The sweeping new voter law in Georgia is raising alarms for voting rights advocates who argue the legislation will place a disproportionate burden on voters of color – particularly Black voters – and could have broader political implications for the next elections held in 2022.
Georgia has become the epicenter of the fight over state election rules, but the legislation is just one of more than 200 measures that have been introduced around the country since November that could limit access related to voter registration, early and absentee voting and tighten voter ID laws.
After seeing historic turnout in the 2020 election followed by unfounded claims of voter fraud pushed by former President Donald Trump and many Republicans, activists worry that the onslaught of bills in Georgia and across the U.S. will disenfranchise Black voters at higher levels. They played a pivotal role in delivering Joe Biden the presidency and a few months later, two Senate seats in runoff elections that handed Democrats a narrow majority.
“Americans must demand federal action to protect voting rights as we continue to fight against these blatantly unconstitutional efforts that are nothing less than Jim Crow 2.0,” 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams said in a statement through her voting rights group Fair Fight Action, referring to the laws that institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination.
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Shortly after the legislation passed both chambers of the Republican-led General Assembly, Gov. Brian Kemp, who is also a Republican, swifty signed the election changes into law on Thursday. Democrats protested the measure and are now amplifying calls for Congress to pass federal election law reform and a restoration of the Voting Rights Act.
Georgia’s wide-ranging law has a tranche of election changes that will be in place for the 2022 midterms. Among them, the legislation requires ballot drop boxes to be placed inside with limited hours and mandates voters to show identification when voting absentee. The law also limits early voting for runoff elections, speeds up the certification of election results and restricts volunteers from handing out food or water to voters standing in line – known as line warming.
Republicans argue that the election changes were necessary to strengthen election integrity and prevent voter fraud. Kemp cited concerns that arose in the last election, though he ultimately certified the results of Georgia’s vote.
“Significant reforms to our state elections were needed. There’s no doubt there were many alarming issues with how the election was handled, and those problems, understandably, led to a crisis of confidence in the ballot box here in Georgia,” Kemp said Thursday after signing the bill into law.
Kemp, who’s up for reelection next year, faced significant pressure from Trump and his allies as they challenged Biden’s win in the state. The former president repeatedly called for the resignation of Kemp, along with Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, over the election results. After two recounts, Biden maintained his lead over Trump by nearly 12,000 votes and became the first Democrat to win Georgia at the presidential level since 1992.
Raffensperger on Friday sought to counter Democrats’ attacks on the new law and defended that it implements security measures, which include a hotline to report voting irregularities and purported fraud to the state attorney general’s office.
“I’m a straight shooter. I call it like I see it,” Raffensperger said in a statement. “I did that to the chagrin of many in my own party when I spoke out against the false claim that Georgia has systematic voter fraud. And I’m doing it now.”
Some controversial items, however, didn’t make it into the final version. They included restrictions to early voting on Sundays and ending no-excuse absentee voting, which has been permitted in Georgia for years as well as in 2020. More than two-thirds of states allow voters to cast absentee votes without providing an excuse.
Still, activists contend the provisions that ultimately made it through will further impede access for voters of color, who make up about 40% of Georgia’s electorate. Black voters alone are one-third of the electorate in 2020, according to Pew Research.
They argue that efforts to engage and mobilize voters of color, like line warming and “souls to the polls” – where members of Black churches ride together after services to vote – will be hindered.
“Let’s call Senate Bill 202 for what it is: a blatant and intentional strike on Black, Brown, and new voters,” said Nsé Ufot, the CEO of the New Georgia Project Action Fund which is one of the group’s challenging the law in court. “Make no mistake – Republicans are using Georgia as a testing ground for their latest voter suppression experiments.”
Tensions were high on Thursday after the swift passage and signing of the bill.
A lawsuit was immediately filed in federal court by three groups – New Georgia Project, Black Voters Matter Fund and Rise Inc. – which are being represented by veteran election attorney Marc Elias.
And at the state Capitol in Atlanta, Democratic state Rep. Park Cannon was arrested for knocking on the door of Kemp’s office to try and watch the closed-door signing, spurring a huge outcry – including from the state’s two U.S. senators. Cannon, who is Black, was charged with felony obstruction while protesting the bill.
Hours before the bill’s passage on Thursday, Biden lashed out at GOP efforts that curb voter access, calling them “sick” and “un-American” at his first press conference since taking office. Since then, he released a statement that likens the law to “Jim Crow in the 21st century.”
He called again on Congress to pass wide-ranging voting rights legislation and the Voting Rights Act, which is now before the Senate.
“If you have the best ideas, you have nothing to hide,” he said. “Let the people vote.”
But Democrats’ election legislation in Congress faces insurmountable challenges with the legislative filibuster in place. In a 50-50 split Senate, the party doesn’t have the 60 votes needed to end debate and advance the House-passed bill. While Biden and others have signaled their openness to bigger filibuster reforms if Republicans stand in the way of their agenda, it’s possible they could move voting rights through Congress on party lines. But some Democrats would still prefer to work with Republicans on compromise legislation to address elections.
Absent any big legislation at the federal level, voting changes in Georgia and the potential for more around the country could have political ramifications for 2022. Democrats hold small majorities in both the House and the Senate, and the party in power historically loses seats during the president’s first midterm.
Republicans are hoping they can regain their footing in the once-reliably red state that turned bluer after Trump took office in 2017 in addition to demographic shifts in the suburbs.
The Georgia governor’s race will be a key determinant for the future political landscape of the state. Kemp, who narrowly defeated Abrams in 2018, could face a rematch from her in 2022. If she runs, she’ll be competing to become the country’s first Black female governor.
Along with the fight for the governor’s mansion, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock’s seat will be one of the biggest races in 2022 and a key seat in the battle for the Senate. He won a special election runoff in January and became the first Black senator to represent Georgia.
Democrats hope they can keep up the momentum from 2020 and build on the turnout operation powered in large part by Abrams. But some fear permanent changes to election laws will suppress the political influence of Black voters next year and potentially have an outsized impact on next year’s midterms.
“I think this is very much directed at making it more difficult for Black voters to influence the outcome of the 2022 election,” Andrea Young, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, said on a recent webinar about voter restrictions.