The “fuckers would be slaughtered.” So declared Cody Richard Griggers on a group text among militia members referring to what red America was prepared to do to blue America if widespread political violence ever broke out. But Griggers wasn’t just another anonymous extremist, chatting insurrectionary talk on an online forum. He was a sheriff’s deputy in Wilkinson County, Georgia, who, according to new court documents released last week, bragged about using his power as a law enforcement officer to commit acts of racist voter suppression. His actions raise questions about whether the disenfranchisement of felons should be tolerable in a democracy.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced it had secured a guilty plea from Griggers for possessing unregistered firearms. Griggers came to federal agents’ attention through his participation in a militia-related group text where members discussed guns, survivalist techniques, and extreme political views. “Btw, if you want to feel better, look at a map of America with each county blue or red.… fuckers would be slaughtered,” he wrote in one exchange, which was quoted in an FBI affidavit.
Aside from the ones where he fantasized about killing “liberal politicians” and blaming their deaths on Muslims, perhaps the most disturbing messages sent by Griggers involved his official duties. In an August 2019 message, he told other group members that he “forgot to tell y’all that I beat the shit out of” a Black person, using a noxious racial slur to describe them. “Sheriff’s dept said it look [sic] like he fell,” he added. Griggers described the assault as “sweet stress relief” and linked it to his extremist activities. “It’s a sign of beautiful things to come,” Griggers wrote. “Also I’m going to charge them with whatever felonies I can to take away their ability to vote.”
The 2020 election was a monumental triumph for American democracy for reasons beyond the outcome. Even as the pandemic upended almost every aspect of normal life, more than 160 million Americans still cast a ballot in last year’s elections in some way, whether in person, by mail, or by dropbox. The result was the highest turnout rate for an American presidential election in nearly a century, reflecting a historic level of civic engagement.
Just over five million otherwise eligible Americans were barred from participating, however. The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that studies criminal justice issues, estimated in a 2020 report that one out of every 44 Americans, or just over 2 percent of the electorate, could not cast a ballot in 2020 because of a felony conviction. The impact is often disproportionately felt in communities of color and in certain states. The report estimated that one in 16 Black Americans nationwide can’t cast a ballot because of the restrictions. In some Southern states, that ratio exceeds one in seven.
Opponents of felony disenfranchisement often point to these racial disparities when arguing against the practice. Not every state adopted the practice to achieve that result, of course. But more than a few of them consciously moved to strip the vote from people with felony convictions after Reconstruction to make it easier to exclude Black voters from political participation. I could go on with historical anecdotes, statistical surveys, and other evidence to make this point. Or I could simply cite an extremely vivid recent example of it.
Under Georgia law, people with felony convictions lose the right to vote until they have completed their sentence, including probation and parole, and paid any fines associated with it. Reform Georgia, a criminal justice advocacy group, estimated that just under 250,000 otherwise eligible Georgians could not vote in the 2016 election because of the disenfranchisement law. Roughly 79 percent of the state’s disenfranchised voters were under probation or parole instead of actual imprisonment. (Only two states, Vermont and Maine, allow people in prison to cast ballots.) And roughly 58 percent of those who are disenfranchised in the state are Black.
Griggers’s case is an extraordinary one, to be sure. It’s hard to read the affidavit, however, and not think about the disproportionate numbers of active-duty and retired cops who took part in the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Or not to remember the FBI’s occasional warnings that white supremacists groups are trying to infiltrate and recruit from police departments and other law enforcement agencies.
Felony disenfranchisement would be deeply troubling for democracy even if Griggers had become a circus acrobat instead of a cop. But his actions still underscore the moral hazards of linking Americans’ basic right to political participation with the far-from-perfect workings of the criminal justice system—and to the whims of the people who keep it running.