Make Georgia Howl: Voter restrictions are dangerous to democracy

Voting is the one form of political participation in which a majority of Americans will actually do in their lifetime.  Establishing a system free and fair elections is the most significant task for the government.  States largely have free rein to establish election laws and voting requirements, provided they do not violate some baseline rules from the federal government.  

The advantage of allowing states to create differing policies allows for localized control to best fit the needs and wants of the citizenry.   We know that people in West Virginia think differently than people from Oregon, or New York, or most other places.  Americans still have a broad set of values, ideas, and laws which link us together, but state autonomy allows for us not to be in complete lockstep.

However, the autonomy of states has not always brought about positive policy changes.  Southern states frequently violated the voting rights of black Americans.  Until key aspects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were overturned in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), states with a history of voter discrimination had to be given ‘preclearance’ by the federal government before making changes to election laws.  

Dangerous Provisions

Thanks to the Shelby decision, Georgia is now free to change election laws without preclearance.  The newest Georgia legislation, SB 202, implements strange, nearly inexplicable rules about voting.  This legislation includes:

• A shocking edit that changes the head of the State Election Board from the Secretary of State to a chairperson chosen by the General Assembly.  This seems very peculiar, particularly in light of the pressure from former President Donald Trump, who attempted to persuade the Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger (R), to refuse certifying the 2020 Presidential Election for Joe Biden.  The law also changes the Secretary of State’s role on the Election Board to a non-voting member.   

If this wasn’t enough, the Secretary of State is obligated to give any and all assistance to the State Election Board, which is specifically named as having “sole discretion” about what is necessary to enforce the law. 

This particular aspect of the law would also allow for the new chairperson of the State Election Board to be chosen solely by the state legislature, omitting any participation by the governor.  This would also appear to be a form of retribution, considering Governor Brian Kemp (R) refused to assist Trump in changing Georgia’s election results.

• The State Election Board is now empowered to suspend a county or municipal superintendent over voting districts and replace them with a temporary official of their choosing.  This would be extremely helpful in having localized officials who will kowtow to the desires of the Board. 

• The State Election Board can implement emergency rules or regulations “in circumstances of imminent peril to public health, safety, or welfare.”  There seems to be little oversight of this authority and one would presume the Board’s emergency powers are subject only to judicial review by appropriate state and federal courts.

• The Secretary of State must obtain information from the state’s offices on voters who might have left the state, died, or become ineligible to participate in elections.  The Secretary of State must “conduct list maintenance on the list of eligible electors.”  That’s a nice way of saying voter rolls must be purged.

• The law amends Georgia policy which had allowed for buses and other vehicles to be used as polling places.  Now, these mobile voting precincts can only be used in the event of an emergency as declared by the governor.  What effect does this have?  It means long line waits will not be alleviated by adding mobile voting units.

• This policy would also amend a requirement for at least one election booth per 250 registered voters in a precinct.  That is now in effect for only state-wide elections.  In all other cases, the local officials can increase or decrease the number of voting booths needed, based on their predictions of what is need. 

Allowing a reduction in voting booths will mean longer wait times and discourage individuals from exercising their right to vote.  Local offices are as important as statewide races.  State legislatures make more of the policies which govern us than federal laws.

• The window for applying for an absentee ballot would be greatly diminished.  Prior to this bill, policy stated a person could apply for an absentee ballot up to 180 days prior to the election.  That window is now reduced to no more than 78 days prior the election, but not in the preceding 11 days before the election.

• Only election officials can send out unsolicited applications for absentee ballots.  If a private citizen or group wants to give out applications for absentee ballots, they can only send them to people who have not already “requested, received, or voted an absentee ballot.”  Any person or group who wants to send these out, they have to check with the state’s list of people who have not already requested, received, or voted an absentee ballot. 

What’s the effect here?  To discourage voting rights groups or parties from mailing out applications for absentee ballots.  The 2020 Election included a large number of absentee ballots and those who participated in this manner disproportionately voted for Democratic candidates.  Not so coincidentally, the Georgia General Assembly has strong Republican majorities.  They do not want people voting absentee ballots.

