By Rahul Garabadu
Apr 4, 2023, 9:45 AM
It has been 882 days since the November 2020 general election, but you wouldn’t know that based on the voting bills considered by Georgia state lawmakers over the last few months.
Georgia’s forty-day legislative session just wrapped up for 2023, and members of the General Assembly spent much of their time putting forward new voting restrictions and requirements, often in the name of improving “voter confidence” after the 2020 election cycle. These proposals were introduced despite the fact that review after review has shown that the 2020 election in Georgia was as secure as they come.
It didn’t begin this way. Weeks before the session started in January, there were indications that the legislature might take on some issues that would meaningfully improve voter access, including ending Georgia’s peculiar runoff system, a relic of the state’s Jim Crow past which requires an additional election if no candidate in a general election garners a majority of votes cast. Days after the second, high-profile U.S. Senate runoff election in two years, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger called on legislators to end general election runoffs, citing the difficulties imposed on voters and election administrators alike. Weeks later, House Bill 419 was introduced, which would have drastically limited the frequency of runoffs by lowering the threshold to win a general election to 45 percent instead of a majority vote requirement.1H.B. 419, 2023 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Ga. 2023). These proposals ultimately went nowhere.
Instead, Republican legislators in the General Assembly spent much of their time proposing legislation that would add additional duties for election workers and, more often than not, make it harder for voters to cast ballots. Supporters of new requirements pitched these bills as ways to improve “confidence,” a post-2020 buzzword that nods to concerns about voter fraud and the outcome of the last presidential election. In a vacuum, improving confidence seems like a worthwhile endeavor. After all, who wouldn’t want voters to have more confidence in the process?
But paeans to voter confidence ring hollow when Georgia’s elections infrastructure has been turned upside down to accommodate, and often fuel, these concerns. Just two years ago and on the heels of the 2020 election cycle, the General Assembly passed a sweeping, ninety-eight-page elections bill, Senate Bill 202 (“S.B. 202”), that purportedly addressed these very issues through a series of restrictions on absentee voting, ballot drop boxes, voter assistance, and other areas of voting.2S.B. 202, 2021 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Ga. 2021). A number of these provisions are now being challenged in federal court.3In the spirit of full disclosure, this Commentary’s Author is one of the attorneys representing plaintiffs in litigation challenging S.B. 202. In many ways, S.B. 202 traded voter access away in the name of “voter confidence,” all while making it harder for elections administrators to do their jobs.
Despite the strain that S.B. 202 has already placed on voters and election administrators, legislators in 2023 soldiered ahead in introducing new burdensome voting restrictions and requirements. Among the measures proposed by the General Assembly were bills that would:
- ban ballot drop boxes outright;4S.B. 221, 2023 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Ga. 2023).
- require counties to make all physical ballots accessible to inspection without a court order;5H.B. 426, 2023 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Ga. 2023).
- mandate that poll workers be citizens of the United States;6S.B. 229, 2023 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Ga. 2023).
- open the floodgates to more vigilante-style voter challenges;7S.B. 221, 2023 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Ga. 2023). and
- criminalize counties accepting outside donations.8S.B. 222, 2023 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Ga. 2023).
While a vast majority of these proposals failed to make into law, Republican legislators were successful in passing the last bill. Senate Bill 222 (“S.B. 222”) expressly prohibits donations to county election offices, and makes it a felony for any county official to receive such funds.9See id. §§ 2–4. The bill was introduced just days after the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a non-profit organization funded in part by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, donated $2 million to DeKalb County, the fourth most populous county in the state. Although the money was designated for the county election office’s operating budget, Republicans attacked the donations as an attempt to influence the outcome of elections (there has been no evidence of this with similar donations in other election cycles). Former U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler jumped into the debate, falsely asserting that DeKalb County “broke the law” in “accepting Zuckerbucks.” And yes, “confidence” was also invoked by supporters.
The problem with S.B. 222 is that it chokes off funding sources for chronically underfunded elections offices, all while the legislature continues to pass unfunded mandates in the form of bills like S.B. 202. Meanwhile, staffing elections offices is becoming harder and harder because of threats to election workers on the ground. Simply put, election offices are being forced to do more work with fewer resources.
Despite the crush of conspiracy-inspired voting bills, there were some bright spots in terms of voter access. Senate Bill 129 expanded an existing law that guarantees two hours of unpaid voting time for any Georgia voter on election day.10S.B. 129, 2023 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Ga. 2023). Under the provisions of the bill, voters could take time off to vote during the three weeks of early voting that take place in Georgia. Voters seeking time off would have to let their employer know in advance that they planned to take time off, and then the employer could decide on a time when workers could be absent. The bill was passed by the General Assembly, and is expected to be signed into law by Governor Brian Kemp. This is a step in the right direction for making voting more accessible, especially for working Americans who can’t get to the polls before closing time, and those who have been locked out of Georgia’s new restrictive absentee ballot regime, courtesy of S.B. 202.
But this bill was the rare exception among the raft of anti-voting bills. Until the General Assembly stands up for democracy and unequivocally denounces disinformation about elections, bills accommodating baseless conspiracies will continue to proliferate in Georgia. And Georgia voters and election administrators will continue to pay the price. It’s up to citizens and advocates to ensure that these types of proposals don’t become law in future legislative sessions.
- 1H.B. 419, 2023 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Ga. 2023).
- 2S.B. 202, 2021 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Ga. 2021).
- 3In the spirit of full disclosure, this Commentary’s Author is one of the attorneys representing plaintiffs in litigation challenging S.B. 202.
- 4S.B. 221, 2023 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Ga. 2023).
- 5H.B. 426, 2023 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Ga. 2023).
- 6S.B. 229, 2023 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Ga. 2023).
- 7S.B. 221, 2023 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Ga. 2023).
- 8S.B. 222, 2023 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Ga. 2023).
- 9See id. §§ 2–4.
- 10S.B. 129, 2023 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Ga. 2023).