Georgia is again at the center of a political maelstrom, and while you would think by now we were accustomed to being in such a position, knowing that the vitriol being directed our way is both unnecessary and unjustified makes it harder to accept the black eye much of the nation seems determined to give us.
Unnecessary because the election reforms that have put the state in the national crosshairs of bad publicity were the result of Donald Trump and his supporters repeatedly making false claims about fraud that no one was ever able to prove existed.
Unjustified because much of what is being claimed about those reforms is as inaccurate as were the allegations about the election made by Trump and his legal team, one of whom has gone so far as to admit that the claims she made should not have been believed by “reasonable people.”
The angry drumbeat of criticism is not likely to be silenced any time soon. Already there are multiple lawsuits, which will have to wend their way through the courts even as the state begins to gear up for another election cycle that will see the governor, state officials, a U.S. Senate seat and every member of the General Assembly on the ballot next year.
What a mess.
Ironically, the most significant change in the election law is one receiving little attention by those determined to have the reforms stricken from the books by the courts. While the talking points grabbing attention have been drop boxes, absentee ballot identification, deadlines and water bottles, the fact that the legislation removes much of the Secretary of State’s authority to manage and control elections and shifts that power to a position responsible to the legislature has stayed under the radar.
The new law removes the Secretary of State as the chairman of the state’s board of elections and replaces him with an appointee of the General Assembly. It goes on to then empower the board to step in and override decisions made at the local level related to how elections are conducted, which is a major and dramatic shifting of power related to the operation of the voting process in Georgia.
With the change, three of the five members of the board, including the chairman, will be appointed by the legislature, whose members run for re-election more often than most other office holders in the state thanks to their two-year terms. References to foxes and hen houses might be appropriate.
If you only listened to the one-sided theatrics of its opponents, you would believe the election reform measure to be so terribly skewed in intent as to be an evil likely to crack the foundations of liberty that form the underpinnings of our state government. It isn’t that. But neither is it an electoral revision that was delivered on the wings of angels and is pure as the driven snow, as some of its supporters would have you believe.
Elements of the bill that have garnered attention at the national level have been misstated, misrepresented and misinterpreted by many who have jumped on the bandwagon to criticize the law.
- Voter ID – The new law requires those casting absentee ballots to provide some form of identification, which for most voters will be a driver’s license number or the number off a state-issued ID card, which are available for free if needed in order to vote. Those with neither can use part of a social security number. In an age in which proof of identity is required for everything from buying a pack of cigarettes to using a credit card, we do not think it inappropriate to ask voters to prove who they are, whether they are casting ballots in person or absentee. Yes, there may be a very small number of people for whom providing such information may prove to be an inconvenience, but no one eligible to vote should find it an impossible standard to meet.
- Drop boxes – The law will require all counties to provide drop boxes, which was not the case before, and will set a standard for how many such boxes may be provided, based on population. This will guarantee that voters in all counties have access to drop boxes, while there likely will be fewer of them in heavily populated counties. We do think there should have been more flexibility in the location requirement for drop boxes and hours of availability; locating them inside polling places and having them available only for limited hours does not make sense, nor does it seem necessary from a security standpoint given they were under video surveillance when outside. We should remember that drop boxes for absentee ballots were forced by the pandemic, and are not interwoven into the state’s election history. They are a convenience, not a requirement for fair and honest elections.
- Water for voters – The new law says that once voters in line are within a certain distance of the voting space, they can’t be approached by anyone handing out water or snacks. Poll workers can set up water and snacks in an unmanned area and voters can help themselves, or bring their own if they choose. The apparent intent is to stop individuals or groups wanting to deliver a political message from giving anything to voters as they wait, and is an expansion of existing laws that already prohibit any sort of campaigning aimed at voters in line. A bit tone deaf maybe, but the provision sounds worse than it is, and it eliminates the need for poll officials to decide who and who can’t be providing goods to voters in line.
- Lines at the polls – The new law should shorten voting lines in counties with large precincts in that it requires action be taken if voters had to wait for more than an hour at a particular precinct in a previous election. Shorter lines are a good thing.
- Early voting – The law adds more weekend time for early voting, which is also a good thing.
- Deadlines – The revision changes some deadlines for absentee ballot requests, because the old law allowed for ballots to be requested so close to the actual voting day as to make it impossible for them to be completed and returned in time for counting.
To some extent, the sweeping election reform attempts to solve problems that haven’t been proven to exist. It’s hard to argue against the fact that it likely will benefit those campaigning as Republicans more than those who run as Democrats, based on geographic and demographic voting trends from previous years.
Much of what is being alleged about this particular piece of legislation is the smoke of political bonfires rather than the substance of true voter suppression. It is not Jim Crow 2.0, but neither is it meant to encourage more people to vote nor to make it easier to do so.
The changes may increase confidence in the process for some, though it will reduce that same level of confidence in others. It is naive to pretend there were not partisan decisions made in its crafting, just as it is hard to believe that the shifting of power away from the Secretary of State was not meant to be punitive.
Now it’s up to the courts to decide whether the law stands as written, and that’s a decision upon which only judges will have a chance to vote.
Times editorial board
Norman Baggs, general manager
Shannon Casas, editor in chief