Georgia’s new voting laws have featured heavily in the news since they were signed into law on March 25.
In the days since, the bill has spurred a number of lawsuits by civil rights groups, and corporations such as Delta and Coca Cola — both headquartered in the state — have been vocal in their denunciations.
Said Delta CEO Ed Bastian in a memo Wednesday, “Last week, the Georgia legislature passed a sweeping voting reform act that could make it harder for many Georgians, particularly those in our Black and Brown communities, to exercise their right to vote … I need to make it crystal clear that the final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values … After having time to now fully understand all that is in the bill, coupled with discussions with leaders and employees in the Black community, it’s evident that the bill includes provisions that will make it harder for many underrepresented voters, particularly Black voters, to exercise their constitutional right to elect their representatives. That is wrong.”
James Quincey, Coca-Cola’s chief executive, joined the chorus later that day, saying in an appearance on CNBC, “This legislation is unacceptable. It’s a step backwards, and it does not promote principles we have stood for in Georgia around broad access to voting, around voter convenience, about ensuring election integrity.”
Republicans argue, however, that the bill protects the sanctity of the vote and that much of it has been mischaracterized by the media and voting rights activists in an effort to stir up controversy.
Said Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, “It is obvious that neither President Biden nor his handlers have actually read SB 202, which I signed into law yesterday. This bill expands voting access, streamlines vote-counting procedures, and ensures election integrity. There is nothing ‘Jim Crow’ about requiring a photo or state-issued ID to vote by absentee ballot — every Georgia voter must already do so when voting in-person. President Biden, the left, and the national media are determined to destroy the sanctity and security of the ballot box. As Secretary of State, I consistently led the fight to protect Georgia elections against power-hungry, partisan activists. As Governor, I won’t back down from keeping Georgia elections secure, accessible, and fair.”
“Politics is gonna politic,” COO for the Georgia Secretary of State Gabriel Sterling said, adding in a tweet, “Nothing in this bill suppresses anyone’s vote…nothing. Those saying so are just stirring the pot and raising money. The claim of voter suppression has the same level of truth as t he [sic] claims of voter fraud in the last election.”
But therein lies the rub.
Republicans argue that the provisions in the bill are necessary to protect against fraud, but these lawmakers are proposing solutions to a problem that does not exist.
Under the new law, for example, state and local governments are prohibited from sending out unsolicited absentee ballot applications, and the state is discarding the signature-matching system used in the last election in favor of more robust voter identification requirements.
One might suspect that these changes come in response to verified instances of irregularity or fraud. That is, in fact, the argument of those on the right who claim that these laws are necessary to ensure the legality of every vote.
But these claims do not mirror reality.
An audit conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found just two questionable absentee ballots among the 15,000 examined — both valid but needing an extra check to confirm the voter’s identity (which they were ultimately able to do).
“Based on the result of the audit, the Cobb County Elections Department had a 99.99% accuracy rate in performing correct signature verification procedures,” the report reads. “No fraudulent absentee ballots were identified during the audit.”
So, then, why the change?
Critics claim that the changes are not an honest effort to curb voter fraud but, rather, an attempt to suppress the vote.
After all, there is precedent for the conclusion.
Just last year, Georgia’s GOP House Speaker David Ralston said that the decision to send absentee request forms to all registered voters would be “devastating” to Republicans.
“So, here, you know, the process keeps going up and up and up and so a multitude of reasons why vote by mail in my view is not acceptable,” Ralston said, adding, “The president said it best, this will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia.”
The president’s comments referenced above?
“The things they had in there were crazy. They had things, levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to, you would never have a Republican elected in this country again,” then-President Donald Trump said in an interview on “Fox & Friends.”
And there it is.
For many, the goal of this legislation is not to serve a legitimate purpose or to advance a compelling state interest; it is to erect additional obstacles in the name of voter suppression.
