One of the many, many lexical inspirations borrowed by modern English from so-called dead languages is the word “vote”. It comes from the Latin votum which is translated as “vow” or “promise” to a deity. In ancient Rome, private citizens, a family, or even the state would make a votum usually to Jupiter Optimus Maximus (or any one of the divine beings, for that matter) in speech or in an act.
The relationship between a severely-limited mortal and an omnipotent immortal is one where the former relies on the latter’s intervention in achieving ethereal desires. Thus, the mortal vows to do such and such if the immortal did so and so. A votum is both the word that was given in the beginning and the fulfillment of it.
A votum critically represented the contractual aspect of ancient Roman religion. As they say in Latin, do ut des – I give so you may give.
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Apart from this, the practice also reveals a notion of divine right – ius divinum – on the part of individuals to call on their helpers, the eternal gods. One exercises the right to make a votum only because the gods allow that sort of relationship to exist.
If this curtain-raiser has been slow, it was meant to be so. It is important to learn, if not remind ourselves, of the philosophical foundations of the democratic practice we seem to have taken for granted. Thousands of years later, what it means to vote has not departed from where the word was culled. A contract is implied when we vote. It is also a sign that we are accorded a right.
When Stacey Abrams first took on the state of Georgia on the matter of who is allowed to vote, she committed to fighting history concretized in opposition to allowing all Georgians to vote. That should not be controversial to say. Georgia’s voter repression was before Abrams was even born in 1973. What now-governor Brian Kemp defended between 2012 and 2018 was a tradition of a state choosing who was worthy of the social contract.
In the years that he was secretary of state and in charge of Georgia’s electioneering process, Kemp gutted over 1.4 million from the voter roll. About half of this number was recorded in 2017 when many Georgians knew Kemp had ambitions to become governor. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said that it had spoken to law experts who said Kemp’s determination in 2017 led to what may be the “largest mass disenfranchisement in US history”.
Kemp’s tactical disenfranchisement was very effective. He took out from the roll those who were not dead as if they were. An investigation found out that more than 300,000 people who were removed under the impression of death were actually still alive. But it was not just that; Kemp was circumspect in denying and delaying who he did not want to vote.
The Associated Press found out that although one in three Georgians is Black, the list of people held up in Kemp’s secretary of state office awaiting voter registration processing in mid-2018 was overwhelmingly Black. African-Americans were at least 70% of those on that list because of what Georgia calls the “exact match” law where voter applicant details should match exactly details in the social security and driver’s license databases.
As with many other states, African-Americans are less likely to have social security or cars. A 30-something-page paper published in 2019 by Kilolo Kijakazi, Karen Smith, and Charmaine Runes details the historical and sociopolitical impediments that result in Black alienation from social security in the United States. Where living standards are dire, the implications of not having social security are worse.
What the unfair American social and economic fabric offers is fodder for the campaigners of “legal votes”, as they like to call it. Kemp is no different. But placing Georgia within the context of politics in America’s south in the years following Reconstruction, we find solid resolve in the Peach State to prevent Black people.
After the Civil War, the poll tax became one of the strategies southern whites used to disenfranchise African Americans, as noted by Europa Mildred Taylor for Face2Face Africa. By the early 1900s, Georgia was one of eleven states that impeded the Black vote with an economic cost of a sort.
Abrams was not alive when Martin Luther King Jr., along with her personal hero John Lewis, decided to challenge the unfairness in not allowing Black people to exercise their franchise. And that was in the late 1950s and early 60s. But voter suppression is written into the political culture like a grandfather clause and Abrams gets to live that reality.
She founded the New Georgia Project in 2013 to combat voter suppression. But the real test of her commitment to this subject came after 2018 when she lost the gubernatorial elections to the man who had so carefully chosen the electorate. Losing by just over 50,000 votes to Kemp would have broken, quite rightly, the souls of many. But Abrams set up Fair Fight Action and through her work, became celebrated nationally.
And internationally too. After you are singularly credited with an 800,000-people surge in voter registration that ultimately secures the state for a president and senators committed to your people’s cause, it is hard to argue against Abrams earning that MLK comparison.
She has also earned her place in Black history. If for nothing at all, we have been served with the blueprint for positive defiance in modern times. Voter suppression remains the biggest element in the toolbox of those who are averse to the changing times. No one in recent memory has personally and publicly fought successfully to shatter the dreams of voter suppressors than Abrams. We tend to think of history in black-and-white photography and forget that sometimes in the now of high-def multicolor, we continue to make history.
Recently, a group of conservatives announced they have joined together to “Stop Stacey” using all the tricks in the playbook from “robust state and national fundraising operation” to opposition research and strategizing. Abrams is expected to give the gubernatorial position another try in 2022 and “Stop Stacey” will show itself fully in time.
For now, Abrams better count this new movement a feather in her cap. As Beyoncé once sang, you know you’re that woman when you cause all this conversation.