What Georgia’s Voting Law Really Does
The New York Times analyzed the state’s new 98-page voting law and identified 16 key provisions that will limit ballot access, potentially confuse voters and give more power to Republican lawmakers.,
What Georgia’s Voting Law Really Does
The New York Times analyzed the state’s new 98-page voting law and identified 16 key provisions that will limit ballot access, potentially confuse voters and give more power to Republican lawmakers.
Go page by page through Georgia’s new voting law, and one takeaway stands above all others: The Republican legislature and governor have made a breathtaking assertion of partisan power in elections, making absentee voting harder and creating restrictions and complications in the wake of narrow losses to Democrats.
The New York Times has examined and annotated the law, identifying 16 provisions that hamper the right to vote for some Georgians or strip power from state and local elections officials and give it to legislators.
Republicans passed and signed the 98-page voting law last week following the first Democratic victories in presidential and Senate elections in Georgia in a generation. President Biden won the state by just 11,779 votes out of nearly five million cast. The new law will, in particular, curtail ballot access for voters in booming urban and suburban counties, home to many Democrats. Another provision makes it a crime to offer water to voters waiting in lines, which tend to be longer in densely populated communities.
Below is The Times’s analysis of the law, including the specific provisions and some struck-through language from the state’s previous voting legislation.
Here are the most significant changes to voting in the state, as written into the new law:
- Voters will now have less time to request absentee ballots.
- There are strict new ID requirements for absentee ballots.
- It’s now illegal for election officials to mail out absentee ballot applications to all voters.
- Drop boxes still exist … but barely.
- Mobile voting centers (think an R.V. where you can vote) are essentially banned.
- Early voting is expanded in a lot of small counties, but probably not in more populous ones.
- Offering food or water to voters waiting in line now risks misdemeanor charges.
- If you go to the wrong polling place, it will be (even) harder to vote.
- If election problems arise, a common occurrence, it is now more difficult to extend voting hours.
- With a mix of changes to vote-counting, high-turnout elections will probably mean a long wait for results.
- Election officials can no longer accept third-party funding (a measure that nods to right-wing conspiracy theories).
- With an eye toward voter fraud, the state attorney general will manage an election hotline.
- The Republican-controlled legislature has more control over the State Election Board.
- The secretary of state is removed as a voting member of the State Election Board.
- The G.O.P.-led legislature is empowered to suspend county election officials.
- Runoff elections will happen faster — and could become harder to manage.
Voters will now have less time to request absentee ballots.
Page 38: Not more earlier than 180 78 days or less than 11 days prior to the date of the primary or election, or runoff of either, in which the elector desires to vote, any absentee elector may make, either by mail, by facsimile transmission, by electronic transmission, or in person in the registrar’s or absentee ballot clerk’s office, an application for an official ballot of the elector’s precinct to be voted at such primary, election, or runoff.
Georgia has cut by more than half the period during which voters may request an absentee ballot, from nearly six months before an election to less than three.
This will almost certainly reduce the number of people who seek absentee ballots and the number of people who vote. In the last presidential election, 1.3 million Georgians — about 26 percent of the state’s electorate — voted with absentee ballots. Of those who returned absentee ballots in 2020, 65 percent voted for Joseph R. Biden Jr. and 34 percent chose Donald J. Trump.
The shorter window will also limit opportunities for get-out-the-vote efforts and could put greater strain on local election boards, which will have less time to process ballot requests.
There are strict new ID requirements for absentee ballots.
Page 38: In order to confirm the identity of the voter, such form shall require the elector to provide his or her name, date of birth, address as registered, address where the elector wishes the ballot to be mailed, and the number of his or her Georgia driver’s license or identification card issued … If such elector does not have a Georgia driver’s license or identification card … the elector shall affirm this fact in the manner prescribed in the application and the elector shall provide a copy of a form of identification … The form made available by the Secretary of State shall include a space to affix a photocopy or electronic image of such identification.
Page 57: In order to verify that the absentee ballot was voted by the elector who requested the ballot, the elector shall print the number of his or her Georgia driver’s license number or identification card … in the space provided on the outer oath envelope. The elector shall also print his or her date of birth in the space provided in the outer oath envelope.
