While lawmakers in Washington have dominated the political news cycles for weeks with loudly discordant and seemingly never-ending rhetorical chaos, the members of the Georgia General Assembly have gone about their business in much less dramatic fashion.
That state lawmakers toil away without the sound and fury we have come to associate with Washington politics does not mean they are not contemplating significant legislation, not the least of which are multiple proposals to change how Georgians vote in the future.
There are some two dozen different pieces of election reform legislation floating around at the Capitol for consideration, and it is a virtual certainty that some of those will win ultimate approval and be signed by the governor.
Whether those proposed changes are desperately needed, unnecessary kneejerk reaction to an election year that spun crazily out of control, or some combination of both is largely a matter of perspective, and in this case perspective is almost certainly formed by allegiance to a particular political party.
Having seen their presidential candidate and two incumbent U.S. senators defeated in the last election, Georgia Republicans see a need for changes that, for the most part, will make it harder for people to vote. Tightening the rules is a step they see as necessary to prevent abuses of the system, and, to repeat the phrase often being used at the Capitol, to restore faith in the election process.
Democrats, meanwhile, see any such restrictions as prime examples of voter suppression meant to keep potential voters, and especially minorities, from participating in elections.
It seems inevitable that change is going to be forthcoming. Some of the proposals under consideration make sense; others are so obviously partisan as to justify whatever criticism they receive. It is almost a certainty that some of them ultimately will be challenged in court if approved.
The absentee voting process has been a focal point for much of the debate to this point. It seems likely the legislature will make it more difficult to cast an absentee ballot when Georgians next go to the polls. Absentee ballots cast in the last election favored Democratic candidates, in large part because Republicans told their supporters the process could not be trusted while Democrat voters were encouraged to vote absentee.
The 2020 election cycle was an aberration in that pandemic concerns resulted in the state making absentee voting easier than ever, and millions of people took advantage of the ability to fill out a ballot at their kitchen table and send it through the mail or put it in a drop box for collection.
A lot of voters found they liked the ease of absentee voting in 2020. Odds are it won’t be so easy next time. Various proposals under consideration call for providing some form of ID as part of the process, requiring a legitimate reason for requesting an absentee ballot rather than making them available to anyone who wants one, and/or limiting in other ways those for whom absentee voting is a viable option.
Other bills would eliminate the use of drop boxes as collection points for absentee ballot and change the timetable for requesting such a ballot. Restricting the ability of third parties to send absentee ballot applications to potential voters is another piece of the reform pie being discussed.
All of this comes just a few weeks after the state’s top election official and the governor, both Republicans, told anyone who would listen that there was absolutely no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Georgia, that there was no basis for allegations that the election as held was not fair and legal, and that time and again the 2020 balloting process was scrutinized, reviewed, investigated and found to be accurate.
And while Georgia lawmakers are looking to tighten up restrictions on voting, at the federal level there is talk of movement in the other direction, to make it easier than ever for voters to cast their ballots so as to not keep anyone from voting who should be able to do so.
Georgia Republicans are willing to make voting more difficult so as to prevent anyone from voting who should not. Their Democratic counterparts want to make the voting process easier, to avoid the possibility that anyone eligible to vote should be prevented from doing so.
The two positions are at loggerheads and something will have to give. Given the preponderance of Republicans in the legislative body, it’s not hard to predict that changes are on the way.
Times editorial board
Norman Baggs, general manager
Shannon Casas, editor in chief
We think it makes sense to change the deadline for requesting absentee ballots; the current timetable is too tight. We know there was mass confusion about applications for absentee ballots that were mailed to Georgians by third parties, and welcome changes that will force that to be a more transparent process. We do not understand the obsession with eliminating secure drop boxes for absentee ballots, especially as mail delivery has become increasingly problematic.
Georgians have to provide an ID to vote in person at the polls, and we see nothing wrong with some form of ID requirement for absentee voting as well. But providing such an ID should not be logistically challenging for voters, nor should handling and storage of such proof of identity be a problem for local election offices. Asking for a driver’s license number may make sense; expecting a printed photocopy of the same ID may not.
The bigger issue of who should be allowed to vote by absentee ballot goes to the heart of the election debate. Is the goal to make voting easy for everyone who is eligible, or is it to make voting hard so as to avoid potential abuse? Multiple states allow anyone who wants to vote by absentee to do so as a means of boosting participation in elections. Georgia seems destined to head in the other direction, despite all the assurances that last year’s elections saw virtually no problems with absentee ballots.
As for concerns about voters having confidence in the election system, a poll by the Center for Election Innovation & Research showed some 83% of Georgians have faith in the system, even after a contentious election cycle altered considerably by a pandemic and weeks of a defeated presidential candidate ranting about problems. We suspect that is a higher number than have faith in the General Assembly.
What we would really love to see from this year’s legislative session is the appointment of a committee to study real election reform worthy of the 21st Century and tasked with reporting back with technology-driven ideas to modernize everything about the process.
Imagine being able to vote from your home computer or smart phone; being able to prove your legitimacy as a voter via technology rather than paper; being able to check in to a polling place in advance, rather than after spending two hours in line. Imagine being able to monitor election results in real time within minutes of polls closing and knowing winners and losers. Imagine having more options for casting a vote than jumping through hoops for an absentee ballot or standing in line at a polling place.
We depend on modern technology to safeguard everything from classified military secrets related to nuclear warfare to the financial underpinnings of the world’s economy, surely there are secure options for using the same to periodically conduct state elections. Yes system security would have to be a top priority, but it’s hard to imagine that the objective is impossible to meet.
In short, what if our elections were conducted the way most of our personal business is handled every day. How about we spend some time looking at those options, rather than worrying about what changes promise the best chance for a particular party’s candidates to win?