Opinion: GOP’s vote-restricting push will prove counterproductive

August 17  2015 Atlanta: For File use anytime.  Goethe State Capitol.  Gold Dome. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM
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August 17 2015 Atlanta: For File use anytime. Goethe State Capitol. Gold Dome. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

SUNDAY ISSUE: VOTE-TIGHTENING BILLS BEFORE THE GEORGIA LEGISLATURE

It’s been a few years since I was actively involved in electoral politics, but my impression is that some things haven’t changed: There are still two parties. The two parties still have somewhat different agendas for what to do when they’re in control of government. And the two parties still compete with each other for votes to win elections and enact their agendas. That’s why it confuses me so much that Republicans in the Georgia legislature — and others around the country — are pursuing election reform policies that would alienate so many voters the party needs.

It’s no secret that the 2020 election was, from the perspective of the average voter, unlike any this country has ever seen. The sums of money spent on the campaign were unprecedented. Turnout rates were higher than they’ve been in decades. And because of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people who normally vote in person on Election Day instead voted early or absentee.

And yet, in the wake of such a secure election, some in the Georgia legislature are proposing ending automatic registration and reimposing restrictions on absentee voting. Or, to put it another way, their responses to the 2020 elections are to make the state’s election system less efficient and more expensive, and to turn away the exact types of voters the Georgia Republican Party needs to win in 2022.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
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Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Whatever objections people may have had to the manner of the last elections, automated voter registration systems are an unserious bogeyman. All they do is modernize the existing infrastructure, using 21st-century technology instead of — how old is paper? Prehistoric? And these systems have been proven to save taxpayers considerable amounts of money.

While the national media has directed much of its attention to turnout in Atlanta and how it affected the outcome of the presidential and Senate races, Republicans know that the real battle was in the suburbs. And they know that Republicans lost ground in these crucial areas between the Nov. 3 general election and the Jan. 5 runoff. In their campaigns, the Democratic candidates improved their performance in suburbs like Clayton County.

There’s no delicate way to say this, but watching Georgia politicians put more restrictions on voting — and be assured, that’s exactly what it’s going to look like — isn’t going to be very ingratiating for these suburban voters. Whatever the most well-intentioned reasons for these voting restrictions, people will say that they’re really about voter suppression, and suburban Republicans might take that message to heart.

These proposals aren’t just political mistakes, they’re missed opportunities for good policy. Instead of making it harder to vote, Georgia’s leaders should be focusing on ways to detect and disrupt voter fraud. One way to do this is to use online portals for absentee or early voting applications, and cross-check applications against the driver’s license database to detect possible errors or mismatches.

Instead of revoking opportunities to vote absentee, the legislature should focus on a robust system of signature cures, which allows legal votes to be counted and can help detect fraudulent mail-in votes.

One productive proposal currently under consideration in Atlanta would move up the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot. This would help solve the problem of absentee ballots arriving after election day.

In 2020, Georgia was a leader in conducting risk-limiting audits of its elections. These new techniques help ensure that the electoral count is accurate and can detect flaws and irregularities in the vote tally even without a full recount. The state should continue to prioritize these kinds of innovations that focus on election integrity without sending hostile messages to key voting blocs.

Nothing is inevitable in politics. Whether or not Georgia remains a red state isn’t up to commentators in the media — it’s up to Georgia Republicans right now. Across the country, Republican state legislators are trying to figure out how to create a 21st-century voting system and win popular support. Alienating suburban voters with old-fashioned voting policies won’t do it. Focusing on practical solutions to real problems will.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is co-chair of the advisory board for the Secure Elections Project. She represented Florida in Congress as a Republican from 1989-2019.