If the elector does not have a Georgia driver’s license or state identification card … the elector shall so affirm in the space provided on the outer oath envelope and print the last four digits of his or her social security number in the space provided on the outer oath envelope.
If the elector does not have a Georgia driver’s license, identification card … or a social security number, the elector shall so affirm in the space provided on the outer oath envelope and place a copy of one of the forms of identification in the outer envelope
Previously, Georgia law required voters to simply sign their absentee ballot applications. Now they will have to provide the number from a driver’s license or an equivalent state-issued identification. This is virtually certain to limit access to absentee voting.
The law also creates pitfalls for voters: If they fail to follow all the new steps, like printing a date of birth or in some cases including partial Social Security numbers, their ballots could be tossed out. Mr. Trump’s lawyers and allies urged judges and Republican officials last year to invalidate some ballots that were out of compliance. Stringent voter-ID laws in other states have depressed voting mostly among people of color.
It’s now illegal for election officials to mail out absentee ballot applications to all voters.
Page 39: A blank application for an absentee ballot shall be made available online by the Secretary of State and each election superintendent and registrar, but neither the Secretary of State, election superintendent, board of registrars, other governmental entity, nor employee or agent thereof shall send absentee ballot applications directly to any elector except upon request of such elector or a relative authorized to request an absentee ballot for such elector.
No person or entity other than a relative authorized to request an absentee ballot for such elector or a person signing as assisting an illiterate or physically disabled elector shall send any elector an absentee ballot application that is prefilled with the elector’s required information set forth in this subparagraph.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit last year, Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, mailed absentee ballot applications to every registered voter in the state ahead of its June primary election. This led to absentee voting by record numbers of Georgians.
When Mr. Raffensperger didn’t mail applications again for the general election, several local government agencies did so, particularly in Georgia’s large urban counties — a move that the state has now made illegal. With the loss of automatically mailed applications, some voters will invariably not request ballots, since the applications also served as a reminder to people that they were eligible to vote.
The new law also forbids third-party groups to prefill applications for voters, which made applying for an absentee ballot easier for many voters.
Drop boxes still exist … but barely.
Page 47: A board of registrars or absentee ballot clerk may establish additional drop boxes … but may only establish additional drop boxes totaling the lesser of either one drop box for every 100,000 active registered voters in the county or the number of advance voting locations in the county. Any additional drop boxes shall be evenly geographically distributed by population in the county.
Drop boxes … shall be established at the office of the board of registrars or absentee ballot clerk or inside locations at which advance voting … is conducted in the applicable primary, election, or runoff and may be open during the hours of advance voting at that location. Such drop boxes shall be closed when advance voting is not being conducted at that location.
For the 2020 election, there were 94 drop boxes across the four counties that make up the core of metropolitan Atlanta: Fulton, Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett. The new law limits the same four counties to a total of, at most, 23 drop boxes, based on the latest voter registration data. The number could be lower depending on how many early-voting sites the counties provide.
There won’t just be fewer drop boxes. Instead of 24-hour access outdoors, the boxes must be placed indoors at government buildings and early-voting sites and will thus be unavailable for voters to drop off their ballots during evenings and other nonbusiness hours.
The measure is likely to have the effect of pushing absentee voters to return ballots through the mail, which in 2020 did not prove as reliable as in the past because of cuts to the Postal Service.
Mobile voting centers (think an R.V. where you can vote) are essentially banned.
Page 31: The superintendent of a county or the governing authority of a municipality shall have discretion to procure and provide portable or movable polling facilities of adequate size for any precinct; provided, however, that buses and other readily movable facilities shall only be used in emergencies declared by the Governor … to supplement the capacity of the polling place where the emergency circumstance occurred.
Last year, Fulton County, which includes most of Atlanta, had two recreational vehicles that traversed the county during the early voting periods, effectively bringing polling sites to people at churches, parks and public libraries. In the November election, more than 11,200 people voted at the two vehicles in Fulton County.
Georgia has now outlawed this practice, unless the governor declares a state of emergency to allow it — something that Mr. Kemp, a Republican, is unlikely to do given that it could increase voter turnout in Atlanta.
