Our View: Marching backward into history

Gov. Brian Kemp signs into law voting rights bill SB202 on Thursday behind closed doors at the Georgia Capitol.
Caption
Gov. Brian Kemp signs into law voting rights bill SB202 on Thursday behind closed doors at the Georgia Capitol.

Credit: Gov. Brian Kemp's office

SUNDAY OPINION ISSUE: SIGNING INTO LAW OF CONTROVERSIAL VOTING LEGISLATION.

In a cynical series of actions Thursday, Georgia lawmakers managed to march firmly onto the wrong side of history.

That’s no place for a state as important as this one. Or for one that claims the state motto: Wisdom. Justice. Moderation. None of those were in evidence Thursday.

The scene that played out at the State Capitol as lawmakers hurriedly passed a far-reaching set of changes that significantly clamp down on voting access will bring Georgia national, even worldwide, attention.

And not of the kind that the capital of the 21st century American South should want. Many people elsewhere, and here — among them investors, smart workers and employers — will see these voting access restrictions for what they really are: a house built hurriedly on shifting sands of lies. Verifiable facts or statistics are not part of the foundation for the unwarranted package of changes rapidly signed into law Thursday behind closed doors.

We’ve said it before here; and lawmakers’ actions necessitate saying it again. There was no voting fraud or related shenanigans of a magnitude that would have affected the outcome of the November elections — or the January U.S. Senate runoff. Lawsuits and other claims shakily asserting otherwise were quickly cast aside by the work of due process.

More importantly, the Republican in charge of overseeing the elections asserted repeatedly and forcefully that voting results were accurate. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger courageously said so in the face of scorching political heat and even physical threats from those who chose to either believe — or meekly go along with — the Grand Lie of the Republic that the election was somehow “stolen” in Georgia.

Yet, facts, truth — and what is simply right and just — could not, in the end, overcome the Georgia General Assembly’s temptation to “fix” a problem not proven to exist.

So it will now be illegal in Georgia to offer food or drinks to people waiting in hours-long lines to exercise the most fundamental of American rights — casting a ballot in a free election. Pack away Southern hospitality, y’all. And, even as Georgia continues to drag through a pandemic that’s killed more than 16,000 people here so far, no longer can absentee ballot drop boxes be placed outside — under video monitoring — for voters to more safely make their choices known. And a state that routinely pushes responsibility — and costs — for fundamental services down to local or county government now has the power to overrule local election officials — if they, in essence, don’t like the results they see.

We suspect another law — the one of unintended consequences — may quickly swing into place as a counterweight to this overreach. As in, rather than stomping into oblivion voter-engagement activity that some lawmakers do not like, supporters of Senate Bill 202 have likely awakened and greatly empowered it.

We’d be remiss in not noting too that the tenor and optics of these combined, vote-limiting tactics harkens more to the worst of the Old South than it does to the modern, prosperous state that a diverse group of 11 million call home.

There may be a political and economic price to be paid for Georgia lawmakers’ contemptuous stance toward making voting reasonably accessible to all who are legally able to do so.

Other states have felt that burn when they’ve passed similar bills that sneer at today’s societal norms.

The questions of “why” come quickly to mind too. And logic, reason and facts cannot answer them. Republican legislators have asserted that the elections system here was “broken.”

Shortly after he’d retreated behind heavy closed doors guarded by state troopers to sign the bill, Gov. Brian Kemp said, “Significant reforms to our state elections were needed. There’s no doubt there were many alarming issues with how the election was handled, and those problems, understandably, led to a crisis of confidence in the ballot box here in Georgia.”

What “crisis of confidence”? We don’t doubt that sentiment exists in good measure here. But from what we’ve all seen, it equates to not liking election results. And that’s not endemic fraud.

What happened Thursday should be unacceptable to all Georgians who believe in the American strength of robust political debate, letting the people or their representatives decide and all of us then abiding by the results — because we have been heard.

The fact — not fable, or lie — is that the “broken” elections system was set in place by Republican state officials.

Georgia cannot forget that. The rest of the nation and world surely won’t.

The allegedly “stolen” election was conducted using machines bought at the direction of GOP lawmakers and was overseen by a Republican secretary of state.

More importantly, all 236 members of the Georgia Legislature were elected on the same ballot last November that then-President Donald Trump falsely contended was riven with fraud. If the lawmakers who voted for Thursday’s changes so fervently believed in this Big Lie, then, for the sake of ethics, they should have resigned their seats on the first day of the legislative session in protest of a “fraudulent” election.

They did not.

And that speaks volumes about the lack of truth that’s fueled this march backward.

In fairness to this debacle, AJC polling did show significant support for strengthening ID requirements for absentee ballots. This snippet of the bill at least has some commonsense basis. And the more than 200,000 Georgia registered voters who currently lack ID should take advantage of the state’s existing offer to provide it free of charge.

Likewise, no-excuse absentee voting survived attempts to end the practice. And weekend voting for general elections was expanded. Sunday voting also remains a legal option, after many people pressed lawmakers to not ban it. Even so, early voting before runoffs was tightened to a minimum of one week before election day.

All told, Senate Bill 202 will not increase voter confidence in Georgia’s election. It will, frankly, do the opposite. Which is bad for all of us, of any political stripe.

Lastly, Georgia, like most anyplace else, particularly in the American South, likes to wrap itself in history. Nothing else can be said of a state that pays to maintain the world’s largest tombstone to the Confederacy.

We’ll note that the world will long remember the shameful scene of a state lawmaker — a Black woman — being dragged down a Gold Dome hallway by white state troopers Thursday because she dared bang on the door of a governor who chose to lock himself away while signing this legislation and livestreaming about it.

That should not be the image that Georgia presents to the world in 2021.

It will remain for wiser future lawmakers to correct Thursday’s excesses and contempt for what democracy looks like in the 21st century. We hope that day comes soon.

The Editorial Board.

About our coverage

Providing the facts and context that help readers understand the current debate over voting laws is a priority for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For a better understanding of the issues driving Legislative action, click on these links.

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