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Georgia Today: Fallout Intensifies Over Georgia's Controversial Election Law
Voting rights groups continue to push back against the state's sweeping new election law. After a 2020 election that saw record voter turnout statewide, Democrats say the Election Integrity Act will make it harder for many Georgians to vote, especially voters of color. Republicans argue it will expand voter access. The measure signed by Gov. Brian Kemp passed without Democratic support, catapulting Georgia smack into the center of a brewing nationwide battle over how Americans vote.
In this episode, we'll hear how the law changes the state's election system, and as calls grow louder for companies to boycott Georgia, how the controversy could affect the economy.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. Voting rights groups are pushing back against the state's sweeping new election law. The so-called Election Integrity Act includes ID requirements for mail-in ballots, time limits on absentee ballot requests and restrictions on drop boxes. It takes authority away from the Secretary of State and allows the State Election Board to assume control of county elections offices it deems "underperforming." After a 2020 election that saw record voter turnout statewide, many Democrats say the law will make it harder for Georgians to vote, especially voters of color. Meanwhile, the law's Republican backers say it's going to expand voter access by mandating an extra Saturday for in-person early voting and extending some voting hours. Here's Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.
Brian Kemp: With Senate Bill 202, Georgia will take another step toward ensuring our elections are secure, accessible and fair.
Steve Fennessy: The bill that became the Election Integrity Act landed on Gov. Kemp's desk without Democratic support. Now, the governor's signature catapults Georgia smack into the center of a growing nationwide battle over how Americans vote. There's a lot to talk about. Joining us to explain what the Election Integrity Act does and what it means for Georgia voters is GPB political reporter Stephen Fowler. So, Stephen, before we talk about the ways in which elections are going to change in Georgia, thanks to Senate Bill 202, I wanted to start by talking a little bit about Gov. Brian Kemp's remarks that he made after signing the bill into law. He said that" “I knew, like so many of you, that significant reforms to our state elections were needed.” He also said that there were, quote, “many alarming issues that led to a crisis of confidence.” What were the alarming issues?
Stephen Fowler: There were things about the 2012 election cycle, Steve, that did need addressing. I mean, 1.3 million people voted absentee by mail, which is way more than had ever happened. There were problems with trying to verify signatures and there were questions about vote counting processes. And so the scale of the 2020 election in the middle of a pandemic in the middle of probably the tightest battleground state in the country, there were a lot of things that didn't run as smoothly as they could have and needed to be. And that's some of what Gov. Kemp is talking about and some of what Republicans want. But then, of course, the elephant in the room is the less reality-based things that people think went wrong, like claims of fraud with the absentee balloting or claims of a stolen election or problems with voting machines and other things that just aren't true.
NPR NEWS: One person watching all of this closely is Gabriel Sterling. Sterling gained national attention for refuting those falsehoods last December during an emotional news conference. He directly appealed to Trump.
Gabriel Sterling: Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone's going to get hurt. Someone's going to get shot. Someone is going to get killed.
NPR NEWS: About a month later, Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. Five people died.
Steve Fennessy: So going into the nitty gritty — run down for us what's in the bill that Gov. Kemp signed into law. What do Georgians need to know?
Stephen Fowler: If you want to vote by mail, that's going to look the most different. The application window is much narrower. You can start requesting it about seven weeks before the election. And the deadline is now two Fridays before the election day. When you apply, you're going to have to use your ID, whether it's your driver's license number, a state ID number. And if you don't have those, then it would be a photocopy of your voter ID. And when you return it, you can either return it in the mail and deliver it to your county elections office or use drop boxes —but not in the way we used them in the 2020 election. The drop boxes will now only be open during early voting hours inside of an early voting location. So you're not going to have as many drop boxes open for as long in as accessible a place.
Steve Fennessy: What is the logic for changing that system? Were any of those boxes compromised or broken into in any way?
Stephen Fowler: There is no evidence that any drop boxes were tampered with. Under the emergency rule that allowed drop boxes, they had to be on government property and secure and monitored 24/7 with some sort of surveillance. But that wasn't enough to assuage the concerns that some Republicans had.
NEWS TAPE: A Trump-appointed federal judge rejected an argument by the RNC and Trump campaign that drop boxes were unconstitutional.
