Impact of Georgian electoral law unclear despite high voter turnout

WASHINGTON (AP) – Georgia’s 2022 election season ended dramatically last week, but that was due to a closely watched Senate runoff that cemented Democratic control of the chamber, rather than large-scale voting problems.

That prompted Republicans in the state to say that concerns about a 2021 law that imposed several new voting restrictions were overdone.

“Georgia’s electoral system has been challenged, scrutinized and criticized and passed every test,” Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said in a statement after Tuesday’s runoff, citing the high turnout.

Voting rights and community groups say their grassroots efforts to circumvent the new restrictions were key to the relatively high turnout. But they also warn they don’t know how many people may have been discouraged from voting.

In his victory speech, Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock said he didn’t share the rosy mood about this year’s election.

“Now, both in our state and across the country, there will be those who will point to our victory tonight and try to use it to argue that there is no voter suppression in Georgia,” he said. “The fact that millions of Georgians stood in line for hours – and were willing to spend hours in lines, lines looping around buildings and stretching across blocks, lines in the cold, lines in the rain – is certainly not a sign of voter suppression is non-existent.”

The revision to the state’s election laws, known as Senate Bill 202, was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature after Democrats won the 2020 presidential contest and two Senate runoffs in early 2021.

The law shortened the deadline for applying for a mail-in ballot and addressed several issues that arose during the 2020 pandemic election. To simplify the process for voters concerned about COVID-19, the state launched an online portal for mail-in ballot applications, while counties deployed drop boxes.

After the 2020 election, state lawmakers said voters should be asked to hand-sign absentee ballot applications, which means they need access to a printer. And while lawmakers made drop boxes legal, they set limits on how many could be used by each jurisdiction and when those boxes would be accessible. This resulted in fewer dropboxes in the state’s most populous counties.

The new law also required a driver’s license or other ID instead of a signature to apply for absentee ballots.

The expiry period was also shortened by law, which created further hurdles. During this year’s runoff, Saturday’s voting almost didn’t happen after state election officials interpreted state law to mean it couldn’t be held if it followed a holiday — in this case, Thanksgiving and the Friday after. Democrats sued over the matter and won in a state court.

Gabriel Sterling, a senior official in the Secretary of State’s office, said in an interview that “the mechanics worked out beautifully,” while acknowledging that the tight turnaround time between the general election and runoff elections poses challenges for officials. This was particularly true when it came to processing mail-in ballot requests and dealing with postal delivery delays at some locations.

The new law shortened the notice period from nine weeks to four weeks.

“Nobody thought about having to do audits and how much work and effort that takes and then rehiring people to be poll workers,” Sterling said.

He said a key reason for long lines at early election sites is that some local polling stations have fewer runoff sites than during general elections. Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, had 13 fewer early voting locations in the runoff than in the Nov. 8 general election, Sterling said. These decisions were made by local electoral officials, not the Secretary of State’s office.

It’s impossible to determine whether Georgia’s new electoral law has discouraged anyone from voting, and turnout can be affected by a number of factors, including the weather and enthusiasm for the candidates.

Overall turnout in the general election was 56.9% of registered voters, according to the Secretary of State’s office, which confirmed the results. That’s roughly the turnout of the last half four years ago, despite a record number of half-time votes being cast as more voters are on the lists. For the run-off, this figure dropped to just over 50%.

Bishop Reginald Jackson, who heads the African Methodist Episcopal Churches in Georgia, said the denomination plays a significant role alongside civil rights, rights and suffrage groups in increasing turnout among black voters. They changed how they interacted with voters under the new law, searching neighborhoods and holding town meetings to get as many people as possible to vote.

Among other things, they urged early in-person voting over absentee ballots, fearing some of the added hurdles to applying for and returning an absentee ballot would result in high numbers of denials.

To think that the 2021 law didn’t have a negative impact on at least some voters is “conscientious stupidity,” said Jackson, who helped found Faith Works, a group organized by black church leaders in response to the election law .

Turnout doesn’t tell the whole story, said Xakota Espinoza, spokeswoman for Georgia’s Fair Fight voting rights group. Long lines, voter challenges, limited early voting and fewer drop boxes are obstacles, she said.

“So it’s not just as short and dry as, ‘Oh, well, could they vote or not?'” she said. “What do the voters have to sacrifice? Will they be forced to choose two hours wages or wait in line to vote?”

ACLU Georgia executive director Andrea Young said she believes Warnock might have won enough votes in November’s election to avoid a runoff without the additional restrictions imposed by the new electoral law.

Democratic State Assemblyman James Beverly, the minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, said he wants lawmakers to consider changes to the state’s runoff elections. One could lower the breakeven point to avoid a runoff to 45% instead of 50% plus one.

He also wants to see a mechanism that would force election officials to open more polling stations if wait times get too long. Any changes to the electoral code will ultimately rest with Republicans, who have majorities in both houses of the legislature and control the governor’s office.

“While we had a record turnout, how many people did we lose because they walked away and said, ‘I don’t want to stand in line,'” Beverly said.

He credits voters and constituencies with a largely trouble-free election period.

“People ran despite SB202,” he said, “not because of SB202.”


Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta contributed to this report.


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