The next time Georgians vote will be quite different than the last time.
A bill quickly signed into law Thursday night by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, after approval by the Republican-controlled legislature, makes major changes to voting procedures.
A lawsuit against the measures, which opponents have labeled “voter suppression,” was filed Thursday in federal court in Atlanta.
The changes come after Democrat Joe Biden defeated incumbent Republican President Donald Trump in Georgia, and Senate runoffs in which Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock unseated incumbent Republicans. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, has said that Georgia experienced “safe, secure, honest elections” and that some of the legislative proposals were “reactionary to a three-month disinformation campaign that could have been prevented” after Trump’s defeat.
The bill passed on party-line votes, 100-75 in the House and 34-20 in the Senate.
Jewish groups had expressed concern that in-person early voting on Sundays would be banned or restricted, removing an option for observant Jews unable to vote on Saturdays. Instead, for general elections, the state’s 159 counties will be required to offer early voting on two Saturdays and will have the option to schedule two Sundays. Early voting on Sundays was more prevalent in urban areas and key to the “souls to the polls” programs at African American churches.
Early voting on weekends also serves people who cannot take time away from work or home to vote during weekday business hours, including on election day, and do not wish to file an absentee ballot.
The rules for absentee voting were a major part of the debate. More than 1.3 million votes were cast by absentee ballot in Georgia in the Nov. 3, 2020, general election, out of nearly 5 million total votes cast.
Under the new law, signatures no longer will be used to verify absentee ballots. Voters will be required to provide a driver’s license number or another form of state-approved identification; those without either will be required to provide additional proof of identity. The deadline to request an absentee ballot will be set 11 days before an election. An earlier proposal to limit absentee voting only to people age 65 and older or physically disabled was scrapped.
Ballot drop boxes will be permitted only inside early voting locations and available only during business hours, and will not be available the last four days before an election, when on-time delivery by the postal service cannot be assured.
It now becomes illegal to distribute food or drink to voters waiting in line near a polling place.
Runoffs now will be held four weeks after the general election — as opposed to nine weeks, as with the Jan. 5 Senate runoffs — and early voting before runoffs will be reduced to one week. Military and overseas voters will cast ballots by ranked choice, eliminating the need or opportunity to vote a second time in a runoff.
The new law eliminates the possibility of another multiparty, all-comers, “jungle primary,” such as the 20-candidate field that sought to replace retiring Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson. That was the race that sent then-Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler into the runoff that she lost to Warnock.
Counties now will be required to certify election results within six days, rather than the current 10, and ballot counting will be required to continue without interruption until finished.
A suit against the new rules was filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. The suit — on behalf of the New Georgia Project, Black Voters Matter Fund and Rise, Inc. — contends that the new Georgia law violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
The suit claims that the new law “is clearly intended to and will have the effect of making it harder for lawful Georgia voters to participate in the State’s elections. And it will impose these unjustifiable burdens disproportionately on the State’s minority, young, poor, and disabled citizens.”
Opponents also have vowed to put economic pressure — including boycotts — on companies that financially support legislators who either backed efforts to overturn Biden’s victory over Trump and who backed the new voting bill.
Despite repeated claims of fraud by Trump and his supporters, including Republican members of the legislature, the state audited, recounted by machine, and recounted by hand the presidential vote. Biden’s victory by about 12,000 votes was verified each time.
After signing the bill, Kemp said on Twitter: “Today, I was proud to sign SB 202 into law. By making it easy to vote and hard to cheat, we can ensure Georgia’s elections are safe, accessible, and fair!”
Democratic House Rep. Mike Wilensky, the lone Jewish member of the legislature, told the AJT: “The election bill that passed is very harmful. It will limit voting access to many Georgians in several different ways. They still do not have mandatory voting on Sundays, but made it optional for each county. We should be making sure everyone gets to vote, not making it more difficult.”
In a statement to the AJT, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta said, in part: “We are shocked that legislators who hold their offices because of the 2020 election, which was the most secure and had the highest participation in Georgia’s history, have chosen to act against the best interests and desires of the people of Georgia to make voting more difficult. It is impossible to separate this law from Georgia’s segregationist Jim Crow past, and it is also impossible to deny that this bill is intended to suppress the votes of Black Georgians and other voters of color. The timing of this action on the eve of Passover, a Jewish holiday that above all is about freedom, reminds us why we tell the story of the Exodus of the Jewish People from Egypt each year. We are compelled by our Jewish values to support efforts to undo the errors of this legislation.”
Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff, who is Jewish, said Thursday on Twitter: “Tonight Georgia’s legislature passed a bill brazenly intended to make it harder for Georgians to vote. Among its outrageous provisions: it criminalizes ‘giving water to voters who are waiting in line.’ It’s no wonder Gov. Kemp hid behind closed doors while he signed it.”