Voting law a Rorschach test for a divided Georgia

12/14/2020 —  Marietta, Georgia —  Cobb County resident Nate Napier, 30, prepares to cast his ballot during early voting at the Cobb County Elections and Voter Registration Office in Marietta, Monday, December 14, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

12/14/2020 — Marietta, Georgia — Cobb County resident Nate Napier, 30, prepares to cast his ballot during early voting at the Cobb County Elections and Voter Registration Office in Marietta, Monday, December 14, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

To its supporters, Georgia’s sweeping new election law makes voting more secure without sacrificing much convenience.

They say its provisions are comparable to those in other states and often friendlier to voters than the laws in liberal bastions such as New York. And they say the growing backlash against the law is far out of proportion to its modest changes.

To its detractors, the law is a big step backward that makes it harder to vote in Georgia, a state with a history of disenfranchising Black voters.

They say Republicans are weakening the kind of initiatives they had championed, such as absentee voting, until they started losing elections. And they say it’s mean-spirited to boot — criminalizing acts of kindness such as allowing volunteers to provide food and water to voters waiting in long lines.

In short, Senate Bill 202 is a Rorschach test that underscores the bitter divisions that have made Georgia a political battleground of national importance.

The stakes of the debate were made clear Friday when Major League Baseball announced it will pull its All-Star game out of Georgia because of the voting law.

If anything, the law may cement Georgia’s central role in U.S. politics, with other states now considering some of the election changes that Republicans here enacted over the bitter objections of Democrats.

“Georgia got out front and unfortunately passed a very restrictive voting bill, but Georgia is not alone in this effort,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice, a voting advocacy organization. “We are continuing to see lawmakers not only introduce new restrictions, but advance them through their own state legislatures.”

Nationwide, legislators have introduced 361 bills with voting restrictions in 47 states, according to the Brennan Center. Efforts to change voting laws arose from last year’s contentious election and then-President Donald Trump’s false claims that he had won reelection.

A review of other states’ election laws — as well as Georgia’s history — shows each side can find evidence to support its perspectives on the new law.

Even after SB 202, Georgians can vote more ways and for a longer period than residents of many other states. But some of its requirements could disproportionally affect poor and minority voters who had to fight for voting rights in the South.

Outside the norm?

SB 202 made numerous changes to Georgia elections that will directly affect voters.

It imposes new identification requirements for casting absentee ballots, sets an earlier deadline for requesting those ballots and authorizes but limits the use of ballot drop boxes, confining them inside early voting locations during regular voting hours.

It expands early in-person voting for general elections but reduces it for runoffs. It would prohibit election officials from counting provisional ballots cast in the wrong precincts unless they are cast after 5 p.m. on election day.

The law also makes numerous behind-the-scenes changes that will affect how elections are conducted. It requires local election officials to process absentee ballots earlier and to keep counting votes until they’re finished.

It strips the secretary of state of some powers, and it allows the State Election Board — now effectively controlled by the Legislature — to take over local election offices that don’t meet its standards. The potential for state intervention raised alarms that Republican appointees could refuse to certify election results in majority Democratic counties. Last year, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger stood up to pressure from Trump and his supporters in Georgia to overturn statewide election results.

Election experts say the cumulative changes might be enough to sway close elections — such as Joe Biden’s 11,779-vote Georgia victory over Trump in November.

The General Assembly approved SB 202 over the objections of every Democrat and with the support of every Republican.

The backlash began almost immediately and has continued to grow.

In addition to losing the All-Star game, Georgia faces four lawsuits that say the law would illegally suppress the votes of minorities. Major employers such as Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines have criticized the law. Biden called it “Jim Crow in the 21st century.”

Republicans say the criticism is overblown.

“If this bill had been law in 2020, Trump still would have lost GA,” former state Rep. Buzz Brockway said on Twitter. “The reaction to this bill far exceeds what’s actually in it.”

SB 202′s supporters say other states — including states controlled by Democrats — have similar or more restrictive laws. A review of state laws from across the country suggests that’s true for many — but not all — of SB 202′s provisions.

For example, take Georgia’s new deadline to submit an absentee ballot, which is 11 days before an election. According to information compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, Georgia until recently was one of 23 states that allow voters to apply for absentee ballots less than seven days before an election. Now it’s one of 11 states that set the application deadline more than seven days before the election.

That puts Georgia among the more restrictive states.

Or take early in-person voting, which is available in 43 states (including states with all-mail elections). Early voting periods range in length from four days to 45 days. The average is 19 days.

Under SB 202, Georgia would have a minimum of 17 days of early voting for general elections, with two additional Sunday voting days for counties that want them, for a maximum of 19 days — right at the national average. The law also reduces early voting to one week before runoffs in most cases. Georgia is the only state that requires runoffs if no candidate gets a majority of votes in a general election.

In other areas, Georgia’s new law is unusual. For example, Georgia is moving away from the standard practice in most states when it comes to verifying the identities of absentee voters.

Thirty states match voters’ signatures on absentee ballots with signatures already on file — the way Georgia did until SB 202. Seventeen states have other signature, witness or notary requirements.

Under SB 202, Georgia will become one of just four states that require absentee voters to submit a driver’s license number or other ID number, according to the NCSL. The others are Kansas, Minnesota and Ohio. Many states require a driver’s license or other ID to register to vote or to vote in person.

