A primary test for new voter laws
After election reform, Georgia reports higher turnout at polls
Last year, critics raised the alarm that a series of laws passed in the name of election integrity would make it harder for some groups to vote, tipping elections toward a particular political party. But at the end of a month of primary elections, voter turnout in one highly watched state appeared robust for both Republicans and Democrats.
In Georgia, preliminary numbers show early voting in primaries surged well past the last midterm election’s rates and even 2020. On the last day of early in-person voting, more than 800,000 people had cast ballots, more than three times the number of early voters in the 2018 primaries. Georgia turnout increased among both Democrats and Republicans, although GOP participation outpaced Democrats both in 2018 and last week, with just over 480,000 early Republican voters as of May 20.
Voter turnout was strong elsewhere, too: In North Carolina, turnout jumped to 20 percent compared with 14 percent in 2018, with nearly equal ballots from Republican and Democratic early voters.
All eyes turned to Georgia this week to watch the effects of last year’s Senate Bill 202, which opponents such as President Joe Biden labeled “Jim Crow 2.0.” The law added identification requirements for absentee ballots, installed a board of elections separate from the secretary of state, and limited ballot drop boxes.
The public policy group the Brennan Center listed Georgia in its group of states that were making it harder for people to vote. But state officials say the numbers tell a different story.
“The incredible turnout we have seen demonstrates once and for all that Georgia’s Election Integrity Act struck a good balance between the guardrails of access and security,” said Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who defeated Trump-backed congressman Jody Hice on Tuesday.
The bill expanded early voting days to 17 but allowed each county to decide when to hold them as long as some included a weekend. Spalding County removed Sunday as an early voting day, adding two Saturdays instead. The decision forced the “Souls to the Polls” organization, which transported black voters to the polls after church on Sunday, to shift its strategy. Georgia’s population is one-third black, a demographic that historically has low election attendance. Organizers called the move discriminatory since attendees would have to make a special trip on a Saturday. Demographic details for Tuesday’s primary are not yet available, but experts say the added requirements in Georgia may be inconvenient for some but not necessarily a deterrent.
The same appears to be true for mail-in ballots. Georgia added a requirement for absentee ballots, offering the option of mail with the voter’s corresponding name if he or she doesn’t have a driver’s license or Social Security number.
“Before the pandemic, Georgians voted in person at the same rate they’re voting in person now,” Raffensperger spokesman Ari Schaffer told The Washington Post. “What we’re seeing is a return to pre-pandemic normal. It may contradict the ‘voter suppression’ narrative, but those are the facts.”
Not all states had smooth sailing with mail-in ballots. Around 13 percent of Texas’ March primary ballots had to be tossed because voters forgot to add identification numbers. Oregon, a state calling itself the gold standard for voting by mail for 23 years, must wait weeks to determine the results of the U.S. Senate GOP primary and a high-profile Democratic congressional primary because machines could not read 60,000 ballots printed with blurry ink. Election workers have deployed in groups of two, one Republican and one Democrat, to copy each ballot by hand onto fresh copies, double-check the entry, and rescan it.
The same scene played out in Lancaster County, Pa., last week when election workers discovered up to 22,000 ballots were printed with the wrong code. The state’s amended election code states no mail-in ballots may be opened before Election Day, a point election officials have protested. The holdup kept U.S. Senate candidates Mehmet Oz and David McCormick waiting in one of the closest primary races in state history. Because the final tally landed the two within 1,000 votes, a statewide recount is now underway, further delaying results.
The company that printed the ballots took responsibility for the mistaken code, but election officials are also blaming a new law for cramming the processing and counting of all ballots into one day. Act 77, which passed in 2019, expanded mail-in voting while also shortening deadlines.
“Act 77 created a very short timeframe to create ballots, proof them, send them to the printer, and mail them. But when passing it, nobody talked to the elections departments even though we’re the ones that do the work,” said Deb Olivieri, who served as the nearby Berks County election director for 26 years. “We’re human, so errors happen. It’s not fraud. We just want to do our jobs and have the right tools to do it.”
The problems in Oregon and Pennsylvania stemmed from causes predating the 2021 wave of election laws in state legislatures. Although mail-in voting surged in 2020 due to COVID-19, its appeal seems to be tapering off this year. Even with more people standing in line at polling locations, Georgia experienced few problems either with long wait times or system failures. Opponents of SB 202 said Tuesday’s successes are despite the law, not because of it.
Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project called SB 202 cumbersome and barriers to ballot boxes inhumane. Xakota Espinoza, communications director for Fair Fight Action, an organization founded by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, told CNN, “Voters are more determined than ever to get out and cast their ballots. But that doesn’t mean they’re not jumping through a number of obstacles.”
Still, the Center for Election Innovation and Research listed Georgia as one of the most accessible states for early voting in 2022. It also included Virginia and Missouri on the list, both of which passed additional voting requirements and have their primaries next month.
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