The Georgia Voting Fight
Sorting through the heated debate over Georgia’s new voting law.,
Georgia’s new voting law has inspired a heated national debate, involving President Biden, top Republicans and major companies. It has led to a furious exchange of charges and countercharges, sometimes about basic facts.
This morning, I want to try to clarify the fight, by focusing on a few overarching points.
Make voting harder
The Georgia law is part of an ongoing effort by the Republican Party to make voting more difficult, mostly because Republicans believe they win when turnout is low.
There is no accurate way to describe this effort other than anti-democratic.
The Republican Party’s justification is “election integrity” — that is, stopping voter fraud. But voter fraud is exceedingly rare. There is no reason to believe it has determined the outcome of a single U.S. election in decades. If anything, the most high-profile recent examples of fraud have tended to involve Republican voters. Yet former President Donald Trump and other Republicans have repeatedly and falsely claimed otherwise.
In truth, the spate of “election integrity” laws over the past decade are mostly a response to Barack Obama’s presidential victories. They created a consensus, among both parties, that Democrats benefited from high turnout (which may not be true). Republicans in many states have responded by trying to make voting harder, especially in cities and heavily Black areas — through onerous identification requirements, reduced voting hours, reduced access to early voting and more.
The new Georgia law largely fits this pattern. It is a response by Republican legislators and Gov. Brian Kemp to their party’s close losses there in the 2020 elections. The law reduces hours for absentee voting, increases ID requirements, and limits the distribution of water and food to voters waiting in line.
One provision seems obviously targeted at Atlanta, the Democrats’ most important source of votes: a new limit on absentee-ballot drop boxes. It is likely to reduce the number of drop boxes in metropolitan Atlanta to fewer than 25, from 94 last year. (My colleagues Nick Corasaniti and Reid Epstein have written a helpful summary of the law.)
“There is no rational motivation for the passage of its new election law other than demonstrating fealty to the false claims elevated by Trump,” The Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote. Perry Bacon Jr. of FiveThirtyEight put it this way: “The enactment of this law in that state is a particularly alarming sign that the Republican Party’s attacks on democratic norms and values are continuing and in some ways accelerating.”
What will the impact be?
But some Democrats have misrepresented parts of the law — and may be exaggerating its likely effects.
Biden, for example, suggested that the law would close polling places at 5 p.m. It won’t. As is already the law, local governments must keep polling places open until 5 p.m. and can keep them open until 7 p.m. (CNN’s Daniel Dale and The Post’s Glenn Kessler have both laid out Biden’s incorrect assertions.)
“The entire existence of the legislation in question is premised on a pernicious lie,” The Bulwark’s Tim Miller wrote. “But for some reason Biden & many other Dems are grossly exaggerating the specifics of what it actually does.” In some cases, Democrats appear to be talking about provisions that the Georgia legislature considered but did not include.
What about the impact of the provisions that really are in the law? That’s inherently uncertain. But The Times’s Nate Cohn has argued that the effects will be smaller than many critics suggest. He thinks it will have little effect on overall turnout or on election outcomes.
He points out that the law mostly restricts early voting, not Election Day voting. Early voters tend to be more highly educated and more engaged with politics. They often vote no matter what, be it early or on Election Day. More broadly, Nate argues that modest changes to voting convenience — like those in the Georgia law — have had little to no effect when other states have adopted them.
Of course, Georgia is so closely divided that even a small effect — on, say, turnout in Atlanta — could decide an election. And the law has one other alarming aspect, as both Nate and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Patricia Murphy have noted: It could make it easier for state legislators to overturn a future election result after votes have been counted.
The bottom line
The new Georgia law is intended to be a partisan power grab. It is an attempt to win elections by changing the rules rather than persuading more voters. It’s inconsistent with the basic ideals of democracy. But if it’s intent is clear, its impact is less so. It may not have the profound effect that its designers hope and its critics fear.
Substack’s Matthew Yglesias offers a helpful bit of context: Georgia’s law is based on “a big lie,” he writes, which certainly is worrisome. But the impact is likely to be modest, he predicts. And for people worried about the state of American democracy, laws like Georgia’s are not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that the Electoral College, the structure of the Senate and the gerrymandering of House districts all mean that winning public opinion often isn’t enough to win elections and govern the country.
“These big skews,” Yglesias writes, “matter much more than the marginal impact of tinkering with voter ID or absentee ballot rules.”
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Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David
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Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.