Laws that prohibit distributing food and water to voters in line appear to be even more unusual. Supporters of the restriction say it is needed because refreshments could influence voters near polling places. The law allows poll workers to make self-service water stations available, though it doesn’t require it.

Montana prohibits candidates and campaigns from distributing food and drink within 100 feet of a polling place, according to the NCSL. New York prohibits providing refreshments to people, except those having a retail value of less than $1, which are given without identifying the person or entity supplying the provisions.

Nonetheless, Republicans say Democrats are in no position to point fingers.

In a speech on the state House floor Wednesday, Rep. Todd Jones, R-Cumming, noted that New York residents cannot cast absentee ballots without an excuse. Nor does that state automatically register voters when they obtain a driver’s license, as in Georgia (New York will begin automatic voter registration in 2023). New York only began offering early voting in 2019 — 15 years after Georgia.

Jones also criticized Biden’s home state of Delaware, which won’t offer early in-person voting until 2022 and requires absentee voters to have an excuse.

“We’re not perfect,” Jones said. “But his home state is far from it.”

A conservative organization, Heritage Action for America, said Georgia’s voting laws are well within the mainstream. Heritage Action made policy recommendations to state governments to limit absentee ballots and require ID.

“It’s outrageous that the left continues to smear the Peach State over its commonsense voting protections while praising other states like New Jersey and Delaware, which both have fewer days of early voting despite their liberal governments,” said Noah Weinrich, a spokesman for Heritage Action. “This bill expands those further while promoting confidence in the state’s election system.”

A history of suppression

Critics say those arguments ignore Georgia’s history. They see the law as a threat to fundamental voting rights they’ve fought for since before the civil rights movement.

“We’re constantly trying to protect their rights,” said the Rev. James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP. “I know people are trying to make this into a partisan thing, but this impacts all voters, not just those in Atlanta, but those in South Georgia as well.”

The law’s critics say minorities and poor Georgians will be disproportionately affected by some of the law’s provisions. One example: the new ID requirements for absentee voting.

SB 202 requires voters to submit their driver’s license or state ID number to cast a ballot. But about 3% of registered voters lack such identification. In 2014 the U.S. Government Accountability Office reviewed numerous studies that found white voters were more likely to possess a driver’s license or other photo ID than minorities.

Those voters could obtain a free ID or return a copy of other documentation when requesting a ballot. But voting rights advocates say SB 202 creates an additional hardship for more than 200,000 registered voters who lack a driver’s license or state ID.

Woodall said Black voters also will feel the brunt of reduced early voting days before runoffs. And the law’s requirement for a second Saturday of early voting before general elections won’t help voters in densely populated metro areas that already have weekend options.

What’s more, critics say the allegations of widespread voting fraud that inspired SB 202 are false. Numerous courts rejected the allegations, and investigations by the Georgia secretary of state found no fraud on a scale that would have changed the outcome of the presidential election.

Voting rights attorney Emmet Bondurant said it’s not the first time Republicans have used spurious allegations of voting fraud to justify needless restrictions. He cited the Legislature’s 2005 decision to require additional ID for voting in person.

“It is totally a fantasy that there was even a threat of a (voting fraud) problem,” he said. “But that pattern still exists.”

Bondurant dismissed the comparisons to other states’ laws as “an old debating tactic” used to distract from the changes in Georgia law.

“The fact that New York or Delaware may not be perfect is not an excuse for Georgia to be more restrictive,” he said.

In fact, other states are expanding voting access in response to the 2020 elections.

New Jersey’s governor signed a law Monday allowing up to nine days of early voting, which is still about half of Georgia’s advance voting period. In New York, a bill would allow anyone to cast absentee ballots without providing an excuse. Virginia enacted a law Wednesday creating a state-level version of the federal Voting Rights Act.

States are going in different directions based on the “Big Lie” promoted by Trump and his supporters that the election was illegitimate, said Hillary Holley, organizing director for the voting rights organization Fair Fight.

“States across the country are choosing where they stand. Are they going to move backward, or are they going to use it as a learning opportunity to expand voting access?” Holley said. “Georgia made a choice, and the choice was to allow the Big Lie to influence public policy.”

Georgia’s choice may have repercussions beyond its borders if lawmakers in other states take inspiration from the state’s new election law.

“This has woken up a lot of Americans to this effort to restrict voting access,” said Sweren-Becker of the Brennan Center. “It’s real. This is a meaningful effort where lawmakers are trying to change laws to make it harder to vote.”


What’s in the new law

Absentee ballots will be verified based on driver’s license numbers, state ID numbers or other documentation instead of voter signatures.

Ballot drop boxes will only be allowed inside early voting locations and available strictly during voting hours.

Weekend voting will be expanded for general elections, with two mandatory Saturdays offered statewide. Counties can also choose to offer early voting on two optional Saturdays.

Early voting for runoffs will be reduced to a minimum of one week because runoffs would occur four weeks after general elections.

Food and water will be prohibited from being distributed by members of the public to voters waiting in line.

State takeovers of county election boards with a history of problems would be allowed, replacing them with an interim elections manager appointed by the State Election Board.

Source: Senate Bill 202

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