How Georgia’s voting law works

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What you need to know about the state’s voting access and restrictions

Georgia’s expansive voting law changes the rules of elections in many ways, making it harder to cast an absentee ballot, shifting early voting days and overhauling how elections are run.

The most well-known parts of the law limit drop boxes, require different forms of ID for absentee voting and ban handing food and drinks to voters waiting in line.

Additional provisions give greater control over elections to Georgia’s GOP majority after Republican Donald Trump lost the state to Democrat Joe Biden in November’s presidential election.

Other sections require a second Saturday of early voting in general elections, shorten early voting before runoffs and mandate quicker vote-counting.

Here is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s explanation of Senate Bill 202, the 98-page law that will affect voting access, ballot counting and state powers over elections.

Drop boxes are confined to early voting sites

Absentee ballot drop boxes are allowed, but with tight restrictions that limit their usefulness.

Georgia’s voting law permits drop boxes if they’re located inside early voting locations, available only during in-person voting hours, and shut down when early voting ends the Friday before an election. Every county is required to install at least one drop box, kept under “constant surveillance” by an election official, police officer or licensed security guard.

The number of drop boxes in each county is capped at one for every 100,000 active registered voters or the number of early voting locations. That means the number of drop box locations in metro Atlanta’s four core counties will shrink from 111 to 23.

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Drop boxes were used for the first time in Georgia in 2020 under emergency rules the State Election Board approved during the coronavirus pandemic. Drop boxes were monitored by video, and election officials reported no indication of ballot-stuffing or fraud.

The emergency rules expired after the 2020 elections and 2021 runoffs. The new voting law prevented the possibility of the rules being renewed or made permanent.

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The rate of absentee ballots rejected because they arrived after election day plummeted in the presidential election, in part because drop boxes helped voters avoid postal delays.

Nearly two-thirds of absentee ballots cast in the presidential election were for Biden.

ID is required for absentee voting

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Voters will need to submit a driver’s license number, state ID number or other documentation when both requesting and returning absentee ballots. The new ID requirements replace a system of verifying voters by comparing their signatures with those kept on file, often from when they registered to vote.

Critics of the new ID requirements say they will make it harder to vote for the 3% of registered Georgia voters who lack an ID number associated with their registration information. They would need to submit other documentation when requesting an absentee ballot, such as a utility bill, bank statement, paycheck, passport or military ID.

The ID requirements are different when returning a completed ballot. At that point, voters can write the last four digits of their Social Security number if they lack a driver’s license or state ID.

Supporters of the ID requirements say they’ll be more objective than signature comparisons conducted by county election workers. An audit of absentee ballots in Cobb County found zero fraudulent signatures among 15,000 reviewed by investigators.

Early voting hours will change

All Georgia voters will be able to vote on two Saturdays before general elections and primaries, but weekend voting hours before runoffs will be reduced.

The voting law requires a second Saturday of early voting statewide before general and primary elections, which expands early voting hours for rural, Republican-leaning counties that didn’t previously offer two Saturdays.

About 60% of registered voters in Georgia already live in counties that had two Saturdays during three weeks of early voting last year.

The additional Saturday means Georgia has 16 guaranteed days of early voting before each general or primary election.

Sunday voting will remain optional, with county election offices given the authority to decide whether to open voting locations on up to two Sundays.

Early voting will be reduced before runoffs. Instead of three weeks of early voting, SB 202 requires one week of early voting, or it can begin “as soon as possible” after a general election. The law calls for runoffs to be held four weeks after elections instead of nine, leaving less time for election officials to print ballots and test equipment before early voting can begin.

For all elections, the default early voting hours are set at 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and county election officials can choose longer hours, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. That’s a change from previous years, when early voting times were required “during normal business hours,” without defining those hours.

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It’s illegal to hand out food and water to voters in line

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Volunteers will no longer be allowed to give free pizza or water to voters in lines, some of which lasted three hours or more during the 2020 primary election.

The law bans distributing food and drinks to voters within 150 feet of the outer edge of a polling place or within 25 feet of any voter standing in line. Poll workers will be allowed to install self-service water receptacles for voters waiting in line.

Long lines have the potential to dissuade voters, with studies showing that in recent elections, hundreds of thousands of people nationwide declined to cast a ballot rather than wait.

Handing out water is now considered the same kind of offense as other money or gifts that could influence a voter’s choice. It’s punishable as a misdemeanor, which comes with up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Voters face earlier absentee ballot deadlines

The window to request absentee ballots begins later and ends sooner.

Voters will be unable to request an absentee ballot until 78 days before election day, down from the 180-day period previously allowed.

The last opportunity to return an absentee ballot application is 11 days before election day. In past elections, voters could request absentee ballots until the Friday before an election.

