The good, the bad, and the stupid in Georgia's election law

Good or bad, the wave of Republican election reform bills around the country smacks of sour grapes.

There is a lot of conflicting information about Georgia’s new election law, which was signed by Gov. Brian Kemp yesterday. SB202 was rushed through after Donald Trump lost to Joe Biden in November and Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler lost their Senate runoffs to Democratic challengers.

The law is often characterized as a voter ID law because it mandates verification of absentee ballots, but in reality, it does a lot more as well, some of which is good and some bad. I haven't read the entire 96-page bill (linked here), but the Atlanta Journal-Constitution provides a rundown on key provisions (quoted verbatim):

  • Absentee ballots would be verified based on driver’s license numbers or other documentation instead of voter signatures.

  • Ballot drop boxes would only be allowed inside early voting locations and available strictly during business hours.

  • Weekend voting would be expanded for general elections, with two mandatory Saturdays offered statewide. Counties could also choose to offer early voting on two optional Sundays.

  • Early voting for runoffs would be reduced to a minimum of one week because runoffs would occur four weeks after general elections.

  • The deadline to request an absentee ballot would be set 11 days before election day.

  • Members of the public would be prohibited from distributing food or water to voters waiting in line.

  • The State Election Board could remove county election boards and replace them with an interim elections manager.

  • A hotline to report illegal election activities would be set up in the attorney general’s office.

  • Counties would be required to certify election results within six days, instead of the 10 days currently allowed. Election workers would also be required to count ballots without stopping until they’re finished.

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Steve Berman also provided an excellent rundown on the new law this morning which includes some background and details not included in the AJC article. Steve did his homework and his piece is a must-read.

Additionally, Gabriel Sterling, one of the heroes of the post-general election wrangling, underscored on Twitter that the new law does not cut early voting days, at least for the general election.

Some of the confusion about the law is warranted. The bill went through many changes and some of the worse provisions were stripped from the final version. Earlier attempts to repeal no-excuse absentee voting and to restrict Sunday voting were absent from the final bill, but not everyone is aware of these changes. The fact that there were competing bills adds to the muddle.

However, it’s quite different to say that SB202 doesn’t restrict early voting and to say it doesn’t limit voting rights at all. I cannot call the bill a good law, even though some provisions are good, and the law does restrict voting, even if not as sharply as its Democratic opponents allege. For example, the law limits absentee drop boxes to the “lesser of either one dropbox for every 100,000 active registered voters in the county or the number of advance voting locations in the county.” Drop boxes will not be accessible after hours.

The window to request absentee ballots has also been reduced. Georgians can now request absentee ballots for a period 11 weeks prior to the election and ending 11 days prior. Under the previous law, absentee ballots could be requested 180 days prior to the election until the Friday before Election Day for most elections. The new law represents a substantial reduction in the available time to request a ballot as well as making it illegal to mail out unsolicited absentee ballot applications (not actual ballots), as Secretary of State Raffensperger did last spring as the pandemic coincided with Georgia’s primary.

Additionally, the law also tightens up runoffs. Georgia law requires candidates to win a majority of the vote so many elections frequently result in runoffs. The new law moves the runoff up to four weeks after the general election and restricts early voting to one week. In the 2020 cycle, the runoff occurred two months after the general election and there were three weeks of early voting.

This change seems focused on 2020 when David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler were favored to win the runoffs initially, but the tide shifted toward the Democrats amid Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn Georgia’s presidential election results. I have many friends who voted Republican in the runoff early on and then regretted their decision after the pair of Republican senators attacked Georgia’s Secretary of State and supported efforts to overturn the Electoral College vote.

Out-of-precinct voting is also restricted. Under the old law, citizens could vote on a provisional ballot if they went to the wrong precinct. Under SB202, out-of-precinct voting is allowed only between 5 p.m. and closing time and requires a sworn statement that the voter is “unable to vote at his or her correct polling place prior to the closing of the polls.”

The provisions that shift control to the General Assembly (Georgia’s legislature) are rightly seen as attacks on Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and elections officials in Democratic counties. I have seen no evidence of malfeasance by Democratic county officials or Raffensperger, but both have come under attack by Republicans. (Floyd County, where 2,600 votes were initially uncounted, is a Republican county although I cannot find a record of party affiliation for the chief clerk of elections who was fired.)

The power grab by the legislature is an example of fighting the last war. Raffensperger was the right man at the right time to resist pressure to “find” enough Republican votes to shift the outcome of the election. However, there is no guarantee that the Secretary of State during the next crisis will be as honorable as Raffensperger or that the next legislature will even be Republican. Trump loyalist Jody Hice has announced that he will run to unseat Raffensperger in the Republican primary.

The final version of SB202 is a mixture of the good, the bad, the pointless, and the nonsensical. I’d say that the best part of the bill is that it allows poll workers to start counting absentee ballots at 7 a.m. on Election Day rather than waiting for polls to close and that counties are required to certify election results in six days, rather than the previous 10. These are changes that would have been beneficial in 2020.

The worst parts of the bill are those that restrict access. The limits on absentee ballots and drop boxes are attempts to solve a problem that does not exist. The changes to runoff elections are a clear attempt to limit early voting.

The voter ID portion of the bill is popular, but I am skeptical that it will improve the security of the process. Absentee ballots previously required signature matching, but the new bill requires voters to provide their driver’s license or identification card number. This may actually be less secure than matching signatures since driver’s license numbers are available to third parties in many different ways.

The most inane part of the bill is the ban on providing food and water to voters in line. I voted on the first day of early voting in 2020. October is still hot in the South and my wife and I stood in the sun for 90 minutes as we lined up with other voters. Water would have been appreciated, especially for the old and weak in the crowd. I don’t see any benefit to election integrity from prohibiting people from passing out bottles of water or sending Pizza To The Polls. This certainly feels like an attempt to discourage voters from waiting in line.

SB202 is not a good bill, but neither is it “unamerican” as many critics suggest. It does fix some problems, but it can also be legitimately described as restricting voting rights. Having said that, it falls short of the restrictions that Republicans are advancing in many other states. SB202 is not as bad as it could have been, but it is also not nearly good as it could have and should have been.

Good or bad, the wave of Republican election reform bills around the country smacks of sour grapes. This is especially true of the changes that focus on tightening restrictions on absentee and early voting, areas where Republicans did not fare well in 2020. Even though some changes are good, it seems obvious that we would not be having these discussions if Donald Trump (and Perdue and Loeffler) had not lost and then claimed that absentee ballot fraud was the culprit. The strategy may well backfire as Democratic and independent voters are alienated by what they see as blatant attempts to restrict the access of opposition voters.

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