ATLANTA – After record turnout turned Georgia blue for the first time in decades, Republicans who control the state legislature are moving quickly to implement a series of new restrictions on voting access , posing one of the biggest voting rights challenges in a major battlefield state the 2020 election.
Two bills, one passed by the House on Monday and one that could be passed by the Senate this week, seek to change the fundamentals of the vote in Georgia, which supported President Biden in November and a pair of Democratic senators in January – narrow wins due in part to the range of voting options in the state.
Republican legislation would undermine the pillars of access to voting by ending automatic voter registration, banning mail-in ballots, and eliminating the wide availability of mail-in voting. The bills would limit early voting on weekends, limiting the long-standing civic tradition of “souls at the polls” in which black voters cast their ballots on Sundays after church services.
Taken together, the new barriers would have a disproportionate impact on black voters, who make up about a third of the state’s population and vote with an overwhelming Democratic majority.
Black voters played a major role in Democratic success in the recent election, with around 88% of votes for Mr Biden and over 90% for Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the January runoff, according to polls.
Democrats say Republicans are effectively reverting to one of the ugliest tactics in state history – oppressive laws designed to deny voters their rights.
“Rather than wondering if their ideology is making them fail, they are instead relying on what has worked in the past,” said Stacey Abrams, the voting rights activist, referring to what she said was laws designed to suppress votes. “Instead of gaining new voters, you rig the system against their participation and you steal the right to vote.”
Georgia’s effort comes as former President Donald J. Trump continues to publicly promote the lie that the election was stolen from him, which has swayed millions of Republican voters. He also put additional pressure on Republican state legislatures across the country to continue drafting new legislation to curtail voting rights under the banner of “electoral integrity” as a way to appease the old president and his loyal base.
New voting restrictions have already been passed in Iowa, and several other states are lining up similar efforts, as the Supreme Court hears argument this week on another challenge to the voting rights law. Should the High Court make changes to section 2 of the law, which allows for an afterthought to challenge voting restrictions that may disproportionately affect members of minority groups, Democrats and human rights groups? vote could find themselves without one of their most essential tools for challenging new laws.
Judge Elena Kagan, in his questioning on Tuesday, appeared to allude to Georgia’s proposed limitations on Sunday’s vote.
“If a state has had two weeks of early voting for a long time and the state then decides it’s going to get rid of Sunday’s vote over those two weeks, leave everything else in place, and black voters vote on Sunday 10 times more than white voters, is this system also open? Asked Judge Kagan.
For decades Georgia has been at the center of the suffrage battle, with Democrats and advocacy groups battling repeated efforts to deprive black voters of the state.
As late as 2018, Georgians had to contend for hours to vote in many predominantly black neighborhoods, and thousands of black voters were purged from voters lists ahead of the election. Now Democrats and voting rights groups are alarmed that Republicans are once again trying to change the state’s election laws ahead of critical Senate and governor races in 2022.
While bills in the Legislature have not been finalized, they are expected to eventually reach the office of Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican. Mr Kemp has not explicitly supported either of these bills, but said Tuesday morning that he was in favor of efforts “to get more of the vote.”
“I am in favor of putting the requirement for photo ID on absentee ballots in the mail and other things, making sure there is a fair process to be observed,” Mr Kemp told radio host Hugh Hewitt. He said his decision on the bills would depend on “what it is and what’s in it.”
Democrats, excluded from power at the Statehouse despite holding both seats in the United States Senate, are relatively powerless in the legislative process to stop the bills, though they have avenues in the courts to challenge any final bill signed.
In an interview on Tuesday, Ms Abrams, former leader of the Democratic minority in Georgia’s House of Representatives, called Monday’s vote in the House a “sign of fear” over Republicans’ inability to win voter support young and minority, two of the fastest. growing sectors of the state electorate.
She added that the measure was also potentially self-defeating for the GOP as large percentages of rural white voters, a traditionally Republican-leaning bloc, could also be hampered by laws that prevent citizens from voting by mail and from voting by mail. vote by mail. .