Early voting is expanded in a lot of small counties, but probably not in more populous ones.
Page 59: There shall be a period of advance voting that shall commence: (A) On the fourth Monday immediately prior to each primary or election; and (B) On the fourth Monday immediately prior to a runoff from a general primary; (C) On the fourth Monday immediately prior to a runoff from a general election in which there are candidates for a federal office on the ballot in the runoff; and (D)(B) As soon as possible prior to a runoff from any other general primary or election in which there are only state or county candidates on the ballot in the runoff but no later than the second Monday immediately prior to such runoff and shall end on the Friday immediately prior to each primary, election, or runoff.
Voting shall be conducted during normal business hours beginning at 9 a.m. and ending at 5 p.m. on weekdays, other than observed state holidays, during such period and shall be conducted on the second Saturday and third Saturdays during the hours of 9 a.m. through 5 p.m. and, if the registrar or absentee ballot clerk so chooses, the second Sunday, the third Sunday, or both the second and third Sundays prior to a primary or election during the hours of 9 a.m. through 4 p.m. determined by the registrar or absentee ballot clerk, but no longer than 7 a.m. through 7 p.m.
Page 60: Except as otherwise provided in this paragraph, counties and municipalities the registrars may extend the hours for voting beyond regular business hours to permit advance voting from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. and may provide for additional voting locations … to suit the needs of the electors of the jurisdiction at their option; provided, however, that voting shall occur only on the days specified in this paragraph and counties and municipalities shall not be authorized to conduct advance voting on any other days.
These new strict rules on early voting hours are likely to curtail voting access for Georgians who work daytime hours or have less flexible schedules and who may be unable to return an absentee ballot.
The provision requires counties to hold early voting during weekday working hours — 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. — and says it may be held for longer but may not take place before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. on those days. The early voting period will begin four weeks before an election. The previous iteration of the law called only for early voting during “normal business hours” and left it up to counties to determine those hours.
The provision also adds a second required Saturday of early voting (the previous law required only one), which will increase access to early voting in most of the state’s rural counties, where election administrators have often been short-staffed and have offered fewer hours of early voting. Most larger counties in the state already offered multiple weekend days of early voting.
The law doesn’t require the availability of early voting on Sundays, which means that counties can choose whether to open for early voting on up to two Sundays before an election.
Counties that choose not to open on Sundays would be limiting ballot access for parishioners at Black churches that have often organized parishioners to vote after Sunday services.
Offering food or water to voters waiting in line now risks misdemeanor charges.
Page 73: No person shall solicit votes in any manner or by any means or method, nor shall any person distribute or display any campaign material, nor shall any person give, offer to give, or participate in the giving of any money or gifts, including, but not limited to, food and drink, to an elector, nor shall any person solicit signatures for any petition, nor shall any person, other than election officials discharging their duties, establish or set up any tables or booths on any day in which ballots are being cast: (1) Within 150 feet of the outer edge of any building within which a polling place is established; (2) Within any polling place; or (3) Within 25 feet of any voter standing in line to vote at any polling place. These restrictions shall not apply to conduct occurring in private offices or areas which cannot be seen or heard by such electors.
This Code section shall not be construed to prohibit a poll officer from distributing materials, as required by law, which are necessary for the purpose of instructing electors or from distributing materials prepared by the Secretary of State which are designed solely for the purpose of encouraging voter participation in the election being conducted or from making available self-service water from an unattended receptacle to an elector waiting in line to vote.
Perhaps no provision in the Georgia law has received more attention than this one, which effectively bars third-party groups or anyone else who is not an election worker from providing food and water to voters waiting in line. Republicans defended the provision, saying it is enforceable only within a 150-foot radius of polling places. Civil rights groups note that it also prevents assistance “within 25 feet of any voter standing in line to vote at any polling place.”
Long lines for voting in Georgia are an unfortunate reality, and are often found in the poorer, densely populated communities that tend to vote Democratic. During the primary election last June, when temperatures hovered above 80 degrees with high humidity, multiple voting locations across the state had lines in which voters waited more than two hours.