Voters were less likely to get their ballots in on time if they requested them close to the election, according to election data. About 52% of absentee ballots requested in the last 11 days before Nov. 3 were returned, compared with 75% of ballots requested beforehand.

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Voting buses are banned


Fulton County used two voting buses, which served more than 112,000 voters. This bus was set up at Wolf Creek Library after the library lost power during a tropical storm. Senate Bill 202 now restricts voting buses to emergencies declared by the governor. (STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC)
Fulton County used two voting buses, which served more than 112,000 voters. This bus was set up at Wolf Creek Library after the library lost power during a tropical storm. Senate Bill 202 now restricts voting buses to emergencies declared by the governor. (STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The innovation of voting buses, used in Fulton County to travel to various sites during early voting last year, won’t continue in future elections.

Fulton, home to the city of Atlanta, was the only county in the state to bring voting booths to voters under a statute that allowed “portable or movable polling facilities.” The voting buses traveled throughout the county, appearing in different locations based on a schedule posted online.

Over 112,000 voters cast ballots on Georgia’s voting machines inside Fulton’s two voting buses.

SB 202 now restricts voting buses to emergencies declared by the governor, near polling places that were affected by disasters such as storms and power outages.

Provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct won’t count

When voters showed up at the wrong county polling place, they were still permitted to cast a provisional ballot. Election officials counted their votes in all races they were eligible to participate in, including for federal, state and countywide candidates. Votes for candidates in races outside their home district weren’t counted.

Election workers counted 3,357 provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct in November’s election, according to state election data. Those ballots would have been discarded if SB 202 had been in effect at the time.

The new voting law will disqualify provisional ballots entirely if they’re cast in the wrong precinct. None of those votes will be counted, with the exception of ballots cast after 5 p.m. on election day, when voters have little time to drive to their neighborhood precinct. Voters went to the incorrect precinct because their old voting location closed or the county merged polling places.

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There were 214 precinct closures in Georgia between 2012 and 2018, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

About 63% of provisional ballots were cast for Democrat Joe Biden in Georgia.

Mass mailings of absentee ballot request forms are restricted

Senate Bill 202 prohibits voting organizations and governments from sending repeated absentee ballot applications, and state and local governments are banned from mailing any unsolicited absentee request forms at all.
Senate Bill 202 prohibits voting organizations and governments from sending repeated absentee ballot applications, and state and local governments are banned from mailing any unsolicited absentee request forms at all.

Mailboxes will no longer overflow with absentee ballot request forms from organizations encouraging Georgians to cast an absentee ballot.

Voting organizations and governments will be prohibited from sending repeated absentee ballot applications, according to the state’s voting law. And state and local governments are banned from mailing any unsolicited absentee request forms at all.

Under the law, groups are only allowed to send absentee ballot applications to Georgians who haven’t already requested a ballot or voted. The restriction on mailings arose after voters complained that they received multiple letters asking them to request absentee ballots, even after they had already done so.

Organizations would have to check public election records to make sure they aren’t sending repeated ballot request forms to voters. They face a $100 fine for each duplicate absentee ballot application that’s processed by county election offices, according to the law.

A lawsuit filed by voter engagement organizations, the Voter Participation Center and the Center for Voter Information, alleges the law infringes on their First Amendment free speech rights, making it difficult to run vote-by-mail application programs.

Unlimited challenges to voter eligibility are allowed

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Any voter can challenge the eligibility of as many voters in their county or city as they wish, according to SB 202.

That means a voter in Fulton County would be empowered to challenge all the county’s 860,000 voters if he or she chooses to do so. Challenges must be made in writing and specify the grounds for the challenge.

This provision of the law arose after the Texas-based group True the Vote challenged 360,000 Georgia voters in December, an attempt to disqualify ballots of voters based on the suspicion that they might have moved.

Bipartisan county election boards found few illegitimate voters afterward, rejecting a few dozen ballots statewide after Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoffs.

Georgia’s new voting law enables similar challenges to voters’ qualifications to become more commonplace in future elections.

Long lines could result in more voting sites opening

During the June 2020 primary election, some voters in Fulton County waited as long as 2-3 hours in lines such as this one at Park Tavern in Midtown. Although SB 202 addresses long lines at polling sites, the new rules apply only to general elections and not primaries. (JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)
During the June 2020 primary election, some voters in Fulton County waited as long as 2-3 hours in lines such as this one at Park Tavern in Midtown. Although SB 202 addresses long lines at polling sites, the new rules apply only to general elections and not primaries. (JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

If voters have to wait in line for more than an hour before checking in to vote in a general election, county election officials will have to reduce the number of voters assigned to that precinct to no more than 2,000.