• Early voting ‘drop boxes’ are permitted at a ratio of one per every 100,000 registered voters per county or the number of advance voting locations in the county (whichever requires less).  This means that urban areas, such as Atlanta (mostly in Fulton County), would have a little bit of a problem.  In the 2020 Election, Fulton County offered 30 early voting locations.  The population of Fulton County is slightly over 1 million.  Even if every single person in the county registered to vote, that would only mean they would need 10 drop boxes for the area, one-third of the amount the city of Atlanta provided in 2020.  Less options for locations to drop off ballots means a more difficult process and the greater likelihood that someone would be frustrated and simply not vote.

• Absentee ballots are placed in a smaller envelope, which is sealed, and placed into a larger envelope.  That’s a practice used by many states — but Georgia requires the outer envelope have the name, date of birth, and driver’s license (or ID) number of the voter.  Why would we allow such key identifying information to be visible?  The new law claims it is to ensure the voter actually filled out the ballot, but that seems redundant when we consider the many other security measures already in place.

• Polling hours on Election Day can only be extended by a superior court judge from that specific county “upon good cause shown by clear and convincing evidence that persons were unable to vote at that precinct during a specific period or periods of time.”

• Special elections or runoffs were held nine weeks after the general election in November.  SB 202 reduced that time frame from nine weeks to 28 days.  Why the reduction?  Probably due to the fact that between the November elections in 2020 and the runoffs in the first week of January of 2021, tens of thousands of Georgians registered to vote.  Democrats were able to register more citizens and subsequently won both Senate seats in the runoffs. 

• Of course, the most bizarre of the new changes to election law states:  “… nor shall any person distribute or display any campaign material, nor shall any person give, offer to give, or participate in the giving of any money or gifts, including, but not limited to, food and drink, to an elector [voter].” 

Do Georgia’s lawmakers somehow believe that providing someone food and drink to a voter waiting in line would somehow cause them to change their vote?  They aren’t handing out pints of whiskey, but I think drinking sounds like a better idea when I look at the impact of these changes to election laws. 

The conclusions

What can we derive from this legislation?  The changes from a Republican controlled General Assembly can only be seen as a reaction to the results of the 2020 Election.  Georgians voted for President Joe Biden (D), the first Democrat who won the state since Bill Clinton in 1992.  Citizens also voted for Raphael Warnock (D) and Jon Ossof (D), two Democrats in a state which had consistently voted Republican for the last 15 years.

Raphael Warnock’s election deserves special mention, as he is the first black citizen to become a United States Senator for Georgia, and only the 11th person in American history to hold that distinction.  The fact that Warnock is a black man cannot be ignored in a state with a history of racism. 

Georgia is changing.   The citizens are demonstrating that the status quo in terms of the power structure is no longer acceptable.  The population is approximately 60.2% white, 32.6% black, and the remainder of other races and while the racial makeup by percentage has not changed, black voter participation has increased.  According to Pew Research, the last 20 years has seen considerable growth in the number of eligible voters in Georgia, with nearly half the additional 1.9 million people being black. 

In 2018, Georgia came within a hair’s breadth of electing Stacey Abrams (D), who would have been the first black governor of the state and the first female elected.  In 2020, many political experts credited Abrams with a massive voter turnout effort which led to key victories in the Senate and Presidential elections.

I have no doubts there are some racists in Georgia who hate the idea of black citizens exerting such influence.  But I also believe there are plenty of white, male Republicans who are simply afraid of losing their grip on power and policy.  These changes to elections and voting laws are designed to drive down participation by Democrats, particularly people of color.  It’s a calculated effort for a certain group of people to keep their positions of authority.

Critics of my position would try to explain that SB 202 makes Georgia’s elections more secure.  I mean, after all, they named this monstrosity “The Election Integrity Act of 2021,” because who doesn’t love a good euphemism?  And there are provisions within the law that make some changes to election procedures which will no doubt make it more secure.  However, you cannot swallow a bill with some good provisions when it contains so many bad provisions. 

Democracy always belongs to the people who show up to vote.  Georgia’s new policy makes it more difficult for people living in urban areas (mostly Democrats and minority races) to show up to vote.  Americans should be concerned for a number of reasons, because Georgia isn’t the only state restricting ballot access.  It’s just the most audacious and discriminatory in the effort to do so.  

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