Under Georgia voting law, absentees decline but turnout resilient

Georgia primary voters encountered short lines and limited problems May 24 at Park Tavern in Atlanta. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia primary voters encountered short lines and limited problems May 24 at Park Tavern in Atlanta. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Voter behavior changes after election law and COVID-19

Georgia’s voting law was designed to tighten regulations on absentee voting — the word “absentee” appears 343 times in the 98-page voting bill legislators approved in 2021.

It worked as intended in this year’s primary.

The number of absentee voters plunged as overall turnout reached a record high for a midterm primary, according to Georgia election data. While the law cracked down on absentee voting, most voters weren’t deterred.

The law, passed by Republican lawmakers in the wake of Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 presidential election, also contributed to hundreds of absentee ballot rejections, in part because of drop box limitations and additional ID requirements.

After Democrats portrayed the law as “Jim Crow 2.0″ and Republicans touted it as improving “election integrity,” the results of the primary show a more nuanced impact.

ExploreWill Georgia voting laws reduce turnout? Maybe not, studies show

Voting rights advocates said the law motivated Georgians to make their voices heard at the polls after church leaders and voting organizations worked to engage and register voters since the law passed.

“The turnout was not because of the law, but in spite of it,” said Bishop Reginald Jackson, who leads more than 500 African Methodist Episcopal churches in Georgia. “It goes to show that African Americans are resilient and will rise to the occasion.”

Republicans viewed high turnout as a vindication of the law, saying it gave voters confidence that their votes would count after Trump and his supporters falsely claimed the presidential election was illegitimate. Multiple recounts, court cases and investigations debunked Trump’s allegations of fraud during the election he lost.

“The results speak for themselves. Georgia’s new election law has made it easy to vote and hard to cheat, leading to record turnout,” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said.

Much of the voting law targeted absentee voting after two-thirds of absentee voters supported Democrat Joe Biden over Trump in 2020.

Voters shifted to in-person voting this year after the law curtailed easy access to absentee voting and coronavirus-driven fears about human contact at polling places waned.

Combined ShapeCaption
Josephine Reed-Taylor (center) waits with other voters who gathered at the Buckhead Library for early voting May 2. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Josephine Reed-Taylor (center) waits with other voters who gathered at the Buckhead Library for early voting May 2. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Josephine Reed-Taylor (center) waits with other voters who gathered at the Buckhead Library for early voting May 2. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The law prohibited mass mailings of absentee ballot applications, eliminated paperless online ballot requests, set an earlier ballot request deadline and curtailed drop box availability.

This year, just 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. This year’s absentee voting rates reflect a return to historical trends, when about 5% of voters typically voted absentee, the majority of them over 65 years old.

Most absentee voters from 2020 still participated this year — but in polling places instead of remotely.

Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is running for governor, said record midterm primary turnout doesn’t erase the effects of the voting law.

“We know that increased turnout has nothing to do with suppression. Suppression is about whether or not you make it difficult for voters to access the ballot,” Abrams said.

In all, about 2 million people voted in the May primary, compared with 2.3 million in the 2020 primary and 5 million in the presidential election.

Turnout was especially high in the Republican primary, with hotly contested races at the top of the ticket for governor and the U.S. Senate, won by Gov. Brian Kemp and Herschel Walker, respectively. About 61% of primary voters chose Republican ballots.

Academic research shows that most changes in voter access rules don’t make much of a difference to turnout, said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University who studies voting behavior. Even if it’s less convenient, voters adapt to have their ballots counted.

“A lot of things in that bill aren’t going to have a large effect on turnout. They may shift turnout from one type of voting to another type of voting,” Abramowitz said. “Efforts to make it harder to vote produce a sort of countereffect. If people feel like someone is trying to stop them from voting, they’re going to make sure they do vote.”

The primary drivers of voter turnout include competitive races, compelling candidates, political advertising and an engaged electorate, he said.

Still, specific parts of the voting law contributed to increases in some types of ballot rejections, according to state election data.

ExploreHow Georgia’s voting law works

The rejection rate for absentee ballots returned late climbed after the law capped the number of drop boxes to one per 100,000 active registered voters and prohibited their use during the last few days of the election.

About three-quarters of rejections this year were for ballots delivered after election day, up from 1% in November 2020. That amounts to 1,200 absentee voters whose ballots weren’t counted this year.

The law’s requirement for absentee voters to provide a driver’s license number, state ID number or other form of ID also ensnared nearly 300 voters whose ballots were rejected for incorrect or missing information.

One of those voters, Frances Clark of Roswell, said it’s “unbelievable” that her ballot was rejected for missing ID information after she double-checked it and went to the trouble of filling out the state’s new and more complicated two-page absentee application form.

“This is just ridiculous because I was so careful about it and because I’m so aware of what’s going on in this state,” said Clark, a former high school teacher. “Why make absentee voting difficult? It should be a simple process. It certainly was before the new voting laws.”

Overall, the absentee ballot rejection rate for this year’s primary was 2%, an increase from less than 1% in the 2020 primary and general election.

Ballot rejections had a disproportionate impact on Black voters, according to election data. While 30% of voters identified themselves as Black when registering to vote, they accounted for 33% of ballot rejections and 43% of ballot application rejections.

The voting law expanded voter access in one area, mandating a second Saturday of early voting so that every county has at least 17 days in which to cast ballots before election day. The law also continued to allow counties to offer early voting on two Sundays.

There were 49 counties near metro areas that had already offered two Saturdays of early voting in 2020, meaning the expansion of early voting mostly affected rural, Republican-leaning counties.

In those counties that added an additional Saturday as a result of the voting law, over 4,000 people voted on that day on May 7.

Former Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler credited the voting law for increased turnout.

“It was the centerpiece of the effort to restore voter confidence and bring voters back to the polls after unprecedented changes to elections in 2020,” said Loeffler, founder and chairwoman of Greater Georgia, a voter engagement organization.

But the true test of the voting law is yet to come in the higher-stakes November election, said Jackson. He said he’s concerned about parts of the law that empower challenges to voter eligibility and allow the state to take over county election boards as Fulton County remains under investigation.

Staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this article.


How Georgians voted in the 2022 primary

Election day: 55%

Early voting: 41%

Absentee: 4%

Source: Georgia election data