On 25 March, Republican governor Brian Kemp of Georgia signed the Election Integrity Act into law, dramatically overhauling the state’s election laws. The bill passed through the state House and Senate in a vote almost entirely on party lines. While many Republicans are defending the bill, it has been heavily criticised by Democrats, who claim that it is a deliberate attempt to suppress Georgian voters.
The bill makes numerous changes to the way elections are undertaken in Georgia. In many ways, the bill improves upon ease of voting by expanding early voting provisions and codifying the use of absentee drop boxes, which saw their debut during the pandemic (although now with significantly reduced numbers). It also contains some more controversial changes.
Implementing barriers to absentee voting has been heavily denounced for targeting Democrats
Some of the more criticised elements include the criminalisation of offering food and water to queuing voters as well as stricter voter ID requirements for absentee voters. This is viewed as effectively limiting access to voting for those without a valid ID, who tend to be of lower-income. Absentee voting was disproportionately used by Democratic voters in the most recent election, and implementing barriers to absentee voting has been heavily denounced for targeting Democrats.
Additionally, the original proposal included the banning of early Sunday voting, – a method that has historically been associated with Black church groups, as well as requiring a valid reason for voting by mail. However, GOP lawmakers ultimately backed down under harsh scrutiny.
The state of Georgia played a vital role for Joe Biden and the Democrats in the 2020 election. Situated firmly in the American Deep South, the state is usually considered a safe carry for conservatives, having voted for the GOP nominee in every other presidential election since Clinton in 1992. However, last year, blue voters in Georgia came out in unprecedented numbers to unseat the incumbent Republican president, Donald Trump.
While the state was not necessary for Biden to claim victory, Biden’s success in Georgia reflected his relative popularity across many traditionally Republican regions of America, with Democrats also winning Arizona and even an elector from Nebraska. Georgia also played an important role in the Senate elections, providing the final two Democratic senators and the party a marginal majority (with Vice President Harris as the tiebreaker vote) in the upper chamber of Congress – the first time Senate Democrats have had control since 2015.
The sudden change in direction for the state has been attributed in part to former Democrat candidate for Georgia governor, Stacey Abrams, mobilising the state’s significant minority population to vote for Biden, as well as Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. Abrams’s non-profit, Fair Fight, managed to register 100,000 new Democratic voters – a critical number considering the state was won by Biden by just under 12,000 out of almost five million total votes.
[The Election Integrity Act is] far too weak and soft to ensure real ballot integrity
– Donald Trump, Former US President
Republicans have supported the new Georgia law, with Kemp justifying it by stating that it is a step towards more “secure, accessible and fair” elections. The new rules and procedures have been praised by national Republican leaders. Former President Trump, whose lawyers have been questioning the outcome of the election in Georgia, has even stated that the bill didn’t go far enough. He said it was “far too weak and soft to ensure real ballot integrity,” and stated that it doesn’t do enough to prevent the alleged “mischief” of the 2020 elections.
Meanwhile, Georgian Democrats have questioned Kemp’s reasoning. While it is not clear that the new restrictions will in fact prevent significant voter fraud, the provisions in the bill will make it more difficult for many Georgians to vote.
In protest of the bill, Democratic state representative Park Cannon interrupted Kemp’s meeting with reporters by repeatedly knocking on the door, later claiming she was “fighting voter suppression.” The bill has been condemned for targeting liberal, and more specifically Black liberal, voters. Cannon was arrested, although this was in violation of Georgia’s state constitution, which protects legislators from arrest during sessions of the General Assembly.
Concerns about the bill are not surprising. As a former Confederate state, Georgia has an extensive history of voter suppression. This primarily targets the state’s African American population, dating all the way back to the period immediately after the Civil War. Many Democrats worry that this bill is just the newest in a long line of these racist and undemocratic laws.
These fears are perhaps not so unfounded. The 2020 general election and the subsequent Senate runoff elections saw brazen measures to establish hurdles to voting. There was the practice of aggressively purging voters from the electoral register and consolidating the number of polling stations – leading to up to 10-hour queues in large, predominantly Black metropolitan areas (which heavily lean towards the Democrats).
In fact, Georgia’s unique two-round congressional voting system – the very reason why so much importance was placed on the state’s senate races – was initially implemented by segregationists in 1963, following the Supreme Court’s ruling against the overtly racist county unit system. The runoff system was designed to disenfranchise Black voting blocs, which often represented a winning plurality in the traditional first-past-the-post format.
Coverage of the bill has been surrounded by misinformation on both sides of the political aisle
In wider American society, the bill has prompted boycotts and counter-boycotts. Notably, sports giant Major League Baseball (MLB) made the decision to move its All-Star Game away from the Georgian capital of Atlanta in protest. Instead, the game will be held in Denver, Colorado, a state with one of the strongest voters’ rights records in the union.
This decision will undoubtedly harm the city’s local businesses as they will no longer receive the patronage of baseball fans coming to Atlanta to watch the game. But it’s unlikely that any significant pressure will be put on the state government as a result of this. In response to the decision, a group of conservatives – including former President Trump – have called for boycotts against MLB, as well as Delta, Coca Cola and others who have also made statements against the bill.
Coverage of the bill has been surrounded by misinformation on both sides of the political aisle. President Biden has come out to condemn the bill as “un-American”, claiming that the new law forces voting to end at 5pm (something the bill doesn’t do), which would be discriminatory against working people. In reality, the bill simply clarifies language in previous voting laws and exact voting times are set by individual counties.
Meanwhile, Kemp has defended the bill, stating that the voting law was no more restrictive than in Colorado. While it is true that Colorado has fewer days to vote in-person, Colorado differs in that it sends every registered voter an absentee ballot weeks in advance, which can be mailed back or deposited in the state’s substantial drop box system.
The principle of free and fair elections is imperative to any democracy. Although Joe Biden and Stacey Abrams have proven that Democrats can win the state with enough capital and campaigning, it seems likely that the Republican governance has been emboldened to do whatever they can to try and prevent a repeat of last year’s result in the upcoming gubernatorial elections in 2022.
What was once a solid Republican hold, Georgia looks like it might become the next must-win battleground state; in 2018, Kemp narrowly edged ahead of Abrams by just 1.2 percentage points. It’s probable that any elections in the near future will be just as close, if not closer.