What Georgia voting law actually says – and why stakes seem so high

Jeff Amy/AP
African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Reginald Jackson announces a boycott of Coca-Cola products outside the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta on March 25, 2021. He says Coca-Cola and other large Georgia companies haven't done enough to oppose restrictive voting bills such as the one Georgia lawmakers were debating on that day.

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Opponents of Georgia’s recently enacted election law call it a voting suppression act. They say it will make it harder for some people to vote and is aimed in particular at the Black and other minority voters who pushed the state into the Democratic column for 2020 elections.

Proponents say parts of the measure will actually expand ballot access, and that other elements leave Georgia within the U.S. legal mainstream.

Why We Wrote This

In describing Georgia’s new voting law, Republicans claim positive reforms where Democrats decry an assault on rights that targets Black voters. We take a closer look at what the law does and doesn’t do.

The reality is that the law is multifaceted, and both sides can point to provisions that back up their views. The problem may be the context in which a Republican-controlled state legislature and governor passed the legislation. For one thing, Georgia is now a pivotal battleground, crucial recently in deciding control of both the Senate and White House.

While the law doesn’t prohibit offering no-excuse mail-in ballots or early voting on Sundays, some changes impose new restrictions. Voters will have to request applications for mail-in ballots. There’s a virtual ban on mobile voting centers.

“Whenever there are partisan ideals that take precedence over the franchise is when democracy starts to fail,” said the Rev. James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP, at a press conference April 5.

Opponents of Georgia’s recently enacted election law call it a voting suppression act. They say it will make it harder for some people to vote and is aimed in particular at the Black and other minority voters who pushed the state into the Democratic column for 2020 elections.

Proponents of the law say this attack is vastly overblown. Parts of the measure actually expand ballot access, they say, while others still leave Georgia within the U.S. legal mainstream.

The reality is that the law is multifaceted, and both sides can point to provisions that back up their views. The turbulence may stem especially from the context in which the Republican-controlled state legislature passed and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed the legislation.

Why We Wrote This

In describing Georgia’s new voting law, Republicans claim positive reforms where Democrats decry an assault on rights that targets Black voters. We take a closer look at what the law does and doesn’t do.

Lawmakers have introduced hundreds of bills containing voter restrictions in almost every state in the union, as former President Donald Trump continues to insist, falsely, that the election was stolen and he was the rightful winner. Georgia, where Mr. Trump personally pressed Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to overturn the results, and which later narrowly elected two Democratic senators in a runoff, is in many ways the epicenter of election bill controversy.

Georgia has received so much attention because it is a state on the cusp that could very easily swing Democratic or Republican, says Michael Morley, a law professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee. With national power so evenly balanced between the parties, even marginal changes in Georgia results could decide who controls the House, the Senate, and even the presidency.

“Georgia is seen as a place where it is much more worthwhile to fight for every single detail,” says Professor Morley in regards to state election law.

Provisions on cutting-room floor

In some ways the details that weren’t included in the new Georgia law may be as indicative as those that were. Several of its most controversial provisions were softened or edited out prior to passage.

Early drafts, for instance, called for a ban on Sunday early voting. Critics saw this as an attempt to end organized church trips to the polls, an important part of Black voter turnout efforts. This provision was struck prior to passage. 

As enacted, the law does not require counties to provide Sunday early voting. But it allows counties to decide whether to open for early voting on up to two Sundays prior to an election day. 

Brynn Anderson/AP
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a news conference at the State Capitol on April 3, 2021, in Atlanta, about Major League Baseball's decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta over the league's objection to a new Georgia voting law.

Some Georgia Republicans also pushed for a ban on no-excuse absentee voting (in which anyone may request an absentee ballot, no special reason needed). The version of the overall legislation that passed the Georgia Senate included such a ban, but some top GOP state party leaders opposed the provision, and it didn’t make it into the final version of the bill.

New restrictions

However, the bill does change mail-in absentee voting in Georgia significantly. Voters will have less time to request a mail-in ballot – 11 weeks, down from the previous 180 days. They will have to return the ballot application earlier – two Fridays prior to Election Day, instead of one. 

To obtain a mail-in ballot, voters will also need to provide ID, such as the number of a state driver’s license or Georgia identification card, or some other form of identification and the last four digits of their Social Security number.