NEWS TAPE: The president, he's speaking in Georgia and he says, “I actually won here.” No, you didn't. You lost by 12,000 votes. But he continues to say the reason he lost is because of this unfounded voter fraud.
Steve Fennessy: What are the other changes we can expect with a new election law?
Stephen Fowler: In-person early voting for most elections. In previous elections, you had Monday to Friday for three weeks, one mandatory Saturday, and then within that period, counties could do more if they wanted to do more. This standardizes those hours and it adds a second Saturday as a mandatory weekend voting day and codifies Sunday voting as an option. So most counties in Georgia will have to offer more early voting hours and more early voting days. And lawmakers say that that's how they prefer that people vote, is using that expansive weekend and weekday early voting period. So people may have more options, but of course, “may” is the operative word because some metro counties had the full slate: everyday extended hours and things to accommodate their larger populations. And as part of this, lawmakers have gotten rid of Fulton County's ability to have these mobile voting buses that were buses that had eight or 10 voting machines in them that they would drive to different early voting sites to help out with long lines.
NEWS TAPE: April England-Albright, legal director of Black Voters Matter, says the challenges in Georgia's voting rules comes after high turnout in recent elections.
April England-Albright: You want to prevent those communities that came out in large numbers, that used mail-in voting, that used, you know, these drop-off boxes, right? That used early voting and actually increased representation, increased participation, which should be the bedrock of every secretary of state's office, right? — to make this process easier.
NEWS TAPE: Gov. Kemp spoke about the legislation shortly after signing it.
Brian Kemp: In contrary to the hyper-partisan rhetoric you may have heard inside and outside this Gold Dome, the facts are that this new law will expand voting access in the Peach State.
Steve Fennessy: If this is in many ways an expansion of voting, why is it that so many Democrats are saying that this is going to disenfranchise primarily voters of color?
Stephen Fowler: Currently, Georgia's painful, excruciating runoffs are nine weeks long, which is why we had the November election and then the January runoff for the two Senate races and the Public Service Commission. This law now changes it down to four weeks. Basically, with the runoff period being shortened to four weeks, you can't have three weeks of in-person early voting. And so if there's runoffs — which there's likely to be — it cuts back on access to early voting. It cuts back on access to voting by mail in a runoff and could end up harming those people that most need and take advantage of having flexible voting options.
NEWS TAPE: House Speaker David Ralston applauded the bill's passage.
David Ralston: As it has gone through the process, has responded to many concerns that were raised, I think it takes a huge step to maximize participation in our voting process.
Steve Fennessy: Now, the law does some more things, and not least of which is affecting how the secretary of state oversees the election, no? What are the changes there?
Stephen Fowler: Currently, we have something that's known as the State Election Board. It is a five-member board that — before, it was chaired by the secretary of state, included a person appointed by the House, a person appointed by the Senate, and one each from the Democratic and Republican Party — and they create rules for the elections. Now there will be a new chairperson and that will be a chairperson appointed by the General Assembly. This gives lawmakers control over three-fifths of the seats. Basically, this takes away some of the power from the secretary of state. And so that's going to be a big change that voters won't directly see, but definitely impacts how the election works.
Steve Fennessy: Just to be clear, the secretary of state will continue, no matter who he or she is — will continue to certify results of elections here. Is that correct?
Stephen Fowler: Right, that will still be the secretary of state, but it does create an interesting question where the secretary of state can issue directives to counties but the State Election Board now also has rulemaking power and authority. So some county officials express concerns about kind of having to answer to two different bosses.
Steve Fennessy: So is it fair to say that there are aspects of this law that are both, I mean, that — that in some ways it does expand access to the polls, but in other ways it restricts it?
Stephen Fowler: The takeaway is that Georgia lawmakers want people to shift more towards in-person early voting. They want people to do things more tied to their identity: driver's license and other ID numbers. And they want — ostensibly — the voting process to be easier. But their idea of easier, the local elections officials' idea of easier and the voters’ idea of easier is kind of three non-overlapping circles at this point.
Steve Fennessy: Talk a little bit about what the law requires or prohibits in terms of people in line to vote and what can be given them.
Stephen Fowler: So currently and in the past, Georgia law has prevented electioneering or campaigning or really doing anything within 150 feet of the start of a polling place. And what this law does is it prohibits anyone from giving anything of value as a gift, including food and water, within 150 feet of a polling place, but also within 25 feet of a voter in line.
