We spent the summer and fall of 2020 tracking changes to state voting regulations due to the pandemic, when almost every state relaxed its laws to make it easier to vote. That’s not the case here in 2021, though, as many Republican state legislators spend the early days of this year’s legislative session proposing laws that would make it harder to vote — especially in ways disproportionately used by Democrats and voters of color — under the pretense of preventing large-scale voter fraud (which doesn’t exist).
How the Georgia runoffs changed the ‘polling is broken’ narrative
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a pro-voting-rights advocacy group, more than 165 bills restricting voting access have been proposed in 33 state legislatures — more than four times as many as had been proposed in February 2020. The ones that have received the most attention are probably those in Georgia, both because that state has emerged as one of the closest swing states in the country and because of how draconian the restrictions are. And because Republicans control all levers of state government in Georgia, these bills have a higher chance than most of actually becoming law.
There are currently two big bills under consideration in the Peach State. The first, House Bill 531, introduced in the Georgia state House last Thursday — just an hour before its hearing was scheduled — has received a lot of attention for the sheer breadth of what it is proposing. It would:
- Require absentee voters to submit their driver’s license number, state ID number or a copy of their photo ID with their ballot.
- Shorten the window in which voters can request absentee ballots; they would have to do so between 11 weeks before the election and two Fridays before the election. (Currently Georgians can request absentee ballots between 180 days before the election and one Friday before the election.)
- Prevent election officials from mailing absentee ballots until four weeks before the election.
- Bar election officials from mailing unsolicited absentee-ballot applications to voters.
- Limit the early-voting period to business hours during the three weeks preceding the election, plus the second Saturday before the election; early voting would no longer be allowed any other day, including Sundays.
- Clarify that no one can give food or water to people standing in line to vote. (Separately, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has argued that this is already against the law, and he has announced his intention to start enforcing it more.)
- Allow ballot drop boxes at early-voting sites only, and only when those sites are open.
- Limit the use of mobile voting facilities, such as buses, to emergencies.
- Throw out provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct.
- Prohibit counties from accepting outside funding for elections.
- Require that voters have an excuse to vote absentee — despite the fact that Georgia has offered no-excuse absentee voting without incident since 2005.
- Require a driver’s license number or state ID number to apply for an absentee ballot on paper (this is already required to apply for one online).
- Require absentee voters to get their ballot envelope signed by a witness and enclose a copy of their photo ID with the ballot.
- Empower the state to remove local election officials from their posts.
- Also limit the use of mobile voting facilities to emergencies.
Obviously, there is a fair amount of overlap between SB 241 and HB 531 — for now. Legislators will have the chance to amend the bills either to make them match or have them cover different aspects of election administration.SB 69 would end Georgia’s practice of automatically registering people to vote at the Department of Driver Services, and SB 70 would ban people from voting in a general-election runoff (such as the one Georgia just held for the U.S. Senate) if they voted in the general election in another state.And other, smaller pieces of legislation are under consideration too. For example,
Democrats and voting-rights advocates have decried the proposals, accusing Republicans of trying to disenfranchise Democrats and voters of color. (At least one Republican appears to agree: Alice O’Lenick, a Republican election official in Gwinnett County, has urged the legislature to make these changes “so that we at least have a shot at winning.”) But regardless of the intention, the bills would undeniably have the practical effect of disenfranchising Black voters, who in Georgia are the Democratic base, at a disproportionate rate.
For one thing, the ban on Sunday early voting would spell the end of “souls to the polls” voting events, which usher parishioners to polling places after Sunday morning services at predominantly Black churches. For another, the ban on giving out food and water would probably hit hardest in places with the longest lines to vote, which tend to be in predominantly nonwhite and lower-income communities. In addition, the local-control proviso in SB 241 would effectively allow the currently Republican-controlled secretary of state’s office to usurp the power of lower-level officials in Democratic and/or majority-minority counties. Likewise, under HB 531, DeKalb County (which is more than 70 percent nonwhite) would not be allowed to mail absentee-ballot applications to every voter and Fulton County (which is more than 60 percent nonwhite) would not be able to offer mobile voting buses, as they each did in 2020.
And of course, the bills make it a lot harder to vote absentee by mail, a voting method used predominantly by Democrats in 2020. (In Georgia specifically, President Biden won absentee votes 65 percent to 34 percent.) However, it’s not entirely clear that the absentee-voting stipulations of these bills would actually help Republicans all that much electorally. That is, Democrats may be likelier than Republicans to take advantage of absentee voting when it is available, but there’s no evidence that mail voting actually helps Democrats win. And, in fact, prior to 2020, there was no significant partisan gap between absentee votes and Election Day votes. (In 2016, Donald Trump won Georgia absentee voters 49 percent to 47 percent.)
It remains to be seen if these bills will actually become law. Republicans do control the state Senate, state House and governorship in Georgia, giving them (theoretically) unfettered ability to pass bills over Democratic objections. But the lawmaking process also presents many hurdles, and these bills may go too far even for some Republicans. Most notably, state House Speaker David Ralston said last month that he opposed adding an excuse requirement for absentee voting. And a statistical model from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution based on the success or failure of past Georgia legislation gives HB 531 a 26 percent chance of passing and SB 241 only a 24 percent chance of passing. SB 69 and SB 70 are even longer shots, with just a 12 percent chance each.
That said, individual bills covering the same topics as the two big omnibus bills are still independently making their way through the legislature, meaning some provisions of the bills could become law even if they don’t pass. For example, the state Senate has already passed SB 67, which requires voters to submit their driver’s license number, their state ID number or a photocopy of their photo ID with paper absentee-ballot applications. And the Journal-Constitution gives SB 89, which would empower the secretary of state’s office to intervene in “low-performing” county election offices, a 52 percent chance of passing on its own.
And even if Republicans fail to pass these bills in Georgia, they could have more success in other states. Several other Republican-controlled states have proposed similar voting restrictions. In Arizona, HB 2701 would restrict mail voting to only people who physically cannot vote in person — and at the same time slash the number of in-person polling locations. HB 2369 would require that people returning their ballot by mail get the envelope notarized or else enclose a copy of their photo ID. HB 2720 would even allow the state House to overturn the results of an election with a simple majority vote — probably the most egregiously undemocratic bill in the entire country.
In Iowa, the state Senate has already passed a bill that would cut the early-voting period, close Election Day polling places one hour earlier, ban the mailing of unsolicited absentee-ballot applications and require absentee ballots to be received by Election Day, not just postmarked by then. In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has proposed restricting the use of drop boxes and banning people from dropping off other people’s ballots. And in Wisconsin, Republicans want to end the ability to request an absentee ballot for all elections in a given year, create more paperwork for in-person absentee voters and require absentee voters to provide ID. (However, because Wisconsin has a Democratic governor, these proposals are unlikely to become law.)
The list goes on: At least 15 other states have proposed stricter voter-ID laws this year, too. And a least three others want to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting. Clearly, 2020 may not be the last time the rules over how you can cast your ballot will change. We’ll be tracking all these proposals and writing about them regularly so you’re not caught off guard.