Under the new law, the state, and other government entities such as counties, can’t just send voters unsolicited applications for mail-in ballots. (Due to the coronavirus pandemic Secretary of State Raffensperger did this in 2020.) Voters will have to request applications on their own. Drop boxes for those who don’t want to mail in ballots will be limited during the early voting period.

Other changes that critics claim could make it more difficult for minority voters include a virtual ban on mobile voting centers. During early voting in 2020, Fulton County, which includes much of Atlanta, outfitted two recreational vehicles to travel the area and effectively bring polling places to the public.

The bill makes it a misdemeanor to distribute food or water “within 25 feet of any voter standing in line to vote at any polling place,” according to legislative language. (Self-serve water stations or fountains set up by poll workers are allowed.)

John Bazemore/AP/File
A voter submits a ballot in an official drop box during early voting in Athens, Georgia, on Oct. 19, 2020. The state's new voting law has an exception allowing people to drop off ballots on behalf of relatives. It also allows a caregiver to deliver a completed ballot on behalf of a disabled person, or a jail employee to deliver a completed ballot on behalf of someone in custody.

In one of its most notable changes, the legislation would remove the secretary of state from control over the state Election Board, replacing them with a nonpartisan chairman appointed by a majority of the Georgia House and Senate. The Election Board, in turn, would have more power to intervene with county election boards it deems “underperforming.”

“Whenever there are partisan ideals that take precedence over the franchise is when democracy starts to fail,” said the Rev. James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP, at a press conference April 5, adding that in his view the voting changes amount to “surgical racism.”

More Saturday voting

On the other hand, the bill’s proponents say such criticism is over the top. They point to provisions they say would actually make voting easier. 

While there is a ceiling on the maximum number of ballot drop boxes a county can have, the bill also contains a floor on the minimum number of such boxes. That could be a help in rural counties that have not used the technique before. 

The bill requires at least two Saturdays of early voting in primary and general elections, up from one. It also calls for more resources to keep lines short – it requires the state to monitor lines to see if any become longer than an hour. If they do state officials are supposed to either open additional precincts or provide more help to ease the strain.

Jay Williams, a Republican strategist in Alpharetta, Georgia, argues that Georgia’s election laws remain, on the whole, more voter-friendly than many Northern states. Voter participation has gone up steadily under 20 years of Republican leadership in the state, he says, reaching record levels in the last few elections.

“In my opinion it’s racist to say that a nonwhite voter is incapable of getting a voter ID or incapable of bringing their own bottle of water to the polls,” says Mr. Williams.

As for the new voter ID requirement for absentee voting, “we have 16 or 17 pieces of identification that you can provide. Show me where this makes a Black person or a minority unable to vote. You can’t,” Mr. Williams adds.

The whole voting controversy is about national politics as much as Georgia per se, the GOP strategist argues. He says Democrats are trying to portray the state as racist so they can push through HR 1, a sweeping Democratic-backed bill now in Congress that would establish federal standards for many aspects of elections, such as mandating no-excuse mail voting in all 50 states as well as at least 15 days of early voting and automatic voter registration.

Georgia versus Colorado

Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina noted on Tuesday that Georgia already has 17 days of early voting – two more than Colorado, where Major League Baseball has moved the All-Star Game after pulling it from Atlanta due to the passage of the Georgia voting bill. Both states have voter ID requirements, Senator Scott noted in a tweet.

But Senator Scott left out an important difference, as many critics noted: Colorado is a vote-by-mail state, where every registered voter is automatically sent a ballot. The vast majority of Coloradans use the mail-in option.

And why? Why did Georgia feel a need to change its voting laws at all? Former President Trump charged for months that mail-in votes would be rife with fraud and cheat him of victory. He has targeted Mr. Raffensperger and other Republican officials in the state, including Governor Kemp, for not helping. Critics say that, combined with the many other states where similar efforts are underway, it is as if the Republican Party is reacting to Mr. Trump’s baseless election fraud charges.

“When you try to change the rules after you lose an election, that’s a serious threat to democracy,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO of Georgia-based Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group formed by former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, at the April 5 press conference.

Correction: Voters will have to return the ballot application earlier – two Fridays prior to Election Day, instead of one.

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