Georgia’s new voting law has been decried by opponents as designed to disenfranchise minority voters, while supporters argue it expands voting rights. The bill has led to corporations like Delta Airlines, Microsoft, and Coca-Cola to publicly decry the measure and prompted Major League Baseball to move its All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver.
Penn Today asked political scientist Marc Meredith of the School of Arts & Sciences to share five things to know about the new law.
The process of mail balloting changed but not as dramatically as it could have
While there was a proposal to restrict registrants under the age of 65 from requesting a mail ballot without an excuse, this did not get included in the final bill. Instead, the bill changed parts of the process through which registrants request mail ballots, how election administrators will verify the identity of the people casting mail ballots, and the use of drop boxes to collect mail ballots. While these changes are likely to reduce the number of people who vote using a mail ballot, the consequences will not be as dramatic as they would have been had some people lost their ability to request a mail ballot.
State legislature is more directly involved in administering elections
This is a massive bill, and so it does lots of things simultaneously. Some of the changes in the mail-balloting process will make it harder for certain people to vote. For example, some registrants who don’t have a Georgia driver’s license will find it more challenging to vote using a mail ballot. Other changes will make it easier for some people to vote. For example, all registrants will now be able to cast an early in-person absentee ballot on at least one weekend day. But arguably the most consequential changes are those that give the state legislature more power to determine election administration processes at the expense of the Georgia secretary of state’s office. For example, someone selected by the state legislature will now chair the State Election Board instead of the elected secretary of state. And this is occurring at the same time that the State Election Board appears to be gaining more power to exercise oversight of the actions of county elections officials.
It is too early to grasp the bill’s ramifications
Because there are so many moving parts to Georgia’s new law, it’s really hard to come up with summary statement about its impact. This is part because the most consequential elements of the bill are things that could happen. The state legislature could appoint someone to oversee the State Election Board that acts differently than the elected secretary of state. The State Election Board could play a more active role in shaping the actions of county elections officials. Having witnessed what happened in 2020, one serious concern of mine about the bill is the possibility that having a chair of the State Election Board appointed by the state legislature increases the pressure for that person to intervene in the process of counting votes. But no one knows exactly how this process will play out.
It also is important to remember that this is all happening in a state that used literacy tests to prevent Blacks from voting within some voters’ lifetimes. And this is happening on the heels of an election in which Democrats won elections statewide for the first time in about 20 years. A lot of the bill seems like solutions looking for a problem as opposed to a problem that needs a solution. And so one of the biggest ramifications of this bill could be a heightened sense among Black Georgians that the state is once again trying to disenfranchise them.
Voter education will be key
The bill changed a lot over the course of the legislative process, and there were a bunch of things proposed that didn't make it into the final law, like the restrictions on who could access mail ballots. One thing that I'm worried about is that the bill is so complicated and there were so many things being discussed, that people might not have an accurate sense of what has changed. People might think, ‘Oh, I no longer have the ability to vote by mail,’ when in fact they still do. Voter education will be necessary in Georgia, informing people not just about what changed but also what stayed the same.
Party control of state government matters
Georgia is making news, but I'm just as concerned about Pennsylvania. Georgia was able to pass this law because Republican legislators were nearly unified in their support of it, and Republicans control the Georgia state House, state Senate, and governorship. While I am skeptical about a number of the changes contained in the bill, there are other parts of the bill that I think make a lot of sense. For example, the bill increases the amount of time before Election Day that elections officials can begin the process of preparing mail ballots to be tabulated. This should allow us to know vote totals more quickly and hopefully prevent us from having to wait days before we know who won an election.
Unlike Georgia, Pennsylvania currently has a divided government with Republicans controlling both the state House and state Senate and the Democrats holding the governorship. Because the Republicans and Democrats currently cannot seem to agree about anything related to election administration, this means no new election laws are being passed in Pennsylvania. The upside of this gridlock is that it is preventing a number of bills containing really bad policies from moving forward. But it is also preventing some changes that are needed in our new mail voting system. We desperately need legislation that will allow elections officials to begin the process of preparing mail ballots earlier, but there are no broader election reform bills moving through the system that can address this need.