Georgia’s ballot box blues
Intense criticism obscures the reality of the state’s new voting law
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.”
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