NEWS TAPE: And it's now a crime in Georgia for anyone other than a poll worker to offer food or water to people waiting in the endless lines they often see in the large cities.
Stephen Fowler: It's a bit of a solution in search of a problem. You're not going to have Atlanta police getting their tape measures out and handcuffing people for giving a Dasani or a Coke to somebody as they're waiting outside of State Farm Arena to early vote. But it just sends the message that acts of trying to do things to make it easier to vote are criminal.
Steve Fennessy: So what about the political fallout in the wake of Georgia's new election law? That's ahead. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. We're talking about the state's controversial new GOP election law the governor, Brian Kemp, signed last week. Since then, the firestorm around it has only intensified. Even President Joe Biden has weighed in. He called it — quote — “Jim Crow in the 21st century” — unquote. But Republicans are also digging in. Gabriel Sterling at the secretary of state's office told NPR that while there remains no evidence of widespread fraud in the last election, he says it's important for voters to have confidence in our voting system.
Gabriel Sterling: Let's face it, the voter suppression argument that’s used by Democrats has been wildly aggressive and very useful for them for voter turnout, because if you tell somebody, “Hey, they're taking something from you,” you go out and do it. Some of the things we're doing with voter ID, it really is a more secure way to vote. But also it's easier for the counties to administer. And we have driver's license numbers on 97% of our voter records here, one of the highest in the country; makes it more secure and easier and it makes it objective.
Steve Fennessy: Stephen, for the Georgia GOP, this is kind of a gamble, no? I mean, here we are: We're clearly a purple state and a state that went with a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in 28 years. And the Democrats seem to be gaining power in terms of the demographic shifts that are happening in the state. But yet the GOP seems to be focused on appeasing its base and in many ways they're reinforcing this lie that they were themselves complicit in spreading, this lie that Donald Trump had won the state of Georgia, when, in fact, he had not. So what are the political risks at play here?
Stephen Fowler: What you saw in the January runoff is a little bit of a preview. Republican base voters, especially in northwest Georgia and along the coast, did not have faith and trust in the election system and that their vote would be fairly counted. So they stayed home. So this legislation is, in theory, aimed at restoring Republican confidence in elections and having them participate in the 2022 election cycle and making them feel like their voice and their vote is heard. But what we've seen so far is that there could be a backlash. You're already seeing lawsuits filed challenging some aspects of these laws. And I think when you look at turning out and who's going to show up to vote, you're more likely to see Democrats and these voting rights groups work harder and energize a lot more people to show up in spite of these laws than Republicans showing up because of them.
Steve Fennessy: If Donald Trump had carried the state of Georgia, would we be sitting here today talking about this?
Stephen Fowler: Probably not, because if he won Georgia, then you wouldn't necessarily have him calling the secretary of state, asking him to find votes for him; you wouldn't have him calling an investigator overseeing an absentee audit to find fraud in the ballots. You wouldn't have him calling the governor and the attorney general trying to get them to overturn election results because there would be nothing that needed overturning. So 100% it has to do with who won the election.
Steve Fennessy: What's been some of the national reaction to Gov. Kemp’s signing of Senate Bill 202?
Stephen Fowler: If there was anything more negative than negative, that would be roughly where we're at right now. It's been called Jim Crow 2.0.
NEWS TAPE: The president today called the new rules "Jim Crow in the 21st century."
Stephen Fowler: Saying that this is the culmination of months of lies and misinformation about the 2020 election and how our election administration works. You've got some conservative media outlets that are saying, well, you're actually wrong about the water thing and it's kind of splitting hairs. But as far as the national ethos goes, the Republican Party in Georgia is losing the optics war. It doesn't help that Kemp had a closed-door signing session and signed it under a painting that people said has ties to a slave plantation in Georgia's past, surrounded by six white men, at the same time as a young black female lawmaker is getting arrested and dragged from the Capitol by State Patrol troopers right outside of his office. The Georgia State Patrol arrested Rep. Park Cannon, a young black Atlanta Democratic female lawmaker who was trying to knock on the door of the governor's office, where he was holding this closed-door bill signing.
