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Georgia’s ballot box blues

Intense criticism obscures the reality of the state’s new voting law


A poll worker helps a voter sign at Taylorsville Town Hall on Election Day 2020 in Taylorsville, Ga. Associated Press/Photo by Branden Camp (file)

Georgia’s ballot box blues

During his first news conference since taking office, President Joe Biden last week took aim at Georgia’s Republican-backed election reform bill. He called it “un-American,” saying it would make it harder for people, minorities in particular, to vote.

“It’s sick … deciding that you’re going to end voting at 5 o’clock when working people are just getting off work,” he said. For that false statement, The Washington Post awarded the president “four Pinocchios.” In actuality, the bill does not change the hours of polling places.

Democrats and voting access activists have painted the bill, signed into law a week ago by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, as an attempt to roll back citizens’ ability to easily participate in democracy. Other experts say the law introduces more safeguards against voter fraud but leaves Georgians with many accessible ways to cast a ballot.

The 2020 general election was not the only controversial one in Georgia in recent years. In 2018, Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams never conceded the governor’s race to Kemp, who was then secretary of state. Abrams alleged that measures such as changes to the voting rolls suppressed votes for her and gave Kemp an edge. Kemp won by around 55,000 votes, garnering 50.2 to Abrams’ 48.8 percent. Then in 2020, former President Donald Trump claimed voter fraud enabled Joe Biden’s win in the state.

“After the November election last year, I knew, like so many of you, that significant reforms to our state elections were needed,” Kemp said when he signed the bill.

Adam Carrington, an assistant professor of politics at Hillsdale College, said it makes sense for Georgia to take a hard look at its election laws.

“There is a large part of Georgia that [thinks] at least one of the last two elections was stolen,” Carrington said. “There really is a perception out there that even if I can’t prove the other side cheated, I know they’re bad people, and, therefore, they must have.”

Virginia Galloway, regional field director for the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said she heard from members of the group whose trust in the electoral system dropped due to the 2020 election.

“The accusations of impropriety had a lot of people convinced there was a problem that needed to be fixed,” she said. Republicans passing some measures to increase security, particularly to absentee ballots, could help restore trust for those voters.

The law addresses some of the measures implemented due to the COVID-19 related emergency order that Kemp implemented last fall. It also makes these changes:

Allow the state to keep ballot drop boxes, something implemented because of the pandemic, while reducing the number of boxes and making them available only in local board of election offices or places with early voting. Require driver’s license or photo ID numbers and birthdays on absentee ballots instead of just a signature for verification purposes. Shorten the amount of time people have to request an absentee ballot. Mandate runoffs occur within one month after the general election instead of three. Allow the processing of absentee ballots as they come in rather than after polls close on Election Day.

One of the more controversial provisions in the law bans outside groups from giving food and water to voters waiting in line to cast their ballots within a certain distance of the building. Critics said the rule will affect precincts where voters face particularly long lines. The law does not prevent poll workers from passing out water or voters from bringing their own food.

Under the changes, the legislature gained more control over elections by removing the secretary of state as the chair of the State Election Board and replacing him or her with a new, legislature-appointed leader. The board now has the power to remove and replace any county election officials in precincts where things go awry.

“You can argue that the new bill restricts voting in some very narrow ways, but there’s no evidence it’s designed to eliminate a class of voters,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. “The fear is that the ID requirements will have a differential impact on African American or minority voters, but there’s not much academic evidence to show that is true. I think it actually balances fairly well access and security.”

In the 2020 general election, African Americans voted absentee at a higher rate than whites. Groups challenging the new law in court say black people are less likely to have a valid ID, though the law allows for backup documentation such as a bank statement or utility bill. Georgia already requires a photo ID to vote in person. The state allows voters to get a free ID card for the purposes of voting, and it also accepts expired driver’s licenses as identification at the polls.

State legislators initially proposed more restrictive proposals, the vast majority of which didn’t make it in the final law. One would have banned voting on Sundays. Another would have ended no-excuse absentee voting.

After facing criticism that such measures seemed to target certain voting groups (Sunday is a popular early voting day for black voters) Republicans backed off.

“Given the history of states like Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi that have a long history of discrimination based on race, I can understand why people would be suspicious,” Smith said. “This bill is different from those efforts.”

Carrington said he doubted lawsuits against the bill will prevail. He called the reaction to Georgia’s law “a preview of acrimony” that will likely come as other states grapple with making changes to election law: “One would hope that the concept of trying to make the election as fair and legal as possible would be bipartisan, but it’s not going to be.”


Harvest Prude

Harvest is a political reporter for WORLD's Washington Bureau. She is a World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College graduate. Harvest resides in Washington, D.C.

@HarvestPrude

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mrbobmac

I have trouble understanding why there is so much enflaming rhetoric about the changes to Georgia's voting laws. An article I just reviewed in "The Guardian" highlighted multiple changes to laws around the U.S., but curiously only mentioned changes in process by Republican-controlled state governments, and in every case without exception, they commented that the changes were examples of voter suppression. Are Democrat-controlled state governments not making any changes? Doesn't every state routinely update their voting laws as they adapt to technology improvements, pandemic restrictions, etc.?

I would love to see a 50-state table that lists each of the components of the new Georgia law compared to other states' laws on the same item (e.g., placement of ballot drop-boxes, poll hours, ID required to vote, who can pass out water/food in lines, etc.). This would help me discern whether Georgia's laws are egregious... or mainstream.

OldMike

One of my objections is that I believe voting should NOT BE SUPER EASY!!  Voting should be informed, deliberate, careful.  No one should vote on impulse, in response to a misleading ad campaign, or at the last minute with no forethought. 

But I believe the left WANTS people to vote impulsively, emotionally, thoughtlessly, because that is much more manipulable than a vote that is thought out and informed. 

I oppose automatic voter registration as when one renews their drivers license, last minute registration the day of the election, door-to-door sign up of voters, and so forth.   I believe it should require at least a bit of effort to register, and to vote. 

not silent

I appreciate the efforts to explain this very contentious law.  It has been very frustrating for me trying to wade through all the information about this and other issues so that I can form an opinion about them.  I still need to do more research on this law, but my main concern at present has to do with a part that was not one of the main points emphasized in this article: "Under the changes, the legislature gained more control over elections by removing the secretary of state as the chair of the State Election Board and replacing him or her with a new legislature-appointed leader.  The board now has the power to remove and replace any county election officials in precincts where things go awry."

In case the reason for my concern isn't obvious, I will explain it.  It may be understandable that the legislature feels the need to have more control over elections which could determine whether or not they kept their jobs and which political party had more power, but I find it problematic and troubling.  Our government was deliberately set up to have a balance of powers, and this seems to erode that balance. This part of the law seems expecially suspect coming after the recent elections and the pressure put on the Georgia secretary of state regarding his views and comments about the outcome. 

I also wonder about the part that says the board (with a chair appointed by the legislature) has the power to remove county election officials in precincts where "things go awry." I'm not a lawyer, but I hope it is spelled out in the law what is meant by "things going awry." Otherwise, it seems that this could provide opportunity for corruption.  (I.e, regardless of which party was in control it could be problematic if the legislature hand picked someone to chair the board who was willing to state that "things went awry" because they didn't like the way the vote was going in certain counties, then they removed the officials in charge and put in new ones who were more...accomodating.)   

What I have expressed is my own personal reservations about what I read in this article. I have not read the actual law.  As such, I would welcome additional explanation and clarification.      

Salty1

Great job on the article!