Election reform has dominated the discourse of the 2021-22 legislative session in Georgia.
After a contentious 2020 election cycle that included multiple state recounts and attempts to subvert the state’s election results, there is one big question: can voters in Georgia still trust their elections?
Under the Gold Dome, Georgia lawmakers have proposed a series of bills that would eliminate no-excuse absentee provisions, heighten identification standards to apply and submit absentee ballots and ban absentee drop boxes.
According to a series of polls by the nonpartisan organization Center for Election Innovation & Research, while 83% of Georgians expressed confidence in elections, voter confidence waned among Republicans in the state following the 2020 presidential election.
Carl Cavalli, a political science professor at the University of North Georgia, said it’s a good sign that election confidence among both parties is still above 70%.
“The optimistic view is that confidence does not dip below about 70% for either party either before the general election or before the runoff,” Cavalli said. “Looking at the overall numbers again, the optimistic view is that both parties had equally high confidence in the general election — around 90%.”
David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, who commissioned the survey, is optimistic about the findings.
“It is heartening to see a relatively small reduction in overall confidence in the face of the unprecedented and false attacks on Georgia’s voting system in the immediate aftermath of the presidential election,” he said. “Election confidence only decreased among Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters during his misinformation campaign.”
The center ran three polls during the 2020 election cycle — in October, November and January. In its October survey, election confidence reached 91% among Georgia’s self-identified Republicans and Democrats.
Each survey’s margin of error was ±4.4% for 500 respondents, and October respondents were likely general election voters, and January respondents were likely runoff election voters.
November respondents were limited to those who voted in person during the general election.
In the lead-up to the general election, polls showed that 93% of Republicans expressed overall confidence in the election process.
But Becker directly attributes a 22 percentage point dip in voter confidence among Georgia Republicans in the center’s post-election polling in January to months of unsubstantiated claims of election fraud by the former president.
"The confidence in the voting system overall was high before the November election,” Becker said. "When it was clear he lost Georgia, Trump set his sights on spreading misinformation and blatant lies about the election, particularly in Georgia.”
Trump secured the state’s 16 electoral votes in the 2016 general election, but Joe Biden beat Trump by more than 11,700 votes in Georgia, a result that was confirmed by two recounts.
Additionally, Biden had almost double the absentee-by-mail votes than his predecessor, with roughly 850,000 for Biden compared to about 450,000 for Trump.
Trump’s loss and the margin of mail-in votes that favored Biden, according to Becker, was self-inflicted.
“Before 2020, mail-in balloting was not a partisan issue,” Becker said. “In fact, mail-in balloting has been popular in historically Republican states like Georgia and Arizona, key states that Trump lost in 2020.”
Georgia’s no-excuse balloting provision, which Republican lawmakers are proposing to rescind through current legislation, was introduced in 2005 by former Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue.
“Most mail-in ballot provisions in states that were contested by Trump, had been passed by Republican officials,” Becker said. “Mail-in voting had historically been skewed toward older, white voters, who many see as the traditional conservative voter.”
From October to January, there was a 5% drop in voter confidence for in-person voting, with 85% of respondents who voted expressing faith in in-person voting.
Despite Trump’s intent to delegitimize mail-in voting during the 2020 election cycle, 87% of those surveyed are confident in absentee ballots.
In Georgia, roughly 49% of Democrats requested absentee ballots before the 2020 general election, and Becker believes Trump’s pre-election rhetoric around mail-in ballots hurt his own cause.
“The president’s supporters self-opted out of the process of mail-in voting because they were told not to vote absentee by their candidate,” said Becker. “The pandemic opened a lot of opportunities for people to vote from home, and Georgia provided a multitude of options for voters in the state.
According to Becker, Trump’s post-election campaign to derail voter confidence by casting doubt into both absentee and in-person voting was still effective.
From October to January, Democrats went from 96% to 92% being confident in absentee ballots, while Republicans, who were the primary targets of false claims of voter fraud, declined by nearly 20 percentage points, from 98% to 79%.
However, the January findings show that Republicans are slightly more trusting in absentee balloting than in-person balloting.
“One would have expected to see Republican confidence in absentee voting at lower levels than for in-person voting,” said Cavalli. This (January) survey shows that is not the case – if anything, their confidence in absentee voting is actually a few points higher.”
The 2020 election cycle fundamentally changed the makeup of Georgia politics.
For the first time since 1992, Georgia went Democratic and the state also played a key role in the Democrats taking control of the U.S. Senate when Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock unseated Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in the Jan. 5 runoff election.
“It’s pretty obvious that fewer Republicans expressed confidence in the runoff, and I would suggest that this makes sense in a traditionally Republican state seeing Democrats perform particularly well statewide as Ossoff and Warnock did,” Cavalli said. “In both the general election and in pre-runoff polling. It further makes sense given the pronouncements coming from the White House and from other prominent Republicans questioning the legitimacy of the general election results.”
Becker said the discourse around the 2020 election is unprecedented and is an example of the impact political figures can have in sowing doubt around the electoral process.
“Before 2020, we’ve never seen a losing candidate, let alone for months, delegitimize the election process like we saw that this year,” Becker said. “It can generally be said that when a candidate tells their voters they can’t trust the system, they are less incentivized to vote.”
For now, Georgia voters on both sides of the aisle, are still confident that their vote counts and is being counted.
“Despite all the blatant ways that the Trump campaign tried to sow distrust and doubt in a state’s election, the voters of Georgia are still very trusting of the election, and that’s a good sign going forward,” Becker said.