Election focus group (pt. 1): Democracy faces challenges, but optimism remains strong

E-Team_Preserving Democracy (Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs

Oct 26, 2022

The Jan. 6, 2021 siege on the U.S. Capitol may have been a litmus test for our country moving forward but it’s not the defining moment for American democracy, according to State Affairs’ latest conversation with its 10-member election focus group.

The political maelstrom of the past two years is so much more complex, they say. Nonetheless, those like Steve Brown  who’ve lived through previous political turmoil, say we’ll get through it.

“We’ve seen hard times before,’ said Brown, who admits he’s leery about the digital age —and the ensuing vulnerabilities that bring us to today’s elections.

With the midterms less than two weeks away, we asked the group to weigh in not only on their concerns about the voting process but their concerns about U.S. democracy and preserving its principles. 

Here’s what five of the group members had to say. Part 2, featuring the rest of the group’s comments, will be published Thursday.

Yana Batra

Yana Batra, 18, Democrat and Georgia Tech freshman; first time voter

Do you have concerns about democracy? 

I do. There is a concerted attempt to dilute the ability of voters to directly elect their representatives. A lot of rhetoric being falsely pushed about things like voter fraud, and a lot of attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election are really concerning, and are really convincing folks that their vote doesn’t matter or that the outcome of an election is wrong if their candidate says so. All of that is deeply concerning and threatening to democracy. 

Furthermore, that directly ties in with a lot of the attacks we’re seeing on public education lately. Public education is a cornerstone of democracy. Public education was originally created in order to help newly-freed slaves integrate into society and actually become full-fledged American citizens. Only through an informed electorate can we actually have representative democracy.  So I think on a lot of different fronts, democracy is definitely being attacked right now.

What does preserving democracy mean to you?

Preserving democracy means ensuring that each new generation of voters knows their vote is fairly cast and fairly representative. It means Congress strengthening voter protection acts in order to give state courts and the federal court the ability to actually strike down voter suppression legislation like we’re seeing. It means revisiting things like the Electoral College to ensure that every American is fairly represented, and that certain areas of voters still have outsized representation and cutting down on gerrymandering, especially racial gerrymandering. All of that goes to show just how many facets of American democracy is incredibly weakened right now and how many steps need to be taken to fix it. It takes a concerted effort.

How confident are you in the election process?

I am extremely confident insofar as the security of elections. Voter fraud is such an incredible non issue.  We haven’t seen any suggestion that there’s fraudulent votes being cast in any of these elections that we’ve had recently.

That said, I think the integrity of elections  [is called into question] when you look at Georgia’s [Senate Bill] 202 legislation or when 60,000 voters in Virginia were directed to the wrong polling place, and are therefore going to have a much harder time tracking their vote.

So the fact is that voters are being directed to the wrong  precincts. And voters, especially black voters, are being stricken from voter registration lists for minor reasons. [These] Voter suppression tactics do make me think that the integrity of elections as a way to determine the will of a body of people is definitely less than it should be.

Steve Brown

Steve Brown, 58, Republican lives in  Peachtree City with his wife; empty-nester

Do you have concerns about democracy? 

We’ve seen hard times before. As a child of the 60s, we had some subversive groups that tried to do things with the government. There was violence and there were various other things. We got through that. So from a historical perspective, I don’t really see it. 

One thing that does bother me though is when you look at these polls of high school and college-age young people. The results will really open your eyes when they say socialism and communism might be a better way to go. They admire the Communist Chinese government as a possible model to follow. It’s really eye-opening.

I would guarantee you the majority of them couldn’t tell you the horrors of the era of the Mao Tse Tung leadership. All they see is what they see today and that’s unnerving. They can pull you out of your house overnight and your family never sees you again and that’s the end of it. 

From a future perspective, eventually things change.  My daughter had all these grandiose thoughts about how things work until she had to get into the work world and pay taxes and she saw how much money was going to taxes.Then she kind of changed her mind a little bit.

