‘This is the first litmus test’: Andrea Young of the ACLU of Georgia on corporations and voting rights. The civil rights group’s executive director talks to The 19th about holding corporations accountable for political donations, the importance of women activists and Atlanta.
The 19th News (April 7, 2021) Andrea Young thinks about voting rights a lot. She’s the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, which has been vocally opposed to and filed suit over a new Georgia law that puts new restrictions on voting.
Young’s appreciation for voting started before the job. She is the daughter of civil rights activist Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor, U.S. Congress member and U.N. ambassador, and Jean Young, a social justice advocate and aide to Martin Luther King Jr.
Young was in high school when her father ran for Congress. She remembers talking with voters at local bus stops, including mothers who sometimes took several bus routes to get to work after getting their kids ready for school.
“To me, that’s a voter. My criteria is, is it easy for her to vote?” Young told The 19th. “When it’s not easy for her to vote, then we don’t have an effective democracy.”
Georgia’s new voting law — which has several provisions including requiring voter ID for absentee ballots, limiting drop boxes and effectively giving the legislature more control over how the State Board of Elections and local county boards operate — has ensnared businesses and corporations. Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola and other Georgia-based companies have come out in opposition to the law, spurring a backlash from Republican politicians including Gov. Brian Kemp. On Friday, Major League Baseball announced it would move its 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta because of the law.
Young, like other organizers, is watching closely the mounting political pressure on businesses to take a stand on political issues playing out in statehouses and Congress. She has a message for groups in other states that are trying similar organizing tactics: “The political pressure on business does work.”
Young credits the women in her life for also instilling the importance of voting on her. Her mother put her on her first voter registration drive. She remembers her grandmother, an elected official in Marion, Alabama, providing lemonade, tea and cookies outside her local polling place to make sure Election Day was festive and a celebration of democracy.
“This is sort of not only lifelong for me, but it’s multi-generational,” she said.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Last month, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed a bill into law that will largely restrict early and in-person voting. How should people feel about what’s playing out in Georgia?
People should be very concerned about what’s playing out in Georgia, because it’s coming to a state near them. The thing that’s being lost is that there were no concerns expressed by Governor Kemp about the election system in Georgia until his preferred candidates lost the presidency and the Senate races. The power grab is unprecedented, for a state to consolidate power to be able to interfere with the county boards of elections. Even when then-President [Donald] Trump tried to interfere with the election, I said, “You can’t steal a Georgia election; you have to get 159 counties to do the same thing. There’s just no way that happens.” That kind of consolidation of power is deeply, deeply troubling.
How do you feel this fight is evolving, given the news in recent days that corporations are starting to speak out more forcefully about the voting law?
This is really about whether the United States is going to be a multicultural democracy, where every person’s life is important and every person’s voice is heard. Or are we going to be, really, a plantation patriarchy, where only wealthy White men have power? And that is what this struggle in Georgia is about, and ultimately the country.
Why is it important for businesses to take more forceful action when it comes to political debates or issues like voting?
They’ve been funding a lot of these candidates. They empower these legislators and so they’re accountable for the things that they do. Last year, after the Black Lives Matter protests, all these corporations came out and said, “Black lives matter and we affirm that.” This is the first litmus test. If you believe Black lives matter, then you believe Black voters should have a fair opportunity to participate in our democracy. It goes without saying, but the leaders in Georgia who have been empowering voters of color have been women. They’ve been Black women, Asian women, Latinx women, who have been knocking on the doors and mobilizing their communities and explaining to their communities what’s at stake. Which, in a pandemic was, no joke, a life or death vote in November.
Can you tell me more about the work that the ACLU of Georgia has been doing on this issue?
Since I’ve been executive director, we have had a laser focus on elections. We’ve used litigation to keep people from being put off the voter rolls. So, for example, we have a housing crisis. If you move in Georgia, and you move across county lines, you have to update your registration, and people were getting pushed off the rolls. That of course impacts low-income, women-led households disproportionately. What this legislation now has done is made it more complicated to submit your absentee ballot. We reduced the error rate and the rejection rate on absentee ballots. [In the 2020 general election,] 1.3 million people voted by mail. [For] working women, working moms, working caregivers trying to juggle all their responsibilities, a mail-in ballot is incredibly helpful. I voted that way myself, the governor voted that way himself, and he now wants to make that more difficult. We’ve also been working with boards of elections to help them make decisions that made voting easier and not more difficult. So, what polls are you closing? Are you going to use all the weekend hours?
I want to ask you about the way in which Governor Kemp reacted to the news that the MLB All-Star Game was moving from Georgia. He described it as a “knee-jerk decision,” and that “cancel culture and woke political activists are coming for every aspect of your life, sports included.”
Talk about cultural appropriation. To take the language of hip hop and convert it to something that is anti-Black Lives Matter and movements for liberation is … even his use of that language says it all. But Governor Kemp knew full well that Georgia is a hospitality center. He knew full well that national organizations would respond this way. There was a similar issue when he was secretary of state … the legislature passed one of these anti-trans bathroom bills. Gov. [Nathan] Deal vetoed it. The governor of Arkansas vetoed anti-trans legislation this week. I think one of the reasons that [Kemp] signed the bill the same day it passed was trying to head off this kind of pressure.
When he signed the abortion ban [in 2019], the film industry threatened to pull out of Georgia. It was only because the organizations said no, stay and help us fight that there weren’t more boycotts of Georgia when that happened. So he was fully on notice that this was a risk he was taking.
You noted the fact that the Arkansas governor just vetoed the anti-trans legislation. [The legislature overrode his veto on Tuesday.] Is there a message here for politicians in what they have to kind of weigh in terms of the policies that they’re enacting in their respective communities if they are harmful to people?
Georgia’s prosperity is based on the diversity and inclusion that emanates from metro Atlanta. So metro Atlanta is the cash cow in Georgia, and our brand is “the city too busy to hate.” Our brand is, no matter who you are, from anywhere in the world, you know you can be welcome, you can prosper here. That came out of Black voters in the city of Atlanta enacting these kinds of inclusive policies and leveraging political power to get the business community here to open up and to expand and to support women-owned businesses, including minority-owned businesses and so forth.
There are organizations in other parts of the country that are taking notes about what happened in Georgia, in terms of how to put pressure on businesses to help stop legislation. Do you have a message for organizers that are trying to try to do this work?
The political pressure on business does work. They should not get a free pass. They are very, very involved in supporting so many of the regressive policies of these politicians. The other thing too is that all these companies, wherever they are, can influence what happens in Washington. So from a voting standpoint, we need a voting rights act. That is the lever. That’s also the message. Whatever pressure you put on companies in your state, also pressure them to support [voting]. These companies have teams of lobbyists. They pay untold amounts of money in campaign contributions. And so they’re accountable for what these elected officials do, and hold them accountable.