OPINION: Georgia election ‘reforms’ or ‘restrictions’? Answer is clear

Voters had a long wait, some two to three hours, at the Park Tavern polling place on June 9, 2020, in Atlanta. (John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
Voters had a long wait, some two to three hours, at the Park Tavern polling place on June 9, 2020, in Atlanta. (John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Election “reform” is churning at the Gold Dome, and Democrats fighting the blizzard of legislation say keeping track of the restrictive bills is like trying to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar.

The old segregation-era scheme of making Black voters guess the number of jelly beans before being allowed to cast a ballot came up in speeches as emotional lawmakers pushed back hard against efforts that would (among a lot of other things) severely limit ballot drop boxes, get rid of no-excuse absentee voting, demand more ID for absentee voting and curtail weekend early voting days.

In all, an estimated 80 voting-related bills are floating around this session. Not all bills are being pushed by Republicans, but the ones making noise certainly are. Whether they are election “reform” or “restriction” is a po-tay-to/po-tah-to argument depending on your political persuasion. But you can draw a direct line from a very sore loser to a bunch of lies and conspiracies to proposed legislation that would help GOP candidates.

There’s no other way to look at it. Sure, the Republicans trotted out the sensible state Rep. Jan Jones to the podium Monday to assure everyone the changes are about “transparency, uniformity and confidence.”

Wink, wink, nudge nudge.

The sheer number of voting-related bills unveiled this year reminds me of professional troll Steve Bannon’s strategy to “flood the zone with (shinola),” meaning to overwhelm those who are trying to monitor the truth.

Mark Niesse, the AJC’s reporter covering election issues, has created a spreadsheet with 47 voting bills he’s trying to keep tabs on. He thinks maybe a dozen of them have any chance at passage, but you must be meticulous at the Capitol or they’ll sneak something past you.

Demonstrators chained together protest HB 531 outside the Georgia Capitol on Day 25 of the legislative session in Atlanta on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Demonstrators chained together protest HB 531 outside the Georgia Capitol on Day 25 of the legislative session in Atlanta on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

On Monday, Dem after Dem walked to the podium in the House to accuse the Republican majority of running scared of former president Donald Trump and his mob, and trying to pull off racially focused voting discrimination. Republicans did their best to appear surprised, saddened and even shocked by such outrageous rhetoric.

“We need to remove as much of the politics as possible,” said Republican state Rep. Shaw Blackmon during Monday’s debate, tossing around terms like “integrity and sanctity.”

Blackmon, who was the chair of the House Governmental Affairs committee, said witnesses at hearings in recent months have described dead people getting absentee applications, out-of-staters getting application forms, and people coming to vote and being told they’d already voted absentee.

“Now, we can debate the frequency (of these allegations actually happening) but I ask you to review the video (of these hearings) yourself and see the Georgians who testified before the committee,” he said.

To Blackmon’s point, I guess we can debate just about anything, even whether a flying saucer landed in his backyard last night. But you must remember Blackmon’s committee had Rudy Giuliani testify via Zoom in December and had him go on about widespread fraud, including the oft-debunked “suitcase of ballots” at State Farm Arena.

During the December hearing, Democratic state Rep. Bee Nguyen took up Blackmon’s challenge to debate and shot all sorts of holes in an “expert’s” exhibit of possible fraudulent voters. She said of the first 10 names of alleged out-of-state voters, she found eight were actually Georgia voters and property owners.

On Monday, Nguyen called the House bill “Jim Crow in a suit and tie.”

Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen (D-Atlanta) speaks to demonstrators at an HB 531 protest outside the state Capitol on Day 25 of the legislative session in Atlanta on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen (D-Atlanta) speaks to demonstrators at an HB 531 protest outside the state Capitol on Day 25 of the legislative session in Atlanta on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

She added, “we are legislating on lies. Lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories that have gone unchecked by many members of this body who stayed silent, who signed onto the Texas lawsuit (the one where the Lone Star State-ers wanted to toss out Georgia’s election) or who encouraged sham hearings in our General Assembly.”

Democratic state Rep. Donna McLeod turned up the heat, saying the legislation is “predicated on a big lie!”

“What’s worse, my Republican colleagues don’t have the guts to tell their cultlike followers that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were fairly elected,” McLeod said, her voice rising in anger.

There’s lots of little things Republicans want to “fix,” like disqualifying provisional ballots that are cast when a voter goes to the wrong precinct. In that, they are allowed to vote on the “big” statewide races but not on the local races. Republican state Rep. Rick Williams, who was speaking for the bill, said 13,300 such ballots were cast in November.

I’d strongly guess that number was largely Democratic-leaning voters, hence the need for the change.

Rep. Jones noted the limits on drop boxes shouldn’t matter because 38 counties did not offer them at all. But big Democratic vote factories like DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties did, so hence the problem.

Jones took note at the “hyperbole” being waged by a leftie org pushing an ad campaign. One of the changes being heavily criticized is a limit on early voting on Sundays. Black churches organize “Souls to the Polls” events, which is seen as an effective get-out-the-vote tool. Jones, however, suggested that argument is overrated, saying just 65,000 people voted on Sundays and it wasn’t necessarily popular with Black voters. Instead, she said, the race of Black Sunday voters was “proportional to the population.”

However, I checked with Niesse and his charts and found there were 71,191 Sunday voters, about 37% being African American. According to The Washington Post, 30% of Georgians who voted in November were Black. So, according to Jones’ numbers, about 19,500 Sunday voters were Black. Niesse’s accounting puts it at 26,178.

Yeah, those are relatively small differences. But add those numbers to the provisional ballot voters who wouldn’t be counted in the future and you’re whittling away at Trump’s 11,779-vote Georgia loss.

But those are nips and tucks. The kahuna is absentee voting, which was used by a record 1.3 million Georgians last fall and about two-thirds of them voted for Joe Biden.

Senate Bill 241, which was passed in committee Monday, would do away with no-excuse absentee voting. Going forward, you’d have to be 65, sick or out of town. The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Mike Dugan and 30 other Republican senators. All are white, and except for one female senator all are male.

Interestingly, it was a Republican Legislature in 2005 that expanded absentee voting. At the time, my old AJC colleague Jim Galloway was prophetic, writing: “The decision by the Legislature to require all voters to show a photo ID has stirred up a dust storm that has obscured other parts of the measure which may have an even greater impact on politics in Georgia — absentee voting.”

State Rep. Al Williams, a Democrat who is Black, took to the House well this week to say: “Every time the rules change, hey, we learn to play the game. If this bill passes, and I hope it doesn’t, then we’ll start to practice at how to win at that, too. We played the game in November.”

He paused, adding, “See you next election.”

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