On March 25, Georgia passed Senate Bill 202, “The Election Integrity Act of 2021,” into law, promptly inspiring a large group of U.S. citizens to rain holy hellfire down on the Peach State. The primary charge against the bill is that it suppresses minority voters. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn went so far as to dub it “the New Jim Crow.”
This claim is a heavy accusation, one that requires a comprehensive analysis of all 98 pages of bill text. Having read the bill, I do not agree that it promotes voter suppression. In fact, much of the bill could be helpful in expanding access and shortening wait times for voters.
Before I expand on the specifics of the bill, I want to touch on the issue of voter fraud. Opponents contend that the bill legitimizes former President Trump’s accusations of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. Critics argue that, as there is no evidence of this assertion, there shouldn’t be a bill promoting election security in the first place. I don’t think this view gets to the heart of the issue. Regardless of the veracity of Trump’s claims, Georgia had a very real crisis of confidence in its election system.
The argument for or against the bill is based not on why Georgians have a crisis in confidence, but that they do. The Capitol riot on Jan. 6 is a great example of what happens when the people lose faith in the integrity of our democracy. Rather than suffer a riot of their own, the Georgia State Government enacted a bill to restore faith in the state’s election system. As such, the bill is not a validation of Trump’s claims, but a logical action taken to stave off unrest.
Somehow, the idea of making sure that voters are who they say has become very politicized. It isn’t crazy to want to stop a bunch of excess absentee ballots from floating around, or for wanting to make sure people vote only once. If we have no protections, saying that widespread voter fraud hasn’t occurred is like standing on the train tracks and saying no one has gotten run over by the train. We certainly shouldn’t wait for a crisis of fraud to occur before instituting safety measures.
Having shown that the bill is not a validation of Trump’s voter fraud claims, and that to care about voter fraud does not equate to believing that the results of the 2020 election were a lie, I want to address some common concerns about SB 202 that have been circulating in the media. The full bill text is linked above, and I encourage you to read along with me as I cover the following points.
First, critics are concerned that the bill shortens run-off elections in a way that could compromise the results. In reality, there are very few changes made to run-off elections themselves. Rather, the sections focus on counting ballots faster and more accurately, so the overall time is shortened. In Section 27, the bill allows for people overseas to complete ranked choice absentee ballots. Ranked choice voting is when a ballot allows citizens to rank their candidate choice from most preferred to least preferred.
Allowing this option for overseas citizens means that, in the event of a run-off election, no extra ballots will need to be issued. Instead, their submitted ranked choices will be used to determine their vote. This method decreases the time of the run-off election because it eliminates the extra ballots that normally must travel all over the world before they can be counted. Sections 36 and 41 continue to streamline the vote counting process by establishing a clear chain of command for counting and transporting votes and mandating that votes must be counted as soon as the polls close. These measures do not compromise the integrity of a run-off election, but ensure that it does not drag on for weeks at a time.
Second, critics are concerned that the Georgia Secretary of State has less power in overseeing elections. This decision has nothing to do with stripping election safeguards, but, rather, protecting them. While Section 5 of the bill does remove the Secretary of State as the chair of the State Election Board, it replaces that official with a non-partisan chairman who is confirmed by both the House and the Senate. Section 5 further states that the chairperson cannot participate in a political campaign, give money to a candidate, or be a member of a political party organization for two years before they are elected and throughout their tenure.
The State Election Board is the body in charge investigating voter fraud, not to mention organizing and financing all elections in the state. Having a non-partisan chairman ensures that these proceedings will be fair and protected from political motivations. This effect seems particularly important to minority voters, especially with the assertion that the Republican party wishes to stop them from voting.
Additionally, it should be noted that the Secretary of State is not booted from the State Election Committee, simply regulated to a non-voting member. This shift means that they are still heavily involved in the voting process and privy to all information that comes through the State Election Board. For instance, Section 30 states that the Secretary of State has the authority to audit ballots and Section 17 puts the Secretary of State in charge of updating voter lists. Therefore, I contend that Section 5, rather than compromising the election process or harming minorities, ensures that they are not the targets of an unfair or negligent voter fraud monitoring system.
