How Election Day Could Change Georgia and the NationNovember 2, 2018
On Tuesday, November 6, millions of Georgians will partake of the most holy sacrament of the American civic religion: voting. Of course, most voters won’t see it that way. Today’s politics seems worldly, irreverent, and crass – hardly the stuff of religion. Surrounded by gaudy yard signs and hyperbolic negative campaigning, it can be challenging for the casual observer of politics to see the sublime in the profane.
Once you know to look for them, however, the religious qualities of American democracy are unmistakable. Like any religion, democracy has a creed – a set of moral beliefs and principles centered on the idea that a people should have a say in how they are governed. Election Day is its holiest festival, and participation is seen as an obligatory sign of one’s faith and devotion. We nod approvingly at the good citizen bearing an “I Voted” sticker as proof of his or her piety, and look askance at the sinner who cannot be bothered to vote. In line at the polling station or at campaign rallies or watch parties, we feel solidarity with others who, like us, profess faith in the democratic process. In the privacy of the voting booth, where we secretly profess our allegiance to a candidate, we are in communion with democracy itself.
Of course, every religion has variation in the devotion of its followers. The year 2018 is a midterm election year, meaning there is no presidential contest to motivate would-be voters to show up at the polls. It just isn’t as exciting when the White House isn’t up for grabs, as we can see by the fact that voter turnout is much lower in midterm years compared to presidential years. Nevertheless, there are plenty of interesting and important storylines to follow as Election Day approaches.
At the congressional level, Republicans are attempting to hold onto narrow majorities in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Majority status determines control of congressional policymaking, so the results of this contest will determine whether President Trump’s policy agenda will be met with support or opposition in Congress. One only has to recall Barack Obama’s presidency, which began with a Democratic Congress backing his agenda and ended with a Republican Congress opposing it, to understand the importance of controlling the legislative branch.
Overall, election forecasters anticipate that Republicans will keep the Senate but lose the House. If this happens, political commentators will likely interpret it as a rebuke of President Trump and his policies. That may be true, but it is also true that the party of the incumbent president almost always loses congressional seats in midterm elections. The American electorate tends to swing like a pendulum between the Democratic and Republican parties, so an outcome in which the Democrats gain seats would be a continuation of the historical trend, rather than a departure from it.
If the president’s party generally loses seats in midterms, why are Republicans expected to gain seats in the Senate? Unlike the House, where all 435 seats are on the ballot, only 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate are being contested. Only nine of those 35 seats are currently held by Republicans, and most of those nine seats are considered firmly in the Republican column. The so-called “Senate map” – the list of seats up for election – heavily favors the Republican Party, with Democrats on the defensive in far more states.
Georgians have no part to play in the battle for the Senate this year (David Perdue and Johnny Isakson are not up for reelection until 2020 and 2022, respectively). Instead, the marquee electoral event in the Peach State is the gubernatorial race between Democrat Stacey Abrams, the former Minority Leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, and Republican Brian Kemp, the current Georgia Secretary of State. Kemp is the favorite to win – having lead in almost every poll – but the margins are slim enough that both candidates have a fighting chance of claiming the Governor’s Mansion.
An Abrams victory would be significant for politics both at the state level and nationally. Georgia Republicans have controlled the governorship since 2003, after a 130-year winning streak for Democrats in gubernatorial races. Electing a Democratic governor would also put Georgia on the radar as a potential swing state in the 2020 presidential election. Republican presidential candidates have had a lock on Georgia since 1996, but in 2016 Hillary Clinton was optimistic enough to invest campaign resources in Georgia after state polls showed her within striking distance of Donald Trump. Her dream of turning Georgia blue did not come to pass, but the results of this year’s gubernatorial race will likely determine whether Democrats will fight tooth and nail for Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in 2020 or abandon them as a lost cause.
Georgia’s gubernatorial race has attracted national attention with respect to controversies surrounding voting rights. In 2017, the Georgia State Assembly passed a law requiring each voter’s registration paperwork to match his or her driver’s license or Social Security information. This “exact match” law means that voters with inconsistencies in their records – even an accidental misspelling – will be placed on a “pending” list until the discrepancy can be cleared up. Voters with pending registrations can still cast provisional ballots (or even normal ballots, if they can prove a “substantial match” between their records), but the confusion surrounding the new procedure has raised concerns that some voters may be discouraged from going to the polls.
Unsurprisingly, the candidates for governor have weighed in on the issue. Abrams has accused Kemp (who, as Secretary of State, oversees the administration of elections) of engaging in voter suppression, on the grounds that a majority of voters with pending registrations are African-American. Kemp has denied allegations of impropriety, pointing to the fact that the Office of the Secretary of State has already discovered forged registration applications and has a constitutional obligation to ensure the integrity of Georgia elections.
Do strict voter identification requirements like Georgia’s actually suppress voter turnout, as their opponents claim? The evidence is inconclusive, in part because so many of the most controversial voter ID laws are simply too new to have generated enough data. But debates like this one resonate with Americans because they deal with the very essence of democratic citizenship. If an eligible voter is prevented from casting a ballot in spite of their eligibility, they lose their opportunity to participate in the ritual of self-governance. At the same time, if an eligible voter does vote but has their vote canceled out by someone else’s fraudulent ballot, they experience the same nullification of their political influence. All of this shapes perceptions of elections as being fair or unfair, which can have substantial effects even after all the ballots are counted. If the electorate strongly believes that voter fraud, voter suppression, Russian hackers, or other shenanigans influenced the outcome of an election, that belief, regardless of its accuracy, can undermine the authority and legitimacy of elected officials, new policies, and even the democratic system itself.
Fundamentally, the reason we care so much about voting rights in particular, and elections in general, is that they are a freedom-of-religion issue – in this case, the civic religion of American democracy. We may cringe at some of the actions of the religious extremists on the far right and the far left, but being a democrat (lowercase, meaning a proponent of democracy) is a core component of American identity. If past is prologue, most of us will be “bad citizens” this election cycle, shirking our civic duty and hoping someone else will pick up our slack in the voting booth. But the democratic creed resides deep in the heart of every true American, even if most of us don’t always practice what we preach.
Dr. Ben Kantack is an assistant professor of political science in the Georgia Gwinnett College School of Liberal Arts. He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois and his B.A. in political science and Spanish from the University of Nebraska. His research focuses on political psychology and electoral decision-making. Before coming to Georgia Gwinnett College, he taught at the University of Georgia.