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Georgia Has Enacted Sweeping Changes to Its Voting Law. Here’s Why Voting Rights Advocates Are Worried

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Updated: | Originally published:

Georgia enacted a sweeping overhaul of its election law on Thursday, making it the first 2020 battleground state to introduce new voting restrictions as Republicans have put forth similar bills in dozens of state legislatures across the country.

Voting rights advocates have decried Georgia’s new law as an attempt to influence whose votes are counted and suppress turnout, particularly among Black and Brown voters who helped Democrats clinch a narrow victory in the recent presidential and Senate elections. Georgia voters came out in record numbers in the 2020 polls, helping Biden secure a win in the state by just over 12,000 votes.

The measure will give the state’s Republican-majority legislature more control over county election boards, which certify elections. It also adds voter ID requirements for absentee ballots, limits access to ballot dropboxes while codifying them into state law, expands early voting days for the general election, criminalizes the practice of “line warming,” in which volunteers hand out food and water to voters standing in long lines, bans the use of provisional ballots for most cases of out-of-precinct voting, shortens runoff elections and all but eliminates the use of mobile voting buses barring emergencies, among other rules.

After the bill signing, Republican Governor Brian Kemp said in a statement in his office that the new law would “expand access in the Peach State,” effectively making it “easy to vote, and hard to cheat.” He also hit back at his critics. “According to them, if you support voter ID for absentee ballots, you’re a racist,” Kemp said.

Other Republicans have also defended the new law, saying the measures are necessary to “preserve election integrity” and root out fraud, despite the fact that Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has repeatedly said there was no widespread fraud in the state’s recent elections. “In implementing this law, I will ensure that no eligible Georgia voter is hindered in exercising their right to vote, and I will continue to further secure our elections so that every Georgian can have confidence in the results of our elections,” Raffensperger said after the bill signing.

Critics say Georgia’s law is part of a nationwide campaign to restrict voter access that has taken off after President Donald Trump baselessly called into question the legitimacy of the 2020 elections. As of Feb. 19, state lawmakers were pushing 253 bills that would restrict voter access in 43 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan non-profit researching democracy. President Joe Biden on Thursday condemned the efforts underway across the country to pass measures that would make it harder for people to vote. “What I’m worried about is how un-American this whole initiative is,” Biden said at a press conference, singling out the restriction preventing someone from bringing water to a voter standing in line. “It’s sick.” Democratic lawyer Marc Elias said Thursday evening on MSNBC that “democracy was assaulted” in Georgia and that he was planning to file a lawsuit to challenge the new law.

Georgia’s new law does include some concessions to its detractors. After coming under fire, Republicans backed off including a ban on no-excuse absentee voting and curtailing Sunday voting. The law now broadly expands weekend voting in the general election. Republican Lt. Gov Geoff Duncan, who previously said many of the Georgia voting proposals appeared to be “solutions in search of a problem,” said on Thursday he was “supportive of many, but not all, of the changes” in the new law, but appreciates that the legislature decided not to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting.

‘There is no suppression in this bill.’

Voting rights advocates insist the measure will still be disastrous for Georgia’s democracy, particularly the provision that shifts power away from some local counties towards the state legislature in certifying elections. It makes local counties that the legislature considers to be struggling less flexible in adopting quick changes related to issues like polling place closures and expanding language access for voters.

They worry that will, in effect, allow the Republican-majority legislature to intervene if they don’t like an election’s results. “This bill would give the power for (the state) to do exactly what Donald Trump wanted them to do: to overturn an election,” Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said at a press conference hours before the bill was signed into law.

Alex Wan, chair of Fulton County’s board of elections, which oversees part of Atlanta, describes the new system as the “fox guarding the henhouse.”

“Basically, the worst-case scenario is that the state legislature does not like the outcome in a county, takes over and puts in a new board, suspends the existing board, does not certify the elections until they are certifying the election results that they want,” Wan says.

The law’s supporters deny the state intends to override voters’ will, and insist the provision is intended to help rebuild trust in the electoral system. “We saw some election boards in some counties that did things that were different than others, and that’s not healthy, and that’s what led to so much of the distrust,” Republican Rep. Alan Powell said on Thursday. “Show me where there’s suppression. There is no suppression in this bill.”