Third, critics are concerned the bill requires Voter ID. In reality, this requirement is much less strenuous than some would lead you to believe. This requirement is first stated in Section 25, which states that absentee voters must submit a valid driver’s license as photo ID. If, the bill states, a person does not have a valid license or photo ID, they can submit items covered in Georgia State Code 21-2-417, which include a passport, government employee photo ID, military photo ID and tribal ID. If a person does not have any of those identifications, they are allowed to sign, under penalty of perjury, an oath stating that they are, in fact, a U.S. citizen. At this point, they will be issued a provisional ballot, which allows them to vote and gives election clerks extra time to confirm their identity.
This should alleviate any concerns that those without a driver’s license would be discriminated against. Ultimately, people can vote, even if they have no documentation, by signing the oath and receiving a provisional ballot. It does, however, make it more difficult for people who should not be voting in a U.S. election to do so.
Additionally, I want to mention that photo IDs are used in the United States all the time. This list includes buying alcohol, buying cigarettes, opening a bank account, buying or renting a house, getting a mortgage, buying or renting a car, driving a car, applying for food stamps, welfare, Medicaid, and social security, applying for a job, applying for unemployment, flying on an airplane, getting married, buying and using a gun, giving blood, buying strong cold medicine, adopting a pet, making a hotel reservation, going to a casino, touring the White House, and going to a R-rated movie. I’m not asserting that every citizen has an ID, but this list confirms that living in the U.S. without one is incredibly difficult. More often than not, people have an ID.
In the course of this research, I’ve found that, oftentimes, concern about voter fraud is pitted against concern about voter suppression. Instead, I believe we should focus on making it easier for U.S. citizens to get government photo IDs. People who have been to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) know there is a lot of room for improvement in that system. To increase accessibility, Georgia has moved much of its DMV information online. The Georgia DMV website makes the steps to procuring an ID clear, and allows people to renew old licenses from their residences. This process reduces some of the traditional geographic barriers minorities might face while obtaining an ID.
This voter ID requirement has been the main reason SB 202 has been called the “New Jim Crow.” If anyone has read my previous op-eds, then you know there is little I hate more than a false analogy. Essentially, the argument is that having a photo ID to vote is parallel to when people had to be property owners to vote. First, please note the logical difference between a voting requirement to confirm that someone is a citizen and a voting requirement on top of being a citizen.
The argument also doesn’t stand statistically. By 1940, under Jim Crow, 97% of Black people were not registered to vote, a number that had grown from 10% during Reconstruction. Voter ID requirements, however, affect significantly less people than Jim Crow property requirements. It was estimated in 2006 and 2009, respectively, that in the entire nation, not just Black populations, between 11% and 16% of people either have an expired license or don’t have one at all, potentially making it difficult for them to vote under voter ID laws. Regardless of how acceptable this number is in our modern day context, it certainly does not compare to the targeted suppression under Jim Crow and should not be compared.
Section 25 of SB 202 gets a lot of heat, but some important nuances have been overlooked. For instance, Section 25 states that applications for absentee ballots cannot be rejected solely because the information on the ballot does not reflect the information the state has on file. This clarification puts the onus on the state to get its information right, instead of forcing the individual to argue with an outdated system.
Additionally, this section rules that election clerks must contact the citizen immediately if something goes wrong with their application processing. Lastly, Section 25 puts in writing that people in jail who qualify to vote will have the opportunity to gather the necessary documents, if requested. These protections are straightforward, but having them codified is a big deal. It’s another step forward in ensuring that government missteps do not prevent citizens from voting. Due to the nuanced nature of Section 25, and the variety of options for ID presented to citizens, I still contend that this does not constitute voter suppression, but actually affords voters protections not granted previously.
Fourth, critics are concerned that third parties are no longer allowed to send out absentee ballot applications under Section 25. At face value, I can understand how this measure seems to decrease the amount of people able to apply for absentee ballots. In reality, third-party absentee ballots cause confusion for citizens and election clerks alike. Depending on their memberships to different political organizations, citizens can receive multiple applications and not know which one they need to fill out. In most cases, people fill out all the applications, which causes frustration with election clerks when they have to process multiple applications for one individual. Stopping third parties from mailing out absentee ballot applications will reduce confusion and volume.
