Georgia primary went well, but jury is still out on election law's impact

The Fulcrum

Last year, Georgia enacted a controversial elections law that critics said would make it significantly harder for people to vote. And while that may still be true, last month's primary went smoothly with record turnout among both Republicans and Democrats.

Even though the 2021 law created new requirements for voters casting ballots by mail and limited the availability of drop boxes, among other restrictions, no voting jurisdictions reported major problems or exceptionally long lines.

The Fulcrum asked elections integrity analyst David Levine of the Alliance for Security Democracy for his take on Georgia’s new voting rules, the recent primary and what others can learn from the Peach State.

A child waits for their parent to vote at the Park Tavern polling location during the Georgia primary election on May 24, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Q: The Fulcrum: Last year, Georgia passed a sweeping election reform law that drew outrage from the left. Major companies criticized the law and Major League Baseball even moved the All-Star Game out of the state. What was so controversial?

A: Levine: Georgia ran a remarkable 2020 presidential election, but you wouldn’t know it from many of the provisions that were adopted in last year’s law, many of which seemed to be a problem in search of a solution, and others that seemingly threatened the integrity of vote counting. For example, after standing up to former President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, the Georgia law removed the secretary of state from decision-making power on the state election board. That’s not fixing a problem – it’s exacting retribution.

The new law also gives those in charge of the Georgia legislature the power to choose an election official who could vote on the state election board for a temporary takeover of up to four local election boards during the height of an election (i.e., during the voting period or vote counting). Improving the performance of underperforming local election offices is a laudable goal, but this provision provides few, if any, safeguards to ensure that it can’t be exploited for partisan ends.

Additionally, there are a raft of provisions in Georgia’s sweeping new law that unnecessarily restrict access to the ballot, particularly when one considers Georgia’s success administering the 2020 presidential election. For example, more than 1.3 million voters successfully voted by mail during the 2020 election, an election in which the presidential race was decided by 11,779 votes. In response to this success, Georgia took a number of evidence-free actions, including banning the sending of unsolicited mail ballot applications, limiting the time to request a mail ballot, and restricting the number and placement of mail ballot drop boxes. The new legislation also forces voters to reapply more often to vote by mail, which could add processing time and costs, and make it harder for election officials to plan with regards to absentee voting. In short, these provisions appear to have been justified largely in terms of improving “voter confidence,” rather than improving convenience and security. Election reforms are better when they’re responsive to the latter, not just the former.

Q: A year later, with the primaries in the rearview mirror, do those criticisms hold up?

A: The jury is still out. I think SB 202 may well have created more problems than it solves, but whether those problems are subsequently exploited remains to be seen. I think it will probably take going through a number of elections to get a better sense of that.

Q: There's been a lot of coverage of early voting in Georgia during the primary. How much of an impact did that have on how things went?

A: I think it’s hard to overstate the impact of Georgia’s record-breaking early voting turnout. In sports, the best players and coaches often “take what the defense gives them.” The same can be said for voters in elections. While a number of provisions in SB 202 made voting by mail more cumbersome for the primary, early in-person voting remained just as easy, if not easier, in most of Georgia, and voters took advantage of that during the primary.

In the midst of ongoing efforts to baselessly question the legitimacy of the state’s electoral system, Georgia’s high early voting turnout was a strong indicator of voters’ confidence in the security and integrity of their state’s elections. Additionally, the high early-voting turnout stretched out the opportunity for Georgia election officials and their partners to identify and address any voting-related issues, so that they were less likely to pile up on Election Day. Taken together, these developments increased the likelihood for a smooth Election Day and a successfully administered election.

Q: Was the primary conducted in a fair, safe and secure manner?

A: Yes. Thus far, no evidence has been brought forward to suggest otherwise.

Q: What can other states learn from Georgia?

A: Robust in-person early voting can make elections a whole lot easier. Not only does an in-person early voting regime like the one Georgia offers go a long way towards ensuring that voters can access the ballot, it also can make it easier to both administer and secure the elections. In the 2014 Presidential Commission on Election Administration report, election officials from both parties testified to the importance of early voting in alleviating the congestion and other potential problems of a single Election Day. And during the 2020 presidential election, former Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Chris Krebs said that high turnout during early voting gave election officials more opportunities ahead of Election Day to identify and resolve any security-related issues that might arise. Finally, high early-voting turnout can be a signal to others that confidence in the integrity of the election is high, which can potentially help encourage additional turnout as well as counter efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the election.

Embracing election denialism isn’t necessary for ascending to higher office. Georgia’s primary was a benchmark for the state of U.S. politics in 2022. Would voters choose candidates who upheld the integrity of elections or selected candidates who pushed the Big Lie? Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger won their Republican primaries despite rejecting Trump’s entreaties to reverse his 2020 election loss. Hopefully, their victories can help throw a wrench into the ongoing efforts to overturn the will of voters.

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