Other parts of the law have voting rights advocates worried as well. The new law requires all counties to have at least one dropbox. (During the last election, they were a temporary emergency measure implemented by the state election board.) But it also limits dropboxes to one per 100,000 active voters or one dropbox per early voting location, whichever figure is lower. The government’s Election Assistance Commission, by contrast, recommends one per 15,000-20,000 voters. The new law also requires that dropboxes be housed inside in-person early voting facilities unless there are specific emergencies, and that they are constantly monitored by an election official or appropriate staff.

Aklima Khondoker, Georgia State Director for All Voting is Local, a national voting rights group, is concerned that the new limits on the availability and access to dropboxes will especially impact voters in areas with fewer early voting sites—often in diverse neighborhoods—as well as those with disabilities. “You can’t call it a mailbox anymore if you shove it inside of the United States Postal Service and say that this is a mailbox like any other mailbox,” says Khondoker. She describes the new law as similar to “death by 1,000 cuts,” calling it “voter suppression by 1,000 measures.”

The new law also requires a driver’s license number, state ID number or photocopy or electronic upload of ID when requesting an absentee ballot. Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, points out that there are 200,000 registered voters in Georgia without a driver’s license.

Wan expects the part of the law severely limiting the use of mobile voting units —the buses will now only be allowed in specific emergencies and within 2,600 feet of an early voting site—would especially impact Fulton County, the main county to use them in the last election. The mobile voting unit helped Georgians cast more than 20,000 votes in the general and run-off elections, Wan says. “If you can knock out 20,000, Guess what? You change the results of the election,” Wan says. “It’s part of a national playbook that’s being deployed everywhere.”

Wan also worries about the cost of the new law. The measure did not come with a fiscal note attached, but an analysis on the fiscal impact of another sweeping Georgia proposal that would add voting restrictions from the Voting Rights Lab, a nonpartisan organization focused on advocating for voting rights, found that similar changes, including establishing a voter fraud hotline and additional ID requirements for absentee ballots, would cost millions of dollars.

“Who’s going to pay for all this?” Wan says. The bill will likely fall to counties, which are already overburdened and understaffed, he says. “The county elections departments office are either going to have to raise taxes to pay for this or they’re gonna have to siphon money away from everything they’re doing to ensure safe, secure and accurate elections.”

‘It’s a web.’

Despite the months of controversy leading up to its passage, the Georgia law, called the Election Integrity Act of 2021, sailed through the GOP-controlled legislature along party lines on Thursday, with the House passing the measure with a vote of 100-75 and the Senate agreeing to its changes on a vote of 34-20 before being sent to Kemp’s office to sign.

It was nevertheless a tense evening, as law enforcement arrested Black Democratic Rep. Park Cannon—an opponent of the new measure—in the state Capitol and charged her with obstruction of law enforcement and preventing or disrupting general assembly sessions or other meetings of members.

Videos circulating on social media showed Cannon being dragged by the arms through the building by two Georgia State Patrol officers. One video showed her moments before, knocking on the door of the governor’s office and an officer tells her, “I’mma tell you one more time to step back.” After she was led away, she repeatedly asked why she was under arrest. Officers remained silent. “Speak to me, why am I under arrest? There is no reason for me to be arrested. I am a legislator,” Cannon said.”

Georgia State Patrol said in a statement emailed to TIME that Cannon was “beating on the door to the Governor’s Office,” which is “marked off with stanchions and a ‘Governor’s Staff Only’ sign.” They said that Cannon kept knocking on the door while Kemp was having a press conference for the bill signing despite them telling her to stop or she would be placed under arrest for “obstruction and disturbing the press conference.”

Rep. Erica Thomas, another Democratic lawmaker, said in a separate Instagram video that Cannon was trying to watch the bill signing in the governor’s office. “All we asked is for her to be able to see them sign a bill that is signing our rights away and you arrested her.”

Carol Anderson, chair of African American Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, describes the attempt by Georgia’s legislature as well as others around the country as similar to the Mississippi plan of 1890, which employed measures such as poll taxes and literacy tests to add barriers to the polls that especially affected Black Americans.

“It didn’t say, ‘Okay, we’re just going to have the poll tax, and that ought to stop black people from voting.’ What it did was it had an array of policies that were designed and that worked together. If the poll tax didn’t get you, the literacy test would. If the literacy test didn’t get you, then the good character clause would,” Anderson says. “It’s a web. You’re dodging and you’re hopping, but lord, don’t hit one of those things.”

Correction, March 26

The original version of this story misstated how voters can use Social Security numbers under Georgia’s new elections law. Voters can use a Social Security number as their identification when filling out an absentee ballot, voters cannot use a Social Security number as their identification to request an absentee ballot.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com