and revive the evils of the Jim Crow era. Republicans were endlessly accused of deliberately choking off the early voting options that were especially popular with Black Georgians. “As America embraces early voting, GOP hurries to restrict it,” one CNN story was headlined. In a Washington Post column, Kathleen Parker drew a link between Georgia’s new rules and the grisly 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi. One of the young men had been found with “red clay in his lungs and clenched in his fist, indicating he was probably still alive when buried,” Parker wrote. The “red-clay legislators” in Georgia who passed S.B. 202, she observed, were using more subtle means “to diminish minority turnout.”

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Major League Baseball — egged on by the president, who labeled the elections law “Jim Crow on steroids” — relocated the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver. Two Georgia-headquartered behemoths, Coca-Cola and Delta, issued statements blasting the new law. When Home Depot, another Atlanta-based corporation, declined to pile on, Black church officials urged a boycott of the company.

Yet all along, it was the racial demagoguery about the Georgia law, not the law itself, that was obscene and immoral. You wouldn’t know it from the rhetoric about “Jim Crow,” but Black voter turnout has been rising steadily for years, even in Republican-dominated states with voter ID requirements. In 2018, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, “all major racial and ethnic groups saw historic jumps in voter turnout.”

In Georgia specifically, Black voters over the past quarter-century have become an ever-larger share of the electorate.

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In 1996, the year Bill Clinton was reelected, there were 930,000 registered Black voters in Georgia, of whom 497,000, or 53 percent, cast ballots in the November election. By November 2020, all those numbers were up sharply: There were 2.3 million registered Black voters, of whom nearly 1.4 million, or about 60 percent, cast ballots. In the face of such unambiguous evidence that Black Georgians are active and committed voters, the Democratic smear about “Jim Crow on steroids” was disgraceful partisan rabble-rousing.

The thunder of lies about S.B. 202 led some voters to expect the worst. The Washington Post spoke with Patsy Reid, a 70-year-old Black retiree from Spalding County who, given the “reports of voter suppression against people of color in Georgia,” said she was surprised by how easy it was to cast her ballot in the Democratic primary.

“I had heard that they were going to try to deter us in any way possible because of the fact that we didn’t go Republican on the last election, when Trump didn’t win,” she told a reporter. “To go in there and vote as easily as I did and to be treated with the respect that I knew I deserved as an American citizen — I was really thrown back.”

There was no voter suppression, no Jim Crow, no “red-clay” assault on Black civil rights. Patsy Reid is one more Georgia voter who knows that now.

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Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit bitly.com/Arguable.