Numerous studies have shown that long lines deter people from voting. According to research by the Bipartisan Policy Center, an independent research group, over 560,000 voters did not cast ballots in 2016 “because of problems related to polling place management, including long lines.” In 2014, Stephen Pettigrew, then a Ph.D. candidate in Harvard’s department of government, conducted a study that found that more than 200,000 voters did not vote in the midterm elections that year because they had faced long lines during the 2012 election.
The new law does make it clear that it is legal for voters to drink from a water fountain, if one exists along the line to vote and provided they get the water themselves.
If you go to the wrong polling place, it will be (even) harder to vote.
Page 74: If a person presents himself or herself at a polling place, absentee polling place, or registration office in his or her county of residence in this state for the purpose of casting a ballot in a primary or election stating a good faith belief that he or she has timely registered to vote in such county of residence in such primary or election and the person’s name does not appear on the list of registered electors, the person shall be entitled to cast a provisional ballot in his or her county of residence in this state as provided in this Code section.
If the person presents himself or herself at a polling place in the county in which he or she is registered to vote, but not at the precinct at which he or she is registered to vote, the poll officials shall inform the person of the polling location for the precinct where such person is registered to vote.
The poll officials shall also inform such person that any votes cast by a provisional ballot in the wrong precinct will not be counted unless it is cast after 5 p.m. and before the regular time for the closing of the polls on the day of the primary, election, or runoff and unless the person executes a sworn statement, witnessed by the poll official, stating that he or she is unable to vote at his or her correct polling place prior to the closing of the polls and giving the reason therefor.
From 2012 to 2018, Georgia shuttered more than 214 voting precincts around the state, according to an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Those changes, many of which followed the Supreme Court’s hollowing out of the federal Voting Rights Act in 2013, confused many voters, who upon showing up to the wrong precinct had to vote with provisional ballots.
This provision removes even that remedy for voters who arrive at the wrong precinct before 5 p.m., requiring them to instead travel to the correct precinct or risk being disenfranchised.
Casting a provisional ballot after showing up at the wrong precinct was by far the most common reason for voting provisionally in the 2020 election in Georgia; roughly 44 percent of provisional ballots in the state were from “out of precinct voters,” according to data from the secretary of state’s office. And in Fulton County, 66 percent of the accepted provisional ballots were from “out of precinct” voters.
Of the 11,120 provisional ballots that were counted in the 2020 presidential election, Mr. Biden won 64 percent and Mr. Trump took 34 percent.
If election problems arise, a common occurrence, it is now more difficult to extend voting hours.
Page 72: Poll hours at a precinct may be extended only by order of a judge of the superior court of the county in which the precinct is located upon good cause shown by clear and convincing evidence that persons were unable to vote at that precinct during a specific period or periods of time. Poll hours shall not be extended longer than the total amount of time during which persons were unable to vote at such precinct. Any order extending poll hours at a precinct beyond 9 p.m. shall be by written order with specific findings of fact supporting such extension.
This is a small change, but it could have a significant impact on whether voting hours can be extended in the event of a problem.
Previously, a judge could order that a precinct stay open for as long as necessary based on a problem that had hindered voting (for example, if power went out for 30 minutes, the judge could add an hour of balloting at the end of the day). The new provision requires any relief period to match exactly the amount of time that people were unable to vote.
Georgia is no stranger to Election Day mishaps and problems. Its primary last June was marred by hourslong lines caused by malfunctioning machines. Some precincts had no choice but to ask every voter to file a provisional ballot. Other precincts stayed open later into the night.
Under the new law, if similar election problems were to occur, voters who had to leave would have less time to come back later.
With a mix of changes to vote-counting, high-turnout elections will probably mean a long wait for results.
Page 65: Beginning at 8 a.m. on the third Monday prior to After the opening of the polls on the day of the primary, election, or runoff, the registrars or absentee ballot clerks election superintendent shall be authorized to open the outer oath envelope on which is printed the oath of the elector of absentee ballots that have been verified and accepted … in such a manner as not to destroy the oath printed thereon; provided, however, that the registrars or absentee ballot clerk shall not be authorized toremove the contents of such outer envelope, or to open the inner envelope marked ‘Official Absentee Ballot,’ except as otherwise provided in this Code section and scan the absentee ballot using one or more ballot scanners.
