At Spelman, Taking Voting Rights Seriously

Amid contentious battle over alleged voter suppression, college's president urges students to be sure their votes are counted.

November 12, 2018

The gubernatorial race in Georgia has made national headlines due to a white Republican candidate, the secretary of state, who was allegedly using his power to block voting by many black citizens in a race where the Democratic candidate is an African American woman.

While some college presidents may have remained silent for fear of being portrayed as partisan, this was not the case for the Spelman College president, Mary Schmidt Campbell, the leader of Atlanta’s historically black women's college. On Thursday, Campbell sent out a letter titled “urgent” to the campus, instructing students and others how to make sure their provisional ballots were counted.

This involved an in-person trip to the county Election Registrars’ Office with state identification, and Campbell said that buses would take students there.

Spelman has close ties with the Democratic nominee for the governor’s seat, Stacey Abrams, an alumna. Students and other Spelman alumnae formed the 1881 for Stacey Abrams coalition, designed to raise money and campaign for Abrams.

Meanwhile, the Republican in the race, Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, has been accused of having a conflict of interest while continuing to oversee election results. Kemp has also carried out a massive purge of voter rolls and put 53,000 voter registrations on hold, largely black voters.

On Election Day, thousands of provisional ballots were distributed across the state amid mass reports of voter machine malfunctions and a shortage of machines, as well as lines into polling locations up to five hours long. Because of these issues, Georgia’s state chapter of the NAACP won a lawsuit to extend voting times at two polling places by three hours, one near Spelman and another near Morehouse College, another historically black institution. The two colleges are both located in the Atlanta University Center, a hub for black higher education and once a center of the push to assure black people voting and other civil rights during the Jim Crow era.

Campbell did not mention the race in her letter, stressing only the Nov. 9 deadline for voters to confirm their provisional ballots. A spokeswoman said Campbell was unavailable for an interview.

But students and activists applauded Campbell’s statement, saying that in a time when voters are actively being suppressed, this type of vocal support was needed.

Phyllis Thomas Blake, president of the NAACP Georgia State Conference, said that the campus chapters at Spelman and other HBCUs have been running campaigns to make sure students know how to vote provisionally. Blake said that students need to be involved with civic education because of the rampant voter suppression across the state.

Blake said she also supports Campbell and any college president being vocal about voting rights -- and they should be, given the tactics being used by certain candidates.

“We have to make sure the politicians doing it are no longer in office, because if they stay office, we may not end up having the right to vote,” Blake said. “All college presidents, especially those at the historically black colleges, need to be encouraging votes.”

Francesca Bentley, a sophomore and a political science major at Spelman, said she personally did not have any trouble voting, but she knew that many of her friends and classmates did -- either they had been stripped from the voter rolls or their absentee ballots weren’t counted for some reason.

Widespread problems with voting were also documented on social media.

Bentley said that because voter disenfranchisement is so common in Atlanta’s West End, a poor and primarily black area where Spelman is located, she was pleased that the president took such a prominent stand on voting.

“I would say that colleges and universities need to take a more prominent role in voting in general,” Bentley said. “I think the main reason that younger people voted in this election more than in years past was because we were more educated and we had that support and on social media.”


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