Hours-long lines at polling places, baseless allegations of fraud and a law that makes voting more difficult have drawn international attention to Georgia elections.
In a state with a long history of voter suppression, changes in advance of the 2020 election made casting a ballot easier for Georgians. Voters could drop their ballots off in a secure drop box or vote by mail after filling out one of the 6.9 million absentee ballot request forms the state sent directly to voters. The changes came in response to COVID-19’s spread.
In the 2020 general election, Georgia voters favored Democrat Joe Biden over then President Donald Trump by a razor-thin margin of 11,779 votes, leading Trump to demand Georgia’s secretary of state change the results of the election. He didn’t, but Georgia’s Republican-dominated legislature — amid a torrent of disinformation about the 2020 election spread by Trump and his supporters — passed a law in 2021 limiting many of the options voters used the year before.
The law, SB 202, drew immediate condemnation, particularly for a provision that makes it illegal to provide food or water to those waiting in line to vote. Georgia-based companies such as Coca-Cola and Delta criticized the changes, and Major League Baseball pulled the 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta.
Civic groups heard echoes of past efforts to disenfranchise voters of color in Georgia. “There is a direct attack on Black voters,” said James “Major” Woodall, a policy associate at the Southern Center for Human Rights and former president of the state NAACP. “All of these things combined really underscore the severity and the urgency of the attacks on our democracy.”
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This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Georgia has seen years of growth in the number of Latino and Asian voters. State lawmakers passed SB 202 following the historic election of two Democrats, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is Black, and Jon Ossoff, who is Jewish, to the U.S. Senate from Georgia.
“They took a look at how minority communities of voters participated in the election, and they made those processes much more difficult,” said Jerry E. Gonzalez of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.
SB 202 quickly drew legal challenges — including one from the Department of Justice that called provisions of the law “racially discriminatory.” In a legal filing, attorneys for the state said the DOJ’s arguments “do not come close to suggesting a racially discriminatory purpose behind SB 202.”
The polarized and politicized environment in which elections are now conducted presents other risks — to those running the elections, and the residents who rely on them to vote.
“There is a lot of burnout in the elections industry overall,” said Zach Manifold, Gwinnett County’s election supervisor. “And I think it’s even heavier, probably, here in Georgia.”
Shaye Moss, a former Fulton County elections worker, testified to the Jan. 6 commission about the barrage of harassment she received after a video of her at work was circulated by conspiracy theorists and election deniers. She said the threats she received forced her to leave her job and go into hiding.
New and old challenges to voting in person
Georgia election officials shuttered polling places across the state following the 2013 Shelby v. Holder U.S. Supreme Court decision that limited the reach of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Gov. Brian Kemp, a former secretary of state, encouraged closures: He noted in an official document after the Supreme Court decision that local officials no longer needed to submit polling place changes to the federal government.
Georgia’s new voting law could make waiting in long lines more physically taxing, particularly for voters who are ill or elderly. The law’s ban on providing food or water to people at the polls applies within 150 feet of a polling place and within 25 feet of a voter standing in line. People found in violation of the law could receive a fine of $1,000 and up to a year in jail.
In Georgia, Sunday early voting is a tradition for many Black churches. But it’s no longer an option in parts of the state, as several counties eliminated it after 2020. In some cases, faith leaders have been forced to move their “souls to the polls” efforts to Saturdays.
Unlike Texas, another state that passed a restrictive voting law in 2021, Georgia’s 2022 primary elections went relatively smoothly. “I have not seen major issues in this primary, which is a good thing,” said Susannah Scott of the League of Women Voters of Georgia.
SB 202 supporters say the election’s high turnout shows that the law doesn’t disenfranchise voters. Voting rights organizations say the turnout reflects their efforts to organize, along with competitive statewide races.
It’s difficult to draw conclusions from a single election, and solid turnout doesn’t mean that the new law didn’t block eligible voters from casting ballots. The restrictions put in place by SB 202 could stop eligible voters from casting ballots in the general election later this year, the presidential contest in 2024 and beyond.
Advocates say the burdens that SB 202 created for their organizations are significant. “We’ve been providing that service to our community, making sure that people understand their rights and the processes that keep changing in Georgia,” said Gonzalez of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.
His goal: “To stay ahead of the voter suppression curve that we have in Georgia.”
