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Effect of Georgia’s election law unclear, despite high turnout

Georgia’s 2022 election season ended in spectacular fashion last week, but that was because of the closely-watched Senate runoff that cemented Democratic control of the chamber, not because of large-scale voting issues. ladder.

That led Republicans in the state to say concerns about a 2021 law that imposed several new voting restrictions were overblown.

“Georgia’s electoral system has been challenged, scrutinized and criticized and has passed every test,” Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said in a statement after Tuesday’s runoff, citing high turnout.

Voting rights and community groups say their local efforts to circumvent new restrictions were a key reason turnout was relatively strong. But they also warn that they don’t know how many people might have been deterred from voting.

In his victory speech, Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock said he did not share the rosy sentiment regarding this year’s election.

“Now there will be those in our state and across the country who will highlight our victory tonight and try to use it to assert that there is no voter suppression in Georgia,” he said. declared. “The fact that millions of Georgians endured hours in line – and were willing to spend hours in line, lines that wrapped around buildings and extended over blocks, lines in the cold, lines under rain – is certainly not a sign voter suppression does not exist.”

The state’s election law overhaul, known as Senate Bill 202, passed the Republican-controlled Legislature after Democrats won the 2020 presidential race and two Senate elections in beginning of 2021.

The law shortened the time to request an absentee ballot and resolved several issues that arose during the 2020 pandemic election. To make the process easier for voters concerned about COVID-19, the state created an online portal for mail-in ballot applications during the counties’ rollout. drop boxes.

After the 2020 election, state lawmakers said voters should be required to hand-sign absentee ballot applications, meaning they needed access to a printer. And while lawmakers established the drop boxes as legal, they limited how many uses each jurisdiction had and when these boxes would be accessible. This has resulted in fewer drop boxes in the state’s most populous counties.

The new law also required a driver’s license or other identification rather than a signature to request an absentee ballot.

Also under the law, the runoff period was shortened, creating more obstacles. Saturday’s vote almost didn’t happen during this year’s runoff, after state election officials interpreted state law to mean it couldn’t take place if it followed a holiday – in this case, Thanksgiving and the following Friday. Democrats sued over the issue and won in state court.

Gabriel Sterling, a senior official in the Secretary of State’s office, said in an interview that “the mechanics worked like a charm” while acknowledging that the tight turnaround time between the general election and the second round presented challenges. challenges for managers. This was especially true for processing mail-in ballot requests and dealing with postal delivery delays in some locations.

The new law shortened the runoff period from nine weeks to four weeks.

“Nobody thought about having to do audits and how much work and effort that takes and then re-recruiting people to be election workers,” Sterling said.

He said one of the main reasons for the long queues at early voting locations was that some local polling stations had fewer slots for the run-off than during the general election. Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, had 13 fewer early voting locations for the runoff than for the Nov. 8 general election, Sterling said. These decisions were made by local election officials, not the secretary of state’s office.

It is impossible to determine whether Georgia’s new election law has discouraged anyone from voting, and turnout can be affected by a number of factors, including weather and candidate enthusiasm.

The overall turnout in the general election was 56.9% of registered voters, according to the Office of the Secretary of State, which certified the results. That’s roughly in line with the last midterm turnout four years ago, although a record number of midterm ballots were cast as more voters registered. That dropped to just over 50% for runoff.

Bishop Reginald Jackson, who leads the African Methodist Episcopal churches in Georgia, said the faith community has played a big role in engaging black voters, along with civil, legal and suffrage groups. . They changed the way they interacted with voters because of the new law, traveling through neighborhoods and holding town hall meetings to get as many people as possible to vote.

Among other things, they pushed in-person early voting over mail-in voting, fearing that some of the added hurdles to requesting and returning a mail-in ballot would lead to high rejection numbers.

To think the 2021 law hasn’t had a negative effect on at least some voters is ‘stupidity of conscience,’ said Jackson, who helped start Faith Works, a group organized by black church leaders in response to electoral law.

Turnout doesn’t tell the whole story, said Xakota Espinoza, spokesperson for Georgian suffrage group Fair Fight. Long lines, voter challenges, limited early voting and fewer drop boxes are obstacles, she said.

“So it’s not just this cut and dry, like, ‘Oh, well, did they get to vote or not?'” she said. “Is that what voters have to sacrifice? Will they be forced to choose two hours pay or stand in line to vote?

Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU Georgia, said she believes that without the additional restrictions of the new election law, Warnock might have won enough votes in the November election to avoid a runoff.

Democratic state Rep. James Beverly, minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, said he wants lawmakers to consider changes to the state’s election runoff. We could lower the winning threshold to avoid a second round to 45% rather than 50% plus one.

He also wants a mechanism in place that would force election officials to open more polling stations if waiting times become excessive. Any changes to election law will ultimately be up to Republicans, who have a majority in both houses of the Legislative Assembly and control the governor’s office.

“When we had record turnout, how many people did we lose because they walked away and said, ‘I don’t want to wait in line’?” Beverly said.

It gives credit to voters and voting rights groups for a largely trouble-free election period.

“People came out despite SB202,” he said, “not because of SB202.”

___

Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta contributed to this report.


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