Asked about restrictions on Sunday voting, Abrams cited a study by the Center for New Data, a nonprofit group, which found that black voters were more likely to vote on weekends than white voters in 107 of the 159 counties of Georgia. Overall, 11.8% of black voters voted on weekends compared to 8.6% of white voters, according to the study.
“We know that a version of this bill is likely to pass because Republicans are facing an existential crisis in Georgia,” Abrams said, describing the party as short-sighted in refusing to tackle factors that have threatened its traditional demographic advantages in recent times. elections.
Among the most pressing concerns of Democrats in Georgia is the possibility that the House Bill, HB 531, will be amended in the Senate to include provisions ending automatic voter registration and a voting system. postal voting known as “no excuse,” which allows all voters to vote by mail if they choose. These proposals were included in a bill that was passed by a Senate committee last week.
The automatic registration system, which registers voters when they apply for or renew a driver’s license, was implemented in 2016 under then-Republican governor Nathan Deal.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, another Republican, credited the system with a drastic increase in voter registration, and Republicans have cited such numbers to push back accusations by Ms Abrams and others according to which Georgia Republicans want to suppress.
The absentee vote without excuse was approved by the Republican-controlled legislature in 2005 and was used by many voters during the pandemic. In December, Raffensperger supported ending the absentee vote without excuse, saying it “opens the door to a potential illegal vote”.
Mr. Raffensperger took this position even as he defended Georgia’s electoral system against Mr. Trump’s accusations that the election had been rigged in some way; his refusal to support the former president’s baseless claims has earned him hostility from Mr. Trump and Georgia Republicans allied to him.
Mr Raffensperger’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday on ongoing legislative efforts in the Legislature, including the House bill, which would remove the Secretary of State from his role as Chairman of the Council for State Elections.
Cody Hall, a spokesperson for Mr Kemp, repeated one of his oft-used phrases, saying the governor wanted to make “voting easy and hard to cheat” in Georgia.
Kasey Carpenter, a representative for the Republican state whose district is a conservative band in northwest Georgia, said the House bill included a number of common sense provisions that Democrats would support without the intense partisan nature of the time. The changes in mailing procedures, he said, are particularly important given the large increase in the number of people who have chosen to vote this way due to the restrictions of the pandemic.
“I think what you are seeing is a measured approach,” he said.
For example, Mr Carpenter said, the bill requires voters to include their driver’s license or state ID card number on mail-in ballot applications, and requires that voters photocopies are sent only if the voter uses other forms of identification. .
If a very restrictive bill ends up on Mr. Kemp’s desk, he will be faced with a complicated dilemma.
On the one hand, the governor must show his Republican base loyal to Trump that he has heard and responded to their concerns about electoral integrity. This will be especially important if Mr Trump, who was furious that Mr Kemp failed to take action to reverse his electoral defeat in Georgia, executes his threat to back a main challenger on Mr Kemp’s right flank.
On the flip side, if Ms Abrams chooses to engage Mr Kemp in a rematch of their 2018 contest, she and her allies are likely to again make allegations of voter suppression one of their lines. the most energetic and incessant attacks against Mr. Kemp. .
In an electorate still reeling from the two-month-long efforts to overturn the election result by Mr. Trump and the eruption of lawsuits against the vote before and after the election, the bills in Georgia quickly caught the eye. national attention. More Than a Vote, a group founded by basketball superstar LeBron James, vowed to bring attention to the issue during this weekend’s NBA All-Star game in Atlanta; his promise was first reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Voting rights groups note that the severe restrictions on early voting could also have a cascading effect: by limiting the number of hours available for in-person voting, the bottlenecks created during periods of volume high and Election Day would most likely result in more queues of hours, like the expectations that plagued Georgia’s primaries in June.
“They create a problem with hierarchical management,” said Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a voting rights group. In the primary, she noted, “we saw people queuing for over six hours. Imagine if we were to lose 108 hours of advance polling time, Sunday voting time, drop box access, how many of those people are going to have to queue now? “
Isabella Grullón Paz contributed reporting.