Challenges to getting, and staying, on the rolls
SB 202 empowers individual residents to challenge the registration status of voters, a practice being pushed by right-wing groups.
Georgia election officials have a history of aggressively removing voters from the rolls, and recent years are no exception. The state purged 560,000 voters in 2017, 309,000 in 2019 and another 102,000 in 2021.
Many voters had likely moved or died. But proactive purges also disenfranchise voters who would otherwise remain eligible. Over 70,000 of those purged in 2017 later re-registered to vote, one investigation found. Most re-registered in the same county.
“You shouldn’t lose your right to vote because you don’t use it,” Woodall said.
The state’s strict laws on felony disenfranchisement also prevent thousands of Georgians from joining or re-joining the ranks of voters.
People who are serving sentences connected to a felony are not allowed to vote. Neither are those on probation or parole after a felony conviction. Over 266,000 people in Georgia were disenfranchised by this law in 2018, the majority of whom were on probation. Fifty-eight percent were Black, in a state where Black residents make up 32% of the population.
Voting rights are automatically restored after someone completes a sentence, probation or parole. However, people charged with felonies have to pay all fines before registering to vote (which doesn’t include “restitution, fees, costs or surcharges”).
Fewer options for absentee voting
Holding an election during a pandemic led Georgia to create new options for voters to receive and return ballots.
SB 202 reversed some of those changes.
Georgia introduced ballot drop boxes in 2020. They proved hugely popular with voters, particularly in and around Atlanta. Drop boxes are a secure means of voting, but their use in Atlanta and elsewhere became a focus of frenzied right-wing conspiracies.
Under SB 202, all of Georgia’s 159 counties are now required to have at least one drop box. Yet the law required some urban counties to reduce the number they offer.
The limit is one box per 100,000 voters, or one box per early voting site — whichever is less. The law also moves drop boxes inside early voting sites so they’re no longer accessible round-the-clock.
“We have 11 advanced in-person voting sites, currently, and only six of them can have a drop box under the law because of the population requirement,” said Manifold, the Gwinnett County elections supervisor. The county had 23 drop boxes two years ago.
The law means that Taliaferro County in northeastern Georgia, population 1,596, will have a per-capita rate of drop boxes that is nearly 100 times higher than Gwinnett County’s.
The Legal Defense Fund warned that the changes to drop box voting would “disproportionately impact Black voters and other historically disenfranchised groups.” An NPR analysis found that 1.9 million voters, many of them voters of color, saw their travel time to a ballot drop box spike after SB 202 passed.
The share of voters using drop boxes in several Atlanta-area counties in 2021 elections fell sharply.
And voting absentee is becoming more difficult in Georgia in other ways. The window to request an absentee ballot has been narrowed from 180 days before the election to 78 days. Ballots need to reach the county registrar by the close of polls on election day, a less forgiving deadline than in states that provide more time or require only that a mailed ballot be postmarked by election day.
Election officials are now prohibited from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn’t request them. Voters also need ID to vote absentee after the passage of SB 202 and could face a fine of $100,000 for providing false information.
Partisan control and redistricting
Another provision in SB 202 strips authority from the Secretary of State, replacing the elected official as the chair of the state’s elections board with a chair appointed by the legislature.
The changes came after Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger refused a request from Trump to “find” enough votes to hand him Georgia’s 16 electoral votes. (Raffensberger later told the January 6 commission that he investigated nearly 300 allegations and found no fraud.) The change comes as legal experts say a Supreme Court ruling next year could grant state legislatures nearly unchecked power over elections.
Under SB 202, Georgia’s elections board can also suspend as many as four county election officials by citing a pattern of issues.
The bill bars election officials from accepting third-party grants — which were a lifeline for underfunded local election offices in 2020, but which themselves became the subject of conspiracy theories.
Due to redistricting, Georgians are also voting in redrawn political districts. Many of them are gerrymandered. That’s according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which found the state’s new congressional map tilts Republican.
Democrat Joe Biden was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia in 28 years, and statewide races have been competitive in recent elections. But despite the state’s relatively even split between parties, Republicans are likely to capture at least 9 of Georgia’s 14 congressional districts, based on maps drawn by the state legislature. That’s an increase of at least one likely Republican seat in the rapidly diversifying state.
Five voters sued over the new districts, saying the Republican-drawn maps dilute the power of Black voters.
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