Lawsuits failed, but bills may restrict Georgia voting

The barrage of election lawsuits aimed at Georgia in recent months bombed in the courts.

Their allegations of widespread voter fraud wilted under scrutiny. Their legal arguments failed. Out of nearly two dozen lawsuits filed by former President Donald Trump, his supporters and Republican Party officials, not one persuaded a judge to overturn the presidential election or to change voting rules for the January U.S. Senate runoffs.

But if they failed in the courts, the lawsuits’ claims helped convince many Georgians that widespread fraud cost Trump the election. Now, Republicans in the General Assembly cite their constituents’ doubts as the rationale for a slew of bills that could make it harder to vote in Georgia.

A review of 40 Republican-sponsored election bills shows most address voting fraud and security concerns raised in the failed lawsuits. Some seem to be inspired directly by arguments made in the failed lawsuits.

Most of the bills failed to pass the state Senate or House of Representatives before a key legislative deadline this week. But some bills that remain alive could make voting harder in the name of preventing the kinds of widespread fraud that multiple investigations concluded did not happen in the November election.

Among other things, those bills would eliminate no-excuse absentee voting, impose new identification requirements for voting absentee, curtail the use of ballot drop boxes and provide fewer days of in-person early voting in many large counties.

Georgia Republican Party officials say their concerns about voting fraud are legitimate, and everyone has an interest in secure elections.

“We are aware of a significant number of election irregularities,” said Brad Carver, who chaired a party task force that recommended election law changes. “And, yes, if those election irregularities had been remedied, then there would have been a different outcome in the election on Nov. 3.”

Multiple recounts confirmed Democrat Joe Biden won the presidential election in Georgia.

Voting rights advocates say the Republican Party is less interested in election security than in suppressing minority and Democratic votes.

“The mistrust (of elections) arises from a circular logic. ‘We have to pass these restrictive voting bills because we’re hearing so many concerns about election integrity,’ ” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, an attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice, a voting advocacy group. “But, of course, those concerns were created by lies about voting fraud that the president and some of these lawmakers have themselves advocated.”

Charles Stewart, an election expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said it’s fair for legislators to take stock after an election that saw dramatic changes in voting patterns amid the coronavirus pandemic. But he thinks many Republicans are drawing the wrong conclusions and pushing the wrong solutions.

Stewart said the November election was a “miracle” — with a huge turnout amid the pandemic, relatively few problems and no widespread voting fraud.

“We haven’t seen turnout at this level since 1904,” Stewart said. “Election officials were able to handle the volume. So what’s the problem here?”

A ‘rigged’ election

That’s not the message Trump and the Georgia Republican Party have been sending. They say negligence and misconduct allowed tens of thousands of illegal voters to steal the election for Biden.

Trump and key supporters promoted the “rigged” election story on social media, at campaign rallies and through conservative news networks. But most of the details surfaced in scores of lawsuits filed in swing states that Biden won.

The 23 Georgia lawsuits reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution made a variety of allegations. But there were common themes.

Some challenged procedures for matching signatures on absentee ballots. Some sought to limit or ban the use of absentee ballot drop boxes.

Many said the State Election Board had exceeded its authority in approving some of the rules. And they said lax procedures enabled illegal voting.

To back up their fraud claims, some of the lawsuits cited video of alleged ballot stuffing in Fulton County. Others included analyses of Georgia voter rolls that suggested more than 20,000 out-of-state residents, 10,315 dead people and 2,056 felons voted illegally in November. One analysis found 66,247 Georgians who appeared to have registered to vote before their 17th birthday in violation of state law.

State investigators concluded the Fulton County video showed nothing improper. And election experts who reviewed the other fraud claims called them “highly inaccurate,” “wildly unreliable,” and “worthless.” They said flawed research methods and ignorance of election laws led to erroneous conclusions.

Stewart, the MIT professor, was one of the experts who reviewed the voting fraud claims. He said the story that the election was stolen is “totally false.”

“Of all the problems that have been discovered, none of them has been large enough to undo the results of the election,” he said.

Investigators for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and then-US. Attorney General William Barr — both Republicans — agreed. A Georgia Bureau of Investigation audit of signatures in Cobb County found no fraudulent ballots.

Carver, the Republican Party official, said he still believes thousands of out-of-state residents may have voted illegally — enough to overcome Biden’s 11,779-vote victory. But he said it will take more litigation to know for sure.