To make up for lack of access, Section 25 requires that applications be available online and by request. This system surpasses the old system in terms of inclusivity: it doesn’t require a residential address, there’s less likelihood applications will get lost, and it doesn’t depend on membership to a political organization. In this way, limiting absentee ballot applications sent by third parties makes the application process easier and more available.
Fifth, critics are concerned that food and drinks are not allowed to be served in line. It’s true, Section 33 prohibits the serving of food and drinks to citizens. I agree, this seems over the top, and is not a provision I would have included. That being said, I think most people can understand the need to prevent voters from being bribed in voter lines. The language against food and drinks is part of a larger sentence prohibiting giving money and gifts. Additionally, note that Section 33 allows for an unmanned water station at each location. The predictions of voters passing out from lack of water don’t take this provision into account.
Another concern with Section 33 is that neighborhoods with higher minority populations tend to have the longest lines, so they would be the most in need of food and water. Luckily, Section 26 states that there must be at least one absentee voter box per 100,000 electors, with additional boxes distributed evenly. Some states don’t even allow voter boxes. More importantly, Section 18 states that, if a precinct with more than 2,000 electors saw waiting lines for more than one hour, the precinct must be made smaller. This protects minorities from having to wait in longer lines and thus mitigates their need for food and water.
Sixth, critics are concerned that citizens are allowed to question other citizens’ right to vote. Under Section 15, even before SB 202 was ratified, concerned citizens were allowed to submit complaints challenging the credentials of other voters. Now, under SB 202, there is no limit to the number of challenges a concerned citizen can submit. It must be understood, however, that this is not an easy process. The bill specifically states that the onus is on the reporter to provide evidence that a citizen cannot vote. Additionally, the new bill requires that hearings be held within 10 days of reporting, which makes sure that reported people are not prevented from voting while waiting for their hearing. The system is designed to make sure that racial profiling and superfluous, suspicious complaints will, one, not make it very far and, two, not prevent people from voting if they are not guilty.
Based on the analysis above, accusations of voter suppression, especially on a level of Jim Crow, do not ring true. I would now like to take a moment to examine parts of the bill that protect voters and have been buried under a slew of objections like the ones above. First, Sections 9 and 14 prevent superintendents and registrars from taking private donations for elections, which prevents some counties from getting more funding than others. Then Section 19 states that, instead of one-day notice for polling location changes, notices must be up for at least a week.
Section 26 mandates tamper-proof ballot boxes. It also instructs advance voting boxes to be declared empty before voting starts. Section 27 provides people in the hospital with access to absentee ballots. Section 28 clarifies that regular polls must be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., instead of the previous language of “normal business hours.” It also mandates that voting times must be published online. Section 32 states that poll watchers must be trained. Section 37 states all votes must be counted, even if a race isn’t contested. Before, if you can believe it, it was up to the superintendent’s discretion. Section 41 states that ballots must be counted directly after the closing of the polls, instead of the next day. It also establishes a clear system for ballots to be scanned and documented. In Sections 47 and 48, it is now officially illegal to accept an absentee ballot that is not your own or to film someone in a voting booth — hallelujah.
Each of the sections noted above are geared toward making sure that votes are not lost and are processed efficiently, so every vote really does count. Even more encouraging is the push for greater transparency in location and voting time, so that everyone, especially those who are part of minority populations, has time to plan and prepare to vote. These are all good things, all steps forward in making Georgia’s voting system secure and accessible. For these reasons, I continue to contend that Georgia SB 202 does not suppress minority votes. Rather, it increases state accountability and voter accessibility for all.
NOTE: The official bill text does not distinguish between mail-in ballots and absentee ballots, and seems to use them interchangeably. In keeping with the language of the bill, I have done the same here.
Opinions expressed in letters and other editorials, unless otherwise stated, are those of the writers and not of The Horizon staff or the college collectively.