Impact of Georgia voting law debated ahead of its biggest test

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Absentee voting declines but turnout up in midterm

For the first time in a general election, voters are casting ballots under new rules created by Georgia’s voting law for absentee ballots, weekend voting and challenges to voter eligibility.

Politicians on both sides are using the law to make points about its impact on voters as turnout approaches record highs for a midterm election.

Republicans say strong turnout debunks claims that the election law would suppress voters; Democrats say voters are showing up despite the law.

“In Georgia, it’s easy to vote and hard to cheat,” Republican Gov. Brian Kemp said in a debate Sunday. He said his opponent, Democrat Stacey Abrams, is “running around and scaring people about suppressive votes and suppressive legislation.”

Abrams said high turnout doesn’t negate the barriers facing voters.

“It is wrong to suggest there’s a correlation between voter turnout and voter suppression,” Abrams said in a media briefing. “More people in the water does not prove there are fewer sharks.”

Here’s a look at the effects so far of the state’s 98-page election law, Senate Bill 202, which the GOP-led General Assembly approved along party lines after Republican Donald Trump made unproven claims of voter fraud when he lost the 2020 presidential election.

Return to in-person voting

Voters are resuming their pre-coronavirus behavior, prodded by the voting law’s regulations to abandon absentee voting in favor of the in-person voting experience.

Absentee voting rates have declined to levels similar to the last midterm four years ago, when 6% of voters returned mail-in ballots. That’s a significant drop from the 26% of voters who cast absentee ballots in the presidential election two years ago.

ExploreHow Georgia’s voting law works

Under the law, it’s no longer possible to request an absentee ballot entirely online, as it was before the 2020 presidential election in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic. The law requires voters to sign a paper form that can then be submitted through a state website. Another requirement calls for voters to provide ID along with a signature, usually a driver’s license or state ID number.

Government officials are barred from sending absentee applications to voters after Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger did so before the 2020 primary. Ballot drop boxes are limited to early voting locations and hours, and they’re capped at one box per 100,000 active voters.

“It is too soon to say whether or not SB 202 has negatively affected some peoples’ abilities to participate in the election,” Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who runs the United States Elections Project, wrote last week in his newsletter. “That said, there is already evidence that some voters are having difficulty requesting a mail ballot.”

Weekend voting

The voting law required every county to offer early voting on two Saturdays and explicitly allowed optional Sunday voting. Previously, early voting was only mandated on one Saturday, though some counties, especially in metro areas, offered voting on all four weekend days during the state’s three weeks of early voting.

Turnout on the weekends was lower than on weekdays, but voters in every county took advantage of the opportunity.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

On the additional required Saturday of early voting, over 80,000 people turned out on Oct. 22, higher than the 31,000 voters on that Saturday four years ago. There were also 93,000 voters last Saturday, lower than the 107,000 voters on that day in the previous midterm.

During the optional Sundays, 18,000 people voted on Oct. 23 and 24,000 on Oct. 30. By comparison, there were less than 6,000 voters on the first Sunday of early voting in 2018 and about the same turnout, over 24,000, as on the second Sunday that year.

In all, total turnout exceeded 1.9 million through Tuesday, with three days of early voting to go before Election Day.

ExploreAJC vote tracker: Early and absentee turnout in Georgia

Voter challenges

Since the election law allowed unlimited challenges to voter eligibility, more than 65,000 registrations have been contested by Republican voters this year. In the 3,200 cases where county election boards have upheld eligibility challenges, registrations are either canceled or voters are required to verify their information before they can cast a ballot.

Many of those challenges rely on change-of-address records as evidence that voters have moved to a different state and can no longer participate in Georgia elections. But those records don’t always provide proof that voters have actually moved, especially in the cases of students, members of the military or residents who have temporarily relocated for work.

Several voters say they only found their eligibility had been challenged when they showed up at polling places during early voting. Some were able to overcome the challenges by showing ID and signing a residency affirmation form, but others learned that their registrations had been removed entirely.

Before the voting law, Georgia also allowed residents to challenge voters’ eligibility, but the law made clear that there’s no limit on the number of registrations they can contest within the county where they live.

Election Day questions

The election law’s ban on handing out food or water to voters waiting in line hasn’t been tested by extreme wait times. Unlike the 2020 primary, when some Atlanta-area voters waited for hours, lines to vote were usually short in this year’s primary.

According to the law, it’s a misdemeanor to distribute food or drinks to a voter who is in line, within 25 feet of a line or within 150 feet of the outer edge of a polling place. Food and water can be distributed outside those boundaries, and poll workers are allowed to set up self-service water receptacles.

Another provision of the law prohibits most votes from being cast in the wrong precinct on Election Day.

Before the law, voters were allowed to cast provisional ballots in an incorrect precinct, and election officials would count votes for races that the voter was eligible to participate in.

This year, provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct will only be counted if they were cast after 5 p.m. on Election Day, when voters would have little time to drive to their neighborhood precincts.

Election workers counted 3,357 provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct in the 2020 election, according to state election data. Most of those ballots would have been discarded if the election law had been in effect at the time.