That could mean counties would have to open additional voting sites or reassign voters to other voting locations for the next election. Each precinct manager will be required to measure wait times three times a day on election day.

The law applies to general elections, such last fall’s presidential election, when average wait times statewide were about three minutes. The law doesn’t cover primaries, such as the June election when voters, especially in Fulton County, suffered extreme wait times.

Voting rights groups opposed splitting large precincts, saying voters would still go to their old precincts where they’d only be able to cast provisional ballots, which the law says won’t be counted except after 5 p.m. on election day.

Election results must be reported more quickly

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Vote-counting took longer in the 2020 presidential election because of high turnout and record numbers of absentee ballots, especially in metro areas that lean heavily Democratic. As a result, Trump led on election night but fell behind as more votes were counted in the following days.

The results of future elections will be reported sooner.

After polls close on election day, workers must count ballots through the night and into the following day, according to the voting law. They’re not allowed to stop until they’ve tallied all votes cast on election day, during early voting and by absentee ballot. (Counties are allowed more time to count provisional and absentee ballots returned by military and overseas voters, which don’t have to be received until three days after election day.)

If a county fails to finish counting absentee ballots by 5 p.m. on the day after an election, it could face consequences. The State Election Board could launch a performance review, the first step toward a state takeover of that county’s elections operations.

In addition, election workers can begin opening and scanning absentee ballots two weeks before election day, but no results can be tabulated until polls close.

Election officials must certify election results by the Monday after election day, four days sooner than previously allowed by state law.

Ballots will be printed on special paper

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Both in-person and absentee ballots must be printed on “security paper” that includes features that can be used to authenticate it.

But ballot scanners won’t be able to detect whether ballots are printed on security paper, meaning it will require human inspection to find a potentially fraudulent ballot. Election officials haven’t found counterfeit ballots in the presidential election.

The security paper is estimated to cost about 25 cents per ballot, roughly double the cost of a regular paper ballot. That would amount to a total cost of about $1.25 million for an election like November’s, with 5 million voters.

Digital images of paper ballots are now public records

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Anyone who wants to examine ballots cast in Georgia will be able to look at pictures of them.

While the ballots themselves would be public, how people voted would remain confidential, as required by the Georgia Constitution.

SB 202 makes scanned ballot images a public record. The original paper ballots themselves are kept under seal by county superior court clerks.

Ballot images are generated when voters deposit their ballots into scanning machines and when election workers scan absentee ballots. Those images are stored on memory cards.

The law also requires the secretary of state’s office to create a pilot program to post ballot images online.

Poll watchers gain more access to ballot counting

A group of poll watchers observe a hand tally of presidential race results in Savannah as part of a state audit in November. The new voting law requires training for poll watchers and grants them more access to the counting. Critics say that it weakens protections against intimidation and harassment. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
A group of poll watchers observe a hand tally of presidential race results in Savannah as part of a state audit in November. The new voting law requires training for poll watchers and grants them more access to the counting. Critics say that it weakens protections against intimidation and harassment. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Political parties dispatched teams of poll watchers to monitor election workers as they tallied ballots late into the night. Some poll watchers complained that they weren’t allowed to get close enough, and election workers said the watchers were too intrusive.

Republican Party poll watchers claimed that ballots weren’t handled correctly, leading to a lawsuit that a judge quickly dismissed, finding they had no evidence.

Georgia’s voting law states that each poll watcher must be allowed to “fairly observe” election procedures at ballot tabulation centers. Poll watchers will be required to go through training to ensure they know their duties and election laws. Training must be provided by political parties or candidates.

Across the country, legislators in 20 states have introduced bills to expand the powers of poll watchers, some of which weaken protections against voter intimidation and harassment, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

County election boards can be replaced by state officials

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger held a press conference in June to highlight complaints about Fulton County's election problems. Senate Bill 202 allows the State Election Board to replace county election boards after conducting a performance evaluation. (Mark Niesse / mark.niesse@ajc.com)
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger held a press conference in June to highlight complaints about Fulton County's election problems. Senate Bill 202 allows the State Election Board to replace county election boards after conducting a performance evaluation. (Mark Niesse / mark.niesse@ajc.com)

The State Election Board will be able to replace county election boards after conducting a performance evaluation.

County commissions or state legislators from a county could request a performance review, which would be conducted by a three-person panel appointed by the State Election Board. After the review is completed, the State Election Board could decide to install new management.

A temporary county election superintendent would have broad authority to certify elections, hire and fire staff, decide on voting locations, manage absentee ballots, spend tax money and set policy.

