Senate Bill 202 – What Georgia’s New Election Law Means for Voting Rights

On one side of the political aisle, it makes Georgia elections safer and more secure. On the other, it is reminiscent of Jim Crow and aids in voter suppression. What does Georgia’s new election bill really mean for voting rights in the state of Georgia?

Georgia’s new election law, Senate Bill 202, will bring sweeping changes to elections in the state of Georgia, including setting a shorter time frame for mail-in-voting.

Joshua Woronieki / Unsplash

Georgia’s new election law, Senate Bill 202, will bring sweeping changes to elections in the state of Georgia, including setting a shorter time frame for mail-in-voting.

On the morning of March 25th, 2021, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed Senate Bill 202 (SB 202) into law behind the closed doors of his office in the Georgia State Capitol. As he signed the new election bill, Park Cannon, a Georgia State representative, knocked on his door, seeking to express her opposition to the bill through the disturbance. Her efforts were cut short, however, when capitol officers arrested and removed her from the building. The interaction between the Republican governor and Democratic lawmaker symbolized the partisan response that SB 202 would be met with across the nation. 

Following Joe Biden’s win over Donald Trump in Georgia in the Presidential Election by a margin of 11,779 votes, and Jon Ossoff’s and Raphael Warnock’s victories in the Senate run-off elections that flipped control of the U.S. Congress, Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature began crafting a new voting bill for the state. The election bill, SB 202, brings sweeping changes to Georgia’s electoral process.  

A major change concerns mail-in-voting, an option 1.3 million Georgians opted for during the 2020 presidential election. SB 202 shortens the period of time voters can request a mail-in-ballot for. Previously, Georgians could request a mail-in-ballot six months prior to election day. With the new law, they can only request one 79 days before. 

Along with shortening the period of time Georgians can request a mail-in-ballot, the law mandates that counties send mail-in-ballots solely to voters who specifically request one. Before the law was passed, a county would send a ballot to every registered voter. With the bill, counties also can only send ballots 29 days before election day, a cut from the previous 49 days. Finally, the new law forgoes matching signatures to verify mail-in-ballots and instead requires that voters provide some form of identification like a Social Security number or a driver’s license number with their mail-in-ballot. Overall, the new time restrictions and ID requirement make mail-in-voting more difficult for Georgia voters. 

In addition to restricting mail-in-voting, the bill places new limits on the amount of early voting ballots available. There can now only be either one ballot box per early voting site or one box per 100,000 voters, whichever results in fewer early-voting boxes. The ballot boxes are required to be indoors in a county-election office or in an early voting precinct location. 

SB 202 also criminalizes handing out any gifts, including food and water, within 150 feet of a polling place and within 25 feet of any voter, a move that will make it more strenuous to wait in long voting lines on election day. With the closing of 13% of polling sites between 2012 and 2020, polling places have become more congested in Georgia. Due to this, waiting in long lines on election day has become the norm for several Georgian communities. Making it a misdemeanor to bring food and water to voters would therefore make this aspect of in-person voting less bearable which could lead voters to forgo waiting. The bill does allow election officials to set up water stations, but they would do so at their own discretion. 

The official overseer of the election in the state is also set to change. In previous election cycles, the Secretary of State would manage election proceedings. Through SB 202, Georgia’s General Assembly is set to select a chairperson that leads the state election board. This chair is the person responsible for overseeing the election. Many people have linked expanding the power the Georgia legislature has in selecting who manages the electoral process to Secretary of State Brad Raffsperger refusing to comply with Trump’s demands that he “find” 11,780 votes this January and overturn the presidential election results in Georgia.  

With all of the new restrictions it introduces to Georgia’s election process, the 98-page bill has drawn major rebuke from Democratic politicians and voting rights groups. President Biden has called the bill “un-American” and “a blatant attack on the Constitution and good conscience,” and many activists compare it to the Jim Crow literacy tests and poll taxes that disenfranchised Black voters. The CEOs of large corporations like Delta, Coca-Cola, and MLB have also spoken out against the law, with MLB moving its All-Star-Game from Georgia to Colorado in protest. 

Data backs the claim that restrictions could hit communities that are predominantly inhabited by people of color the hardest. The nine counties that make up the metro Atlanta area “have nearly half of the state’s active voters, but only 38% of the polling places” according to a Georgia Public Broadcasting and ProPublica analysis. The analysis details how voters voting in communities of color often experience longer waiting times in Georgia elections. In previous elections, POC voters voting after 7 P.M. in a community that was at least 90% POC spent an average of 51 minutes in a polling place. In contrast, a voter in a community that was 90% Caucasian was able to cast their ballot in an average of six minutes during the same timeframe. Given these figures, an election law that restricts voting access could greatly impact the voting rights of Georgia’s communities of color. 

While it has been met with significant backlash from Democratic politicians, voting rights advocates, and major corporations headquartered in Georgia, Republican lawmakers have continued to argue that the bill actually expands access to the ballot box. Governor Kemp has insisted that, instead of restricting access, the law is set to “expand voting access in the Peach state” and was enacted to protect the “security and sanctity of the ballot box.” There is merit to these claims. 

SB 202 does require that at least a certain number of drop boxes are available for voters in each county. Before the 2020 presidential election, Georgia did not permit any drop boxes in the state. The law also introduces an additional day of early voting in most rural counties, and it mandates that there be at least two Saturdays of early voting. A third aspect of the bill also expands access to voters in more urban settings as it requires the state to either form new precincts or increase the capacity of existing polling locations if lines get too long and people need to wait to vote for over an hour.

Yet even though SB 202 promises to increase voting access in these and other ways, it would be unwise to not take into account the context within which the law is being passed. One cannot overrule the impact the Democratic wins in Georgia in the 2020 presidential election and the Georgia Senate runoff election might have had on the Republican-controlled legislature’s decision to pass a new election law. Governor Kemp himself noted that the new bill was enacted to restore faith in Georgia’s electoral process. The sentiment that elections need to be made more secure has ties to unfounded claims of election fraud that Trump and many Republican politicians propagated during and after the 2020 presidential election.

It is also important to consider the recent history of voting-restriction in Georgia. Voting was becoming more difficult in Georgia long before SB 202 was passed. The Georgia Public Broadcasting and ProPublica analysis reports that between November of 2012 and June of 2020, 331 polling places closed in Georgia, and the number of voters per polling place in each county grew “by nearly 40%, from about 2,600 in 2012 to more than 3,600 per polling place” last October. 

The passing of Georgia’s new election law is not an isolated event. More restrictive voting laws are being passed in states with Republican controlled legislatures across the nation. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 33 state legislatures have “introduced, prefiled, or carried over 165 restrictive bills this year.” Since the 2020 Presidential Election, Florida has made efforts to restrict voting by mail, Pennsylvania has tried to get rid of the vote by mail expansion plans it passed two years ago, and Arizona has crafted a proposal that would allow the legislature to override the Secretary of State’s certification of electoral votes. Given this trend, it is crucial that we thoroughly examine SB-202 and consider exactly how the bill makes elections more secure, how it restricts voting access, how it expands voting access, and to which communities it restricts and expands access. 

The passing of Georgia’s new election law is not an isolated event. More restrictive voting laws are being passed in states with Republican controlled legislatures across the nation.

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