What does preserving democracy mean to you?

The only way we actually preserve democracy is we have a government that’s worthy of democracy and that’s primarily on the federal level. But, you have to have people in those federal government positions who respect the Constitution, who see the value in having a  republican democracy, and  are willing to make good decisions rather than the self-interested ones.

Unfortunately, I would dare say probably since the Carter administration, may even  before that, you’ve had senators and congressmen of both stripes making moves in the stock market and doing everything else in their own self interest. That’s why they’re all multimillionaires working a job that pays $200-something-thousand a year.

How confident are you in the election process?

We have got to be careful. Any digital device can be hacked. You have to have things in place. Security measures and whatnot to ensure that that doesn’t happen. That’s one of the dangers of handling elections through digital means.

There are certain governments that still do what we did traditionally in terms of the way we voted, and that’s paper ballots. I’m getting a little worried that some states are getting loose with it. Some states are allowing illegal aliens to vote in their local elections. I think that’s incredibly dangerous. It doesn’t bode well for the tax-paying legal citizens in those jurisdictions. But the digital format is the most dangerous format. 

They had a commission [Federal Election Reform] on voting [in 2004]. It was [former president] Jimmy Carter and [former Secretary of State James A.] Baker [III].  They had actually said mail-in ballots were  — at that time you didn’t have digital voting — were the most dangerous.  Well, of course, what’s the bulk of our voting now? Looks like it’s mail-in and digital. So, you know, there’s always room for concern. And there are people who want to disrupt things. There will always be people who have these malevolent thoughts about what they can do to destroy things we hold dear. That’s a bad combination. You’ve got things that can be hacked easily and then you’ve got people who want to do it. So we should always be on our guard. Unfortunately, what we saw in the last election is you got people who now distrust the people who are conducting the election, and it used to be a sacred process.

Kendall Edwards

Kendall Edwards, 28, farmer and precision agriculture consultant for a local tractor dealership; lives in Oscilla; single

 Do you have concerns about democracy? 

I don’t know that it’s just democracy as much as it’s society as a whole and the way the world is now compared to 10, 20 years ago.

 I don’t see how we got to a place where both sides are just pinned up and there’s no middle ground. It’s either Republican or Democrat. There’s no in-between. It’s just not how the world is in all actuality. It’s not Republican or Democrat. There’s always a middle ground somewhere.

It’s been this way since the back end of the Obama administration’s last term. You started to see this really pinned-up Republican/Democrat kind of politics where there was no middle ground. There was no working together for the good of the American people. 

Then it was amplified when the Trump administration was there in ways that I wouldn’t have thought it would have got to. We’re at a no-turning-back point.

Here in Ocilla where I live, I’ve been pushed to get into politics and I love it. I enjoy politics and the beauty in it. But if you’re going to be a good politician, you’re not going to be a politician for long. If you’re someone who’s actually working for the benefit of all, not just one side, or if you’re actually looking at this thing as a two-way street not a one-way avenue, you’re not going to be a politician for long. And that’s where we’re at now. 

I’m not going to say democracy is completely lost because we still have the right to vote. We still have our government in ways you’ll have to answer to us all. Although the government isn’t answering as much to the American people because the American people are so divided in the message they’re sending to the politicians and what they want and what they are willing to accept compared to what they’re not willing to accept. So that is completely divided in a way that the American people don’t have any control now.  We’re completely run by the government because of our division which [the government] incited. So I don’t think we’re lost completely but it is definitely a different look.

What does preserving democracy mean to you?

People see people as people and not as a party and being open-minded as we deal with politics, whether that’s from a politician’s standpoint or a voter’s standpoint. Being able to say, ‘Hey, that isn’t exactly the way I see it but it’s not wrong.’

How confident are you in the election process?

I feel pretty comfortable that the person I vote for is the person getting my vote.

Keith McCants

Keith McCants, 40, Democrat and factory worker married with three children; lives in Richmond Hill

Do you have concerns about democracy? 