NEWS TAPE: Are you serious? No, no, no! She's not under arrest. For what? Under arrest for what? For trying to see something that our governor is doing?
Stephen Fowler: They charged her with two felonies and forcibly removed her from the Capitol, where she was jailed for about six hours.
NEWS TAPE: U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock is the pastor of her church and was at the jail when they bailed her out.
Raphael Warnock: What we have witnessed today is a desperate attempt to lock out and squeeze the people out of their own democracy.
Stephen Fowler: You know, that's optics that is going to stick in people's minds way more than well, actually, early voting hours expand.
Steve Fennessy: Stephen, there are calls now to shut down film productions; Major League Baseball's All-Star game, they should move it somewhere else.
NEWS TAPE: The sports world is reacting to Georgia's new voting law. Major League Baseball Players Association Director Tony Clark said moving Georgia's 2021 All-Star Game out of Georgia may be worth discussing.
Stephen Fowler: People proposed boycotting Coke because they didn't speak out strong enough on this bill. People have proposed boycotting Delta. It's hard to quantify the effects of calls for boycotts or alleged boycotts. There have been a couple of things [said] by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the CEO there, saying that maybe some of these things are rushed through. They're harmful. So, you know, I think there is a desire to have the court of public opinion be swayed with this. But if some big corporations said, yeah, we don't think this is a good idea, we think this is harmful, then it might give lawmakers enough cover to back off on some of the things, which is why we no longer see plans to get rid of no-excuse absentee or plans to get rid of automatic voter registration because nobody wants to support that.
Steve Fennessy: Stephen, look into your crystal ball. Next year, 2022 is going to be another big election year in Georgia. The governor is up for reelection. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is up for election. And Raphael Warnock, who won a special election in 2020, will be up for his — his term in 2022. What are some of the impacts on those campaigns and elections that this new election law change might have?
Stephen Fowler: First and foremost, let's look at the governor's race; in all likelihood, it will be a rematch of 2018, when Brian Kemp faced Stacey Abrams because at the time, Brian Kemp was the Secretary of State, the chief election official, and Stacey Abrams had kind of angled her campaign as somebody who was a protector and defender of voting rights. You bet your campaign contribution dollar that the 2022 election is going to be about voting and elections. And what Kemp has done, he's now signed this law and what Stacey Abrams has done the last four years of building up Fair Fight, fighting for voting rights, you know, helping flip Georgia's electoral votes and both Senate seats. So that really is going to be the pinnacle of Georgia's battle over voting rights. But a complicated wrinkle is that President Trump has indicated he might support somebody primarying Brian Kemp. If there is a primary challenge, he may have to say and do things to survive that primary challenge that might make him more vulnerable in the general election. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the things he might have to do to win a primary and explain how voting worked and how he did things to make voting easier for some people might end up putting him in a better position to win both the primary and the general election, because a lot of Democrats like and respect and support the things he did standing up to Trump. And then, of course, there's the U.S. Senate race. Raphael Warnock, the first Black U.S. senator in Georgia, will be up for a full term. And right now, we don't know who's going to challenge him. But if you take things from a ticket perspective, having Stacey Abrams and Raphael Warnock at the top of the ticket on this surge of activism about Georgia's elections and voting rights, Georgia is going to be the place to watch for the next year-and-a-half. And we've got a front row
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to GPB political reporter Stephen Fowler. So what happens next with voting in Georgia? Well, the Election Integrity Act may wind up in court. A handful of voting rights groups have filed lawsuits alleging the law is unconstitutional and violates the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act. And as calls grow louder for companies to boycott, Georgia, officials with a Major League Baseball Players Association told the Boston Globe the union is open to a potential venue change for the All-Star Game slated — right now, anyway — for July in Atlanta. Cobb County Chairwoman Lisa Cupid is pushing back against calls to move the All-Star Game.
Lisa Cupid: This All-Star Game has the ability to buoy our county from the throes of this pandemic into the successful county that we know that we've always had and will have as we get through this. As for the Players Association of Major League Baseball, we have heard you loud and clear. And I ask that you use your voice to help us have a conversation during the All-Star Game that addresses inclusiveness within our state and within our county.
Steve Fennessy: For more, go to GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy; this is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple. Jess Mador is our producer. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger. Thanks for listening. See you next week.