At least three persons who are registrars, deputy registrars, poll workers, or absentee ballot clerks must be present before commencing; and three persons who are registrars, deputy registrars, or absentee ballot clerks shall be present at all times while the outer absentee ballot envelopes are being opened and the absentee ballots are being scanned. After opening the outer envelopes, the ballots shall be safely and securely stored until the time for tabulating such ballots.
However, no person shall tally, tabulate, estimate, or attempt to tally, tabulate, or estimate or cause the ballot scanner or any other equipment to produce any tally or tabulate, partial or otherwise, of the absentee ballots cast until the time for the closing of the polls on the day of the primary, election, or runoff except as provided in this Code section.
One key factor in how widely Mr. Trump and his allies were able to spread falsehoods about the 2020 election was that it took more than two weeks for news outlets to declare that President Biden had won Georgia. With such a long delay, Republicans successfully sowed doubts about the election’s validity by baselessly arguing that fraud must have taken place.
Georgia Republicans’ new voting law does allow the absentee ballot counting process to begin much earlier, with local clerks allowed to open and inspect absentee ballots three weeks before an election.
Still, no ballots can be counted until the polls close, meaning the process of tabulating and reporting vote totals is likely to be lengthy for high-turnout contests. That could lead future candidates to follow Mr. Trump’s lead in trying to contest the results of a legitimate election.
Election officials can no longer accept third-party funding (a measure that nods to right-wing conspiracy theories).
Page 18: No superintendent shall take or accept any funding, grants, or gifts from any source other than from the governing authority of the county or municipality, the State of Georgia, or the federal government. The State Election Board shall study and report to the General Assembly a proposed method for accepting donations intended to facilitate the administration of elections and a method for an equitable distribution of such donations state wide by October 1, 2021.
Last year, as election officials faced countless challenges trying to hold voting during a pandemic, funding for the November general election became tied up in the political debate over the second stimulus package.
Many local election jurisdictions in Georgia and other states, particularly those in poorer urban areas, turned to outside philanthropic groups like the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit organization funded by Mark Zuckerberg that helped counties pay for their elections in 2020. Now Georgia has eliminated that option.
Conspiracy theories in right-wing circles have long focused on the specter of nefarious outsiders swaying election operations with donations; the theories often involve anti-Semitic falsehoods about George Soros, the billionaire liberal donor, who is also Jewish.
With an eye toward voter fraud, the state attorney general will manage an election hotline.
Page 8: The Attorney General shall have the authority to establish and maintain a telephone hotline for the use of electors of this state to file complaints and allegations of voter intimidation and illegal election activities. Such hotline shall, in addition to complaints and reports from identified persons, also accept anonymous tips regarding voter intimidation and election fraud.
Complaints about possible voter intimidation and fraud had previously been run through a web of county election officials and the secretary of state before reaching the state attorney general, but this provision centralizes them and deputizes the attorney general to handle them.
Placing that responsibility within the attorney general’s office may help remove partisan influence to actions that are taken in response to complaints, but voting rights groups say it could serve as an intimidation tactic. And attorneys general themselves could bring their own partisan influence.
The Republican-controlled legislature has more control over the State Election Board.
Page 8: There is created a state board to be known as the State Election Board, to be composed of the Secretary of State a chairperson elected by the General Assembly, an elector to be elected by a majority vote of the Senate of the General Assembly at its regular session held in each odd-numbered year, an elector to be elected by a majority vote of the House of Representatives of the General Assembly at its regular session held in each odd-numbered year, and a member of each political party to be nominated and appointed in the manner provided in this Code section. No person while a member of the General Assembly shall serve as a member of the board.
This is one of a few provisions that strip power from the secretary of state and indirectly shift it to the legislature by creating a new chair of the State Election Board. Previously, the secretary of state had served in that role.
The law dictates that the newly created chair be “nonpartisan,” but the position is appointed through the partisan legislature. Voting rights groups say this amounts to the legislature’s exerting more control over the State Election Board and election oversight in general.
