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Georgia’s new elections changes are drawing controversy, but how will they impact voters?
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Hall County's elections board and staff process absentee ballots Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. The process involves verifying signatures and placing ballots in batches for counting. Votes won't actually be tabulated until Election Day. - photo by Scott Rogers

Georgia continues to make national headlines as rhetoric intensifies about the new law that overhauls the state’s election process.

In the days following Gov. Brian Kemp’s signing of the 98-page bill on March 25, the state has been subject to criticism from Democrats and lawsuits from civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, ACLU and others.

Proponents of the new law say the state’s election procedure changes will ensure safe and secure elections. Opponents say the bill suppresses the votes of marginalized groups across the state and is at its core an anti-voting measure.

But what does the bill actually say, and how will the changes in the state’s newly enacted elections law impact you in upcoming election cycles and at the polls? Here’s what the new law changes:


Absentee voting

Roughly 1.3 million Georgians used mail-in absentee voting during the November general election. For now, no-excuse absentee balloting will still be allowed in upcoming state elections, after a provision to eliminate it was nixed from the final bill following opposition from state Democrats and Republicans in swing districts.

But the window of time to request a ballot, absentee ballot application process, ballot deadline and some details of how to drop ballots in drop boxes have all changed under the new law. Here’s what the new law says:

  • If you’re a voter over 65, currently in the military, or living overseas, you can still apply for and automatically receive an absentee ballot.

  • The earliest Georgians can request a mail-in ballot is 11 weeks before Election Day. Previous Georgia law allowed voters to request an absentee ballot 180 days, or six months before an election.

  • Another change is that counties will mail absentee ballots four weeks before an election, as opposed to seven weeks under previous state law.

  • For voters applying for an absentee ballot, the deadline to get those applications in has also changed. The new law moves the deadline for absentee ballot applications to be submitted two Fridays before Election Day, instead of the Friday before.


Voter identification requirements

The bulk of SB 202’s substance is focused on identification thresholds for voters requesting to vote absentee. Replaced is the signature match system, formerly the method for voter verification. Now photo ID is required for casting absentee ballots. This has been a controversial change to state election laws, as opponents argue it will limit voter access, while proponents believe it ensures safe elections and prevents voter fraud.

  • In order to request and return an absentee ballot for Georgia elections, voters will be required to submit either a driver’s license number, a state ID number or a photocopy of an acceptable form of voter ID. 

  • The new law will allow absentee applications to be returned to voters online through the secretary of state’s web portal that was created in August. Users will need to provide their driver’s license number or state ID number.

  • The verification process for a valid absentee ballot also changes under the new law. Poll workers will verify a ballot’s status using voter identification methods, such as driver’s license number and state ID and will require voters to sign an oath that states the information on the ballot is correct. Previously, voters would only need to check their applications with a signature.


What will the absentee ballot look like?
  • The design of the absentee ballot and envelopes will also change. The new law requires absentee ballots to be printed on special security paper, with voting precinct name and precinct ID printed at the top.

  • Once voters have completed their ballot, they will need to place the ballot into a sealable envelope that has their name, signature, identification number (state, driver’s or last four of Social Security number) and date of birth.


Early voting

Early voting for some counties include an extra weekend day of voting and longer weekday voting hours under the new law:

  • The law adds a mandatory Saturday voting date and makes Sunday voting hours optional.

  • Counties can choose to hold early voting from the hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Previously, the law stated early voting would be between “normal business hours.”

  • During this period, counties must publicize daily reports on how many people have voted in person, how many absentee ballots have been issued, returned, accepted and rejected.

  •  

Ballot drop boxes

Ballot drop boxes were not used in elections in the state prior to the pandemic. The new law will not get rid of ballot drop boxes or criminalize dropping ballots off but will change the accessibility of the drop boxes.

  • Ballot drop boxes will have to be located inside early-voting locations and can only be accessed when those polling sites are open.