Fraud claims spawn bills

The lawsuits mostly fizzled. Two resulted in consent agreements granting poll monitors better access in Cobb and Fulton counties. Though a few are still pending, the rest were dismissed or withdrawn.

Many failed because the plaintiffs lacked standing to file a lawsuit, sued the wrong people or waited too long to challenge election rules. But some judges considered the merits of the fraud claims and found them lacking.

In different cases, judges said the evidence for various fraud claims was “astonishingly speculative,” “highly speculative” and did “not support an allegation of impropriety or a conclusion that sufficient illegal votes were cast to change or place in doubt the outcome of the election.”

One judge was so incensed by what he deemed political grandstanding about fraud allegations that he referred the plaintiff’s attorney for disciplinary action.

In 2019, Georgia’s Republican-controlled Legislature agreed to pay $107 million for a new voting system designed to increase voter confidence in elections, in part because it produces a paper record of each voter’s ballot.

Still, in the Republican task force report, the Georgia GOP maintains the 2020 election “revealed dramatic weaknesses in the state’s system for conducting elections” that “shattered” public confidence. It translated that belief into dozens of recommendations for changes to Georgia election law.

“We want to make the system more secure and transparent, something a significant majority of all Georgians want,” said Carver, a steering committee member for Trump’s 2016 campaign in Georgia.

A recent AJC survey found most Georgians do not believe there was widespread fraud in the presidential election. But 76% of Republicans believe there was — and that belief is fueling this year’s flurry of election bills.

“They have a right to have their voice heard in this Capitol just like the other party,” Sen. Jason Anavitarte, R-Dallas, said Monday during the debate over Senate Bill 241, a key election bill.

Sen. Mike Dugan, R-Carrolton, noted the scores of cases from several years’ worth of elections that the State Election Board recently referred to the attorney general for possible prosecution.

“That’s not widespread fraud,” Dugan said during the debate. “But to say that no adjustments need to be made to address some of the issues we see coming forward in the state is inaccurate.”

Democrats and voting rights advocates say the legislation is based on the false premise that something went horribly wrong in the November election.

“The actual facts did not support any of the allegations,” said Sweren-Becker, the Brennan Center attorney. “Nevertheless, we’re seeing those lies serve as the basis for legislation.”

The two major election bills pending in the General Assembly address a variety of issues raised in the lawsuits — especially concerns about absentee voting fraud.

SB 241 would limit absentee voting to those who are over age 65, have physical disabilities or are out of town on election day. It also would require more identification for absentee voting, prohibit election officials from mailing absentee ballot applications to voters who didn’t request them and create a voting fraud hotline.

House Bill 531 also would require more ID to vote absentee, shrink the window for applying for absentee ballots and limit the use of ballot drop boxes.

In some cases, provisions of the bills seem inspired directly by arguments made in the lawsuits. One Republican Party lawsuit argued that, under state law, ballots could only be deposited in drop boxes during normal business hours — not 24 hours a day, as permitted during recent elections. Now HB 531 would limit drop boxes to existing early voting locations and to regular voting hours.

Several lawsuits argued it was illegal for Georgia counties to accept funding from the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life, which helped offset the costs of protective equipment, hazard pay and other costs during the pandemic. HB 531 would ban such funding.

Numerous lawsuits argued that emergency rules adopted by the State Election Board during the pandemic were illegal. SB 241 would require legislative approval of emergency rules.

Stewart, the MIT election expert, said it makes sense for legislators to consider some election changes. For example, if lawmakers are uncomfortable with absentee voting, he said they could expand early in-person voting to make it more convenient. Instead, HB 531 would scale back early voting on weekends in some large counties.

Stewart said legitimate policy debates have been “hijacked by people who think the election was stolen.”

“On the face of it, it was a well-run election,” he said. “The tragedy is that message has not only been muted, but distorted and turned into a bizarro world for many people in which up is down.”

How we got the story

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed court records from 24 Georgia election lawsuits filed by former President Donald Trump, his supporters and Republican Party officials. It also reviewed 40 Republican-sponsored election bills filed this year in the General Assembly. The review found most of the bills addressed fraud and election security concerns raised in the lawsuits.

The AJC also reviewed election reports from the Republican Party, the Georgia secretary of state’s office and academic researchers. It interviewed people with various perspectives on the bills and watched debates in the General Assembly.