The provision does contain some partisan guardrails: In the two years immediately preceding a chair’s appointment, he or she cannot have been a candidate for public office or have made any political campaign contributions.
But it also looks an awful lot like a revenge move: Republican lawmakers are taking power away from Mr. Raffensperger, who infuriated Mr. Trump and some G.O.P. leaders in the state by rebuffing the former president’s fraud claims.
The secretary of state is removed as a voting member of the State Election Board.
Page 11: The Secretary of State shall be the chairperson of the board an ex officio nonvoting member of the board. Three voting members of the board shall constitute a quorum, and no vacancy on the board shall impair the right of the quorum to exercise all the powers and perform all the duties of the board. The board shall adopt a seal for its use and bylaws for its own government and procedure.
This is a more direct attack on the powers of the secretary of state, effectively eliminating that person’s voice on the State Election Board.
Viewed through the lens of the 2020 election, this could be seen as revenge for Georgia Republicans against the current secretary of state, Mr. Raffensperger, who would not capitulate to Mr. Trump’s demands to overturn the results under a false banner of fraud.
The G.O.P.-led legislature is empowered to suspend county election officials.
Page 11: The State Election Board may suspend county or municipal superintendents and appoint an individual to serve as the temporary superintendent in a jurisdiction. Such individual shall exercise all the powers and duties of a superintendent as provided by law, including the authority to make all personnel decisions related to any employees of the jurisdiction who assist with carrying out the duties of the superintendent, including, but not limited to, the director of elections, the election supervisor, and all poll officers. (g) At no time shall the State Election Board suspend more than four county or municipal superintendents pursuant to subsection (f) of this Code section.
Another power play by Republican state lawmakers. Tensions have long simmered between state and county election officials in Georgia, particularly in Fulton County, the largest Democratic hub in the state, where officials say they have been targeted and deprived of support by Republicans at the state level. Election officials in Fulton County, for their part, have had their historical share of mistakes and mismanagement.
Now the State Election Board, newly influenced by the partisan Legislature, will have the power to suspend county election officials. That part of the new law alarmed some Democratic legislators, who noted that it could particularly affect counties like Fulton, which contains 15 percent of those in the state who voted Democratic in the November election.
The law does state that the bar for suspension is high: either a minimum of three clear violations of State Election Board rules, or “demonstrated nonfeasance, malfeasance, or gross negligence in the administration of the elections” in two consecutive elections.
In the event of a suspension, the State Election Board would name a temporary replacement.
Runoff elections will happen faster — and could become harder to manage.
Page 87: In instances where no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast, a run-off primary, special primary runoff, run-off election, or special election runoff between the candidates receiving the two highest numbers of votes shall be held. Unless such date is postponed by a court order, such run-off primary, special primary runoff, run-off election, or special election runoff shall be held as provided in this subsection.
(2) In the case of a runoff from a general primary or a special primary or special election held in conjunction with a general primary, the runoff shall be held on the Tuesday of the ninth week following such general primary. (3) In the case of a runoff from a general election for a federal office or a runoff from a special primary or special election for a federal office held in conjunction with a general election, the runoff shall be held on the Tuesday of the ninth week following such general election. (4) In the case of a runoff from a general election for an office other than a federal office or a runoff from a special primary or special election for an office other than a federal office held in conjunction with a general election, the runoff shall be held on the twenty-eighth day after the day of holding the preceding general or special primary or general or special election.
Georgia has had its fair share of runoff elections recently; both of its newly seated Democratic senators, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, prevailed in such contests. The shortening of the runoff election window, which Republicans say was meant to help election administrators, could also end up overburdening them, forcing a quick turnaround to hold a runoff election even as officials are still working to certify and ratify the initial general election vote.
Shortening the runoff time will also affect both early voting and military and overseas voters. While the bill states that early voting for a runoff should begin “as early as possible,” it does not specifically require weekend voting.
Additionally, federal election law states that ballots for military and overseas voters must be mailed out 45 days before an election, so those voters will now receive ranked-choice general-election ballots rather than second, separate ballots for the runoff.