OPINION: Republicans go backward with Saturday voting spectacle

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Georgia Republicans were so close to a clean getaway in 2022.

Not only did they win all but one statewide race handily, they also oversaw mostly smooth elections under Senate Bill 202, their statewide election law overhaul. Democrats’ predictions of mass voter suppression did not materialize, and Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger even seemed to boost the GOP ticket in voters’ minds after they stood firm on Georgia’s election results in 2020, despite pressure from their own party to do otherwise.

But Raffensperger sullied some of that goodwill last week when his office announced that Georgia counties would be barred from offering a single Saturday of early voting ahead of the state’s Senate runoff on Dec. 6.

The reasoning behind the decision was the proximity of this coming Saturday to both Thanksgiving and the official holiday now called “State Holiday” that, until 2015, was celebrated as “Robert E. Lee Day.” The law, Raffensperger said, does not allow Saturday voting within two days of a holiday, so the only Saturday available before the runoff would have to remain dark.

If the the optics alone of a Confederate-adjacent holiday stopping Georgians from voting wasn’t enough for election officials to take the more voter-friendly reading of the law, precedent could have been.

In 2020, Georgia voters went to the polls on Saturday, Dec. 26, the day after Christmas, to vote in the Senate runoffs. Nobody opposing Saturday voting now has articulated a reason why it was acceptable then, but not this week.

At the heart of Rafensperger’s argument is the question of whether the word “election” in the law applies to Saturday voting ahead of both general and runoff elections. But before going into the minutiae of Georgia election law, let’s pause for a moment to discuss the fact that as recently as last week, Herschel Walker had no idea that there was early voting ahead of his runoff at all.

On the same day that his opponent, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, was busy filing suit with Democrats to require the state to allow voting this Saturday, Walker was stumping in Jefferson at a rally with his supporters.

As he always does at the end of his remarks, Walker reminded supporters to vote, but called to a staff member off stage, “I don’t think they have early voting, do they?”

Told that there will be voting before the runoff, Walker asked, “They have one day? Two days?”

When the answer of one week came back, a surprised Walker said, “One week! A week? We ought to cut it down from a week. Well, if they give you a week, take that week and do that. You’ve got to get out and vote.”

Maybe somebody heard his suggestion to cut it down from a week. Or maybe it was part of the plan all along, but when Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thomas A. Cox Jr. ruled with the Democrats on Friday that counties should be allowed to offer early Saturday voting, Attorney General Chris Carr quickly filed an emergency motion to stop them.

In the 26-page argument to the state Court of Appeals, Carr said the decision would not only lead to confusion, he said it would also “incentivize voters to stay away from the polls.”

But it’s not at all clear how another day of early voting, even with the protections put in place by SB 202, would encourage people not to vote.

The state got a single sentence from the appeals court on Monday night that the appeal was “DENIED.” And Raffensperger said the state would not file another appeal, but suggested the General Assembly clarify the 2016 law in the future.

Case closed, right? Not so fast.

For reasons knowable only to themselves, a trio of Republican organizations — the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Georgia GOP — filed an emergency petition Tuesday asking the court to reconsider the Saturday voting decision, which they called “illegal advance voting.”

“Time is of the essence,” they wrote in their 476-page petition to the Supreme Court of Georgia, as they accused Democrats of pushing Saturday voting as “a political ruse” that would create chaos and benefit “only ten counties — all of them Democrat-leaning.” Although many of the dozen-plus counties that plan to allow Saturday voting were Warnock strongholds, Walker also carried at least three of them last month-- Terrell, Walton and Ware.

We don’t know yet the result of the most recent appeal, but by Republicans’ own test of making it “easier to vote and harder to cheat,” the ongoing effort to bar early voting on the only Saturday ahead of the Dec. 6 runoff only makes it harder to vote.

As Judge Cox pointed out, he works during the week, as do many people. Saturday voting, which is broadly allowed in Georgia law, lets more people cast their votes in person, which SB 202′s restrictions on mail-in voting practically require.

If Republicans had spent half as much time encouraging their voters to go to the polls for Herschel Walker this Saturday as they have trying to keep all Georgians away, they’d be in better shape right now, both for the runoff and in the esteem of Georgians, who thought they meant what they said when they passed SB 202 in the first place.