Yeah, I do. Given what happened on January 6, I think there’s a real possibility that it could happen again, especially if you look at who’s being elected. You’ve got some of the most extreme radical politicians, mostly Republican politicians, that have been elected nowadays. So, given that and everything else that’s going on, yes, I’m very concerned. Ever since the 2020 election where there were lies being told about the election being stolen and about how Donald Trump wanted to be a strong man. And you have an entire party that’s pretty much falling in lock-step with him and they really haven’t disassociated themselves from him. So yes, I’m concerned about the state of our democracy in the United States. It’s something I’m keeping an eye on.

What does preserving democracy mean to you?

It means we all can live free. We all can live fair. We have freedoms here that most countries do not have. And with democracy being under a microscope I don’t want to see our rights go by the wayside because of a few bad actors who feel like things aren’t going their way. 

We don’t need to keep electing these extremists like [U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 14th District]  Majorie Taylor Green and the congresswoman in Colorado, Laura Boebert. We can’t afford to elect these extremists. We should prevent them from taking office and giving them a platform. That’s one way we can preserve and protect our democracy. 

How confident are you in the election process?

Despite everything that’s being said and what’s been going on, I think our election process is going to be okay. There’s some things that kind of raise my eyebrows, like you can be charged with misdemeanors. Here in Georgia, for example, if you give someone a bottle of water you could be charged with a misdemeanor. That’s just a way to discourage voters. You’re going to have a few who are going to challenge election results or people who are voting  but overall I think our  process is going to be fine.

Marla Thompson

Marla Thompson, 65, married college professor who lives in Riverdale; registered Democrat but votes according to issue

Do you have concerns about democracy? 

Yes. People might think living in an autocratic society is the way to go as long as they are the ones in control. Removing minority voters off the rolls without justification is one of my concerns. 

Members of the GOP have been proven to lie, cheat or sell their firstborn just to gain or maintain power. Election deniers have already said if they don’t win, they will challenge and not certify the results.

Finally, there is a disinformation campaign that is front and center. You don’t know what to believe. Some people believe what they hear without doing their own research. Misinformation is a threat to democracy. Those are my concerns.

What does preserving democracy mean to you?

Every tax-paying, legal citizen is given a fair opportunity to participate in the democratic process, which means equal access to voting, jobs, promotions, housing, education and the United States’ financial system, without reprisal or being excluded because of their skin tone, race, gender, religion, personal beliefs, socioeconomic status, or their zip code.

[Having] the ability to make a choice about their health care, without government intervention. The ability to love who they choose to love. The ability for me and my family and folks who look like me to walk out of their front doors, sit at a restaurant, get any and all services we can afford, or drive without being harassed because I look different than the person in authority. The ability to be free, without fear of intimidation, or the ability to live like white people in this country. Wouldn’t that be a novel idea?  Or the ability to be who I am if I decided to be an LGBTQ person.

How confident are you in the election process?

I’m a little more confident in 2022 than I was in the last governor’s election because the current governor was running for the position and he was the secretary of state controlling the levers of democracy and deciding who would win.

I am concerned about voter suppression, more so this year than previously because Dominion, the voting machine makers,  are suing the previous [Trump] administration who alleged that the machines were manipulated with absolutely no proof. 

It was proven that the last voting period was the most secure in years yet the Georgia Secretary of State imposed the most restrictive laws in the country, limiting people from voting, cutting down on the number of drop boxes, leaving the drop boxes in a building and the building closes at  5 o’clock. And arresting people if they give somebody standing in line a refreshment or some water. 

Last year, we had 21 voting locations in the area where I live. They’re down to nine. And seniors and limited ambulatory people who may not be able to get to the polls or walk up the stairs to the polls, have to go through three or four more steps than last year if they want to get an absentee vote and mail-in ballot. 

The microscope is on Georgia and everyone is watching.

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Contact Tammy Joyner at [email protected] or on Twitter @lvjoyner.

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