How does it protect against fraud, for example, to reduce the number of days before an election that absentee ballots can be sent to registered voters from 49 to 29? How does it protect against fraud to reduce the numbers of days before an election that absentee ballots can be requested from 180 to 78?
While one could argue that voter identification is less subjective than signature matching and is, thus, an appropriate remedy (though, to a problem that does not exist, according to Georgia’s own investigative bodies), there is no justification that explains why we are affording voters significantly less time to exercise their rights.
What purpose, except to suppress turnout and limit the chances of an Ossoff/Warnock redux, is there for reducing the number of weeks of early voting required in runoffs from three to one? How does scheduling the runoff four weeks after an election, as opposed to nine, “restore confidence” in the vote?
Having said that, it is true that certain aspects of the bill have been mischaracterized and that the contents are not all bad.
For example, President Biden, earlier this week, claimed that the new law “ends voting hours early” and is designed to keep “working folks and ordinary folks … from being able to vote.”
While it is true that earlier versions of the bill sought to eliminate or reduce Sunday voting, the current iteration does not. In fact, the current iteration of the bill expands early voting for primary and general elections. Under the previous law, counties were required to open for early voting on only one Saturday, from 9 am to 4 pm, with no explicit mention of Sundays. Under the terms of the new law, two Saturdays of early voting are now required — from 9 am to 5 pm at minimum and from 7 am to 7 pm if desired — and two Sundays are made optional.
The bill also requires precincts that had lines of more than one hour or did not complete voting by an hour after the official poll-closing time to reduce the size of the precinct or secure more poll workers, voting equipment, or both — a provision that will hopefully serve to reduce wait times, which disproportionately affect communities of color.
Cohen’s claim of racism above pertains to the portion of the bill that prohibits individuals from offering food or water to persons waiting in line. SB 202 says, “No person shall solicit votes in any manner or by any means or method, nor shall any person distribute or display any campaign material, nor shall any person give, offer to give, or participate in the giving of any money or gifts, including, but not limited to, food and drink … “
While conservative commentators have argued that this provision is intended to prevent political entities from influencing the outcome of votes, there is no such qualification made in the text of the bill. The bill makes it a misdemeanor for any person to offer food or water within 150 feet of the outer edge of a polling place or within 25 feet of any voter in line, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Poll workers, however, can make unattended, self-serve water stations available at their discretion.
What else does the bill criminalize?
While the bill makes it a felony to accept “an absentee ballot from an elector for delivery or return to the board of registrars,” it does not make it a crime to return your grandmother’s ballot, as claimed by a viral social media post. There are, in actuality, exceptions to the law above, to include “elector’s mother, father, grandparent, aunt, uncle, brother, sister, spouse, son, daughter, niece, nephew, grandchild, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, mother-in-law, father-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, or an individual residing in the household of such elector,” as well as caregivers of disabled electors and jail employees acting on behalf of inmates.
And although the bill reduces the number of drop boxes from the number available in 2020, Georgia only introduced drop boxes last year as an emergency measure in response to the pandemic. They were never a mainstay prior. The new law allows drop boxes to become a permanent fixture, mandating at least one per county. This mandate, however, does not come without its limits. Drop boxes will be limited to early-voting locations during the hours that the sites remain open. They will not be available during the last four days of an election — days when they are of particular value due to concerns surrounding postage delays — and additional drop boxes beyond the one mandated per county will be limited to one per 100,000 registered voters or one per polling location, whichever is fewer.
And while it has been suggested that the new absentee identification requirements serve to disenfranchise the roughly 200,000 Georgia voters who lack an ID, the bill does allow those who do not possess one to offer their social security number instead.
In the end, I would encourage each of you to read the contents of the bill firsthand because neither side has been entirely forthright about its implications or intentions. On the one hand, certain provisions appear to be an obvious attempt at hewing the number of voters who are able to participate in the electoral process. Others, however, have been mischaracterized and stand to help more than they hurt.
For these reasons, we have included the full text of the bill below, so that you can arrive at your own conclusions.