  • Drop boxes won’t be available during the last four days of an election.

  • All 159 counties must have at least one ballot drop box, however, there can only be one per 100,000 active voters or for every early voting site.


Local elections offices
  • Under the new bill, county elections officials are given greater discretion with voter equipment in smaller races.

  •  Poll workers can now work in adjoining counties.

  • Partisan poll watchers must be trained before being allowed to work, and local officials have the power to decide where the poll watchers can observe.

  • Local officials can also begin processing absentee ballots two weeks before the election.

Other changes
  • Under the law, the secretary of state will no longer chair the state election board and the role will be filled by a nonpartisan official. The board now has reserved the power to suspend local officials they deem underperforming.

  • The bill mandates that runoff elections, which in Georgia consequentially flipped the U.S. Senate in 2021, occur one month after the general election, instead of three.

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Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger - photo by Associated Press
SOS says changes are about security, but analyst says they could be harmful

In a March 31 interview with The Times, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said the bill does “good things” — such as revamp photo identification requirements for absentee balloting, changes in precinct hours for some counties and expanded early voting hours —  to address what he called a lack of confidence in the state’s election on both sides of the political aisle.

He said the eroded confidence in the state’s elections process started in 2018, when Stacey Abrams refused to concede her 2018 gubernatorial bid against Kemp.

Abrams claimed that changes to the voting rolls suppressed votes for her and gave Kemp an unfair advantage. Kemp won by around 55,000 votes, garnering 50.2 to Abrams’ 48.8%.

Abrams has been credited by voting rights activists for her role with Georgia-based voting rights organization Fair Fight in boosting the state’s minority voter turnout and registering 800,000 new voters in the 2020 election. Activists say those registrations contributed to Georgia’s flip to blue in the 2020 election cycle.

In 2020, Raffensberger said that election concerns resurfaced with the allegations from former President Donald Trump’s campaign that the 2020 election had been stolen, particularly in battleground states like Georgia.

“In 2020, we weren’t expecting it, but there was disinformation, misinformation and outright lying that came from the other campaign,” he said. “And unfortunately many people believed it.”

In the fallout of the 2020 election, Raffensperger — who has held the post of secretary of state since 2019 — has been subject to calls for removal by former President Donald Trump and was the recipient of a now-infamous Jan. 2 phone call, when Trump pressured Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes”  in an alleged effort to change the state's vote totals.

“The lack of confidence (in state’s elections) hits on both sides, so whatever you can do to restore confidence — by having driver’s license numbers (for voter identification) that’s a good thing,” he said.  “Because it’s not subjective, it’s objective.”

Carl Cavalli, a political scientist at the University of North Georgia, said that Georgia’s new elections laws — while providing some changes to voting access — are still some of the most restrictive in the country.

“While the bill provides for some expanded voting time, and some of the more controversial proposals were dropped (like ending no-excuse absentee voting),” said Cavalli, “iIt would still be one of the most restrictive set of measures in the country,”

In addition to legal challenges, Cavalli said the new law might have a detrimental effect on Georgia businesses and tourism-related events.

Voting rights leaders have already called for boycotts of Georgia-based businesses, such as Coca-Cola, that have not publicly opposed the new elections law. 

“One might say that the bill has awakened a sleeping giant … the business community,” Cavalli said. “With the MLB Players Association mulling over moving the All-Star Game out of Atlanta this year, and with the recent statement from Delta’s CEO condemning most of the provisions in the law, Gov. Kemp and the legislature will be on the defensive for the time being.”

Major League Baseball announced on April 2 that it will relocate all All-Star Game events from Atlanta's Truist Park and the player draft that was also set to be held in Atlanta.

In response, Kemp said in a statement: “This attack on our state is the direct result of repeated lies from Joe Biden and Stacey Abrams about a bill that expands access to the ballot box and ensures the integrity of our elections. I will not back down. Georgians will not be bullied. We will continue to stand up for secure, accessible, fair elections.”


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