Opponents of state election takeovers worry about the potential for abuse by the State Election Board, which will include four Republicans and one Democrat. The law removed Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who rejected Trump’s claims of voter fraud, from the board.

Large counties with Democratic majorities, such as Fulton County, could become easy targets based on their history of long lines and slow reporting of results.

The law forbids local governments from spending tax money on attorneys to defend themselves to the State Election Board.

A law enforcement hotline will gather voter complaints

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A hotline for voters to report election problems will ring at the attorney general’s office, which prosecutes crimes, rather than the secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections.

The phone line will be required to take complaints about voter intimidation and illegal election activities, according to SB 202. Anonymous complaints are allowed.

Then the attorney general’s office will decide whether to launch investigations or prosecutions.

Voting rights organizations have said the hotline could be misused for political gain, to report on voters who are doing nothing wrong.

For years, the secretary of state’s office has also run a voter hotline, as has the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under Law, which manages the Election Protection hotline.

Election funding from outside sources has been cut

State Farm Arena held early voting for Fulton County residents in October. The site was donated privately, which will no longer be allowed by the new voting law. Senate Bill 202 states that county election officials are prohibited from accepting any funding or gifts, except from local, state or federal governments. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
State Farm Arena held early voting for Fulton County residents in October. The site was donated privately, which will no longer be allowed by the new voting law. Senate Bill 202 states that county election officials are prohibited from accepting any funding or gifts, except from local, state or federal governments. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

After companies and nonprofits chipped in to help run elections during the coronavirus pandemic, Georgia legislators limited outside expenditures.

That decision could curtail contributions, including the donation of State Farm Arena during early voting and over $20 million from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a group funded by Mark Zuckerberg and philanthropist Priscilla Chan, who is married to Zuckerberg. The money paid for staffing, hazard pay, absentee ballot postage costs, equipment, voter outreach and personal protective gear.

County election officials are prohibited from accepting any funding or gifts except from local, state or federal governments, according to SB 202.

Lawmakers supporting the restrictions said taxpayers and their governments should fund elections, not outside organizations. They also questioned whether funding was given fairly between majority Republican and Democratic counties, both of which received outside money, with larger counties getting the most financial help.

But the money and gift restrictions have a big loophole.

The law doesn’t ban outside donations to county governments, which could then allocate resources to their election boards. The law only affects direct payments to election offices.

Runoffs will be held soon after general elections

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Runoffs will be held four weeks after general elections instead of nine weeks later, a change made after Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate lost runoffs in January.

The quick turnaround reduces time for early and absentee voting. Just one week of early voting will be required instead of three weeks in other elections. And there will be a tight window to request and return absentee ballots before election day.

Georgia had such a long delay before runoffs because of a federal judge’s 2013 ruling that Americans living abroad didn’t have enough time to mail their ballots, a decision that resulted in the nine-week period before runoffs.

The state’s voting law gets around the nine-week wait for runoffs by instituting instant-runoff voting for Georgians living overseas and in the military.

Under instant-runoff voting, overseas and military voters will rank their choices in each multicandidate race when they return their ballots before a general election. If a runoff is necessary, votes for the highest-ranked remaining candidates will then be tallied, without overseas and military voters having to vote again.

Free-for-all special elections have been replaced by partisan races

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Never again will there be the kind of 20-candidate, multiparty special election that forced Republican Kelly Loeffler into a runoff against Democrat Raphael Warnock.

Special elections will now have partisan primary elections in Georgia, with the nominees of the Democratic and Republican parties facing off against each other and any qualified third-party rivals in a follow-up election.

A partisan primary last year would have forced Loeffler into a Republican Party matchup with her chief rival, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who finished in third place in November. Warnock faced competition within his party from Democrats with lower profiles.

Backers of the law said each political party’s voters should be able to choose their candidates.

No candidate came close to winning a majority in the November special election, forcing a runoff in January that Warnock won by 2 percentage points.

Lawsuits brought against the voting law

Coverage of legal challenges to SB 202:

Several voting organizations filed a federal lawsuit arguing the restrictions “lack any justification for their burdensome and discriminatory effects on voting,” especially among minority, young, poor and disabled voters.

The NAACP alleges SB 202 is “a concerted effort to suppress the participation of Black voters”

The AME Church takes issue with absentee ID requirements, drop box restrictions, absentee ballot request deadlines and a ban on giving out food and water.

Asian advocacy groups say absentee ballot limitations will disenfranchise voters.

Voter engagement organizations oppose restrictions on mass mailing absentee ballot application forms.

The Concerned Black Clergy of Metro Atlanta and other churches say Georgia’s voting law’s requirements are racially discriminatory.

The Coalition for Good Governance opposes state takeovers of county elections, short absentee ballot deadlines and absentee ID requirements.

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