Thursday is Democracy Day, a nationwide journalism effort to draw attention to threats and opportunities facing American democracy. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution compared voting laws across the country based on research by Voting Rights Lab, Movement Advancement Project and the National Vote at Home Institute.
“The trend that I see in Georgia overall is that the Legislature has restricted access more than it has expanded it,” said Liz Avore, vice president of law and policy at Voting Rights Lab, an organization that studies election laws. “We’ve seen other states move toward making it easier to vote.”
Georgia once stood out by providing six weeks of early voting in 2008, but that’s no longer the case. All but four states now offer early voting for an average of 17 days, the same number of mandatory days in Georgia.
Georgia retains several voting polices that put it at the forefront of states in the South, though not the nation. Georgia offers automatic voter registration at driver’s license offices, absentee voting availability for any registered voter and ballot drop boxes, though they’re now restricted to early voting hours and locations.
Overall, the four states with the broadest voting access polices are California, Colorado, Hawaii and Washington, according to the AJC’s comparison. Two states, Alabama and Mississippi, have the nation’s strictest voting laws.
“Some of the changes enacted since the 2020 election have been driven by concerns about voter fraud that weren’t necessarily legitimate, such as restricting drop boxes,” said Brian Hinkle, senior voting policy researcher at Movement Advancement Project, an organization that ranked Georgia’s policies 39th in the nation. “Georgia is one of a handful of states that has moved to implement restrictions on drop boxes after that was a very popular option.”
No cases alleging fraud at drop boxes have been upheld by the State Election Board. Multiple investigations, recounts and court cases upheld Democrat Joe Biden’s victory over Republican Donald Trump.
Georgia’s voting law, Senate Bill 202, capped the number of drop boxes in each county at one per 100,000 active registered voters and prohibited their usage after early voting ends the Friday before the election.
The absentee voting process also became more cumbersome. The law required voters to put a handwritten signature on their absentee applications, eliminating the ability to request a ballot entirely online. In addition, the application form is longer, voters must provide new forms of ID, and there’s a shorter period to request ballots.
Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Georgia’s voting law strikes a balance between access and security.
“Changes that make it easier for people to vote get described as ‘opportunities for fraud,’ while efforts to make elections more secure are often called ‘voter suppression.’ The fact is, neither description is usually accurate,” Raffensperger said. “Our system is convenient and more Georgians are voting than ever before. I’d say we’re doing pretty well on that score.”
There are now nearly 7.8 million registered voters in Georgia, and federal data shows that about 95% of the state’s eligible voters are signed up. Over 1.6 million new voters have registered since the 2018 election.
Georgia’s voting law expanded early voting opportunities for some residents, with a second Saturday of early voting now required statewide. But most metro counties already offered two Saturdays of early voting in 2020.
Democrat Bee Nguyen, who is challenging Raffensperger for secretary of state, said Georgia should embrace voting policies that make the state’s elections more representative, including more drop box availability, the ability to vote at any county precinct and voter registration on Election Day. Currently, Georgia has one of the earliest voter registration deadlines in the country, at 29 days before Election Day.
“We should be taking steps to expand access to voting, but it seems like we’re doing the opposite,” said Nguyen, a state representative from Atlanta. “One of the things that was in place for the 2020 election that worked well was the number of secure drop boxes that were widely available across the state. Those were steps that we should have preserved instead of reversed.”
The states with the broadest voting access, including policies that automatically mail ballots to all registered voters, usually have higher turnout than Georgia.
About 68% of eligible voters in Georgia turned out in the 2020 election, behind most of the eight states that provide vote-by-mail elections, led by Colorado, with 76% turnout, according to the United States Election Project at the University of Florida, which analyzes election data.
Absentee voting in Georgia sharply declined as a result of new laws and a return to pre-pandemic voting behavior. This year, 4% of voters cast absentee ballots compared with 26% in the 2020 general election and 49% in that year’s primary, when Raffensperger sent absentee ballot applications to all active voters. Overall turnout reached a record high in this year’s midterm primary with nearly 2 million voters.
Kristin Nabers, Georgia state director for the advocacy group All Voting Is Local, said the Georgia General Assembly created new restrictions on absentee voting based on false claims of fraud in the 2020 election.
“Their goal was to make it harder for people to vote, and they were inventing a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” Nabers said. “Georgia voters are doing everything they can to have their voices heard and cast their ballots, so they deserve a choice to vote in the way that works best for them.”
This story was produced as part of the Democracy Day journalism collaborative, a nationwide effort to shine a light on the threats and opportunities facing American democracy. Read more at usdemocracyday.org.