Battleground: Ballot Box | The election law heard 'round the country
It’s been one year since the 2020 election in Georgia, but some voters can’t seem to turn the page.
The aftermath of Georgia flipping from red to blue in the presidential race continues to play out across the state: sweeping voting law changes, culture wars over education and health care, the future direction of the GOP and, of course, next year’s races for governor and U.S. Senate.
In this season of "Battleground: Ballot Box,” we’ll take a look at some of the biggest developments in Georgia politics since the dual Senate runoffs in January, as our state continues to be at the center of the political universe for fights over who we vote for and how those votes are counted..
Today, we’ll talk Senate Bill 202, Georgia election laws and trusting the principles of democracy.
It’s hard to believe that ten months ago we saw Trump’s now-infamous phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger asking him to find enough votes to overturn the election. In the days after, we also saw Congressman Jody Hice pushing false claims of election fraud on television, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene becoming the face of an antagonistic, abrasive pro-Trump base and then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler promising to defy Georgia’s certified election results on the eve of a runoff election.
These events that took place in the opening days of 2021 have had a profound, lasting impact on Georgia’s election law landscape.
Here we are now in the first week of November and there is still a sizable number of people seeking to re-litigate Trump’s narrow defeat in Georgia, Republican candidates seeking primary victories by focusing on the last election and completely overhauled voting rules because of the questions — some legitimate, most not — about last November.
The constitutional right to vote, and who controls the traditionally nonpartisan counting of ballots are among the most important questions driving politics this year — and the stakes are high, not just for Georgia, but for American democracy.
On Jan. 6, thousands of people — egged on by former President Trump — stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the Electoral College certification of Joe Biden’s victory, based on a false belief that the election was stolen in Georgia and other states. Several GOP lawmakers from Georgia said they objected to the state’s thrice-counted, certified election, citing a wave of debunked claims and misinformation about how the election system works.
But then, Kelly Loeffler, less than 24 hours after telling a rally crowd in Dalton she did not believe in Georgia’s results, changed her tune after Congress returned from hiding.
“I cannot now in good conscience object to the certification of these electors," she said.
Loeffler lost her election in part because turnout plummeted in pro-Trump areas that believed the election was rigged. And now, she has turned to advocacy, starting voter registration group Greater Georgia that seeks to tap into hardcore conservative voters’ distrust in the voting system and keep them engaged in future campaigns.
“If you don't turn out and vote in elections, you're not going to have representative leadership," she said in a recent interview with GPB News. "And that's what we have. That's the situation we have in this country today.”
GOP lawmakers tried to fix that distrust in the system — caused by Republicans attacking the voting systems Republicans enacted — by rewriting election rules in the 2021 session.
The Georgia Republican Party’s executive committee authored a report recommending drastic crackdowns on access to the ballot, with a number of extreme recommendations, including ending no-excuse absentee voting and automatic voter registration.
Some proposals also reflected a lack of understanding about how elections are run, like a call to cancel voter registrations close to an Election Day — which would violate federal law — claims that Georgia’s voting machines were not auditable and a desire to put serial numbers on ballots, potentially defying the right to a secret ballot.
Many of those made their way into bills proposed by Republican lawmakers. Dozens of bills were proposed before ultimately two different mega-bills took shape, including one that led Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan to leave the floor and refuse to preside over the session.
The final version, a whopping 98 pages, would touch virtually every aspect of election administration in Georgia and set off a national firestorm over voting laws passed by Republican-led states.
Signed in a closed-door session on March 29, the law represented to Republicans the future of securing elections and to Democrats a nod to Georgia’s Jim Crow past. Democratic state lawmaker Park Cannon of Atlanta was arrested and forcibly removed from the Capitol after knocking on the governor’s ceremonial office door during the signing.
The imagery of large white police officers dragging a Black woman out of the building captured national attention, as did measures of the law, like restrictions on drop boxes, a ban on handing out food and water within 150 feet of a polling place or within 25 feet of voters in line, and crackdowns on absentee-by-mail voting.
Misinformation from the left and the right about what the law changed ran rampant, aggravated by Major League Baseball’s decision to move the All-Star Game from Georgia to Colorado, a state with better voting access laws.
"I respect the decision, I understand the decision, but I don’t like the fact that we have been put in this position by the state legislature and our governor," Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a TV interview at one point.
Republicans point to several aspects of the law that make voting easier; Democrats and voting rights groups point to several that make things more difficult. But local elections officials have been left to grapple with the dozens and dozens of other changes that actually affect how they do their jobs.
Lawmakers ignored their pleas, even as election officials saw poll worker shortages and had voting locations back out while seeing record turnout, grappled with keeping voters safe and elections secure, faced death threats and attacks and oftentimes felt helpless to counter the lies and misleading narratives from politicians in power.
Then, on Jekyll Island this summer, hundreds of local officials from across Georgia met in what was part conference, part therapy session for processing everything that has happened over the last year.
Election officials such as Douglas County supervisor Milton Kidd celebrated the work that was done to complete the election, encouraged them to move forward and excoriated those who sought to attack democracy.
"The state of Georgia is at a point of crisis," he said. "The level of institutional knowledge we're losing because of the state, either directly or indirectly, not defending election workers is creating an atmosphere of mistrust — not just around the elections process but around elections workers themselves."
Perhaps the greatest intersection of all of these themes is the GOP-led push to have the state take over Fulton County’s bipartisan election board.
Under the new state election law, a performance review panel could temporarily suspend an elections board and the State Election Board would appoint a person to fill that role, which does things like certify election results, hear voter challenges and select polling places.
As with most things in elections, few people understand the real story. Some on the right thought this would oust Rick Barron, the maligned Fulton County elections director. Others have warned this would be a way for Republicans to toss out all the votes in Georgia’s most populous county with few consequences.
The reality is perhaps less dramatic: The performance review panel is still meeting and doing research, and will likely just outline a plan for the county elections office to do better moving forward instead of remove a bipartisan board that has little impact on Fulton’s years-long problems.
Speaking of consequences, SB 202’s effects and debate have rippled far beyond the Gold Dome and local elections offices.
Some activists didn’t wait for the ink to dry on legislation to take action. This spring, Black voters in Hancock County, like Marion Warren, banded together to oust the county attorney — a Republican state lawmaker who authored several strict voting bills.
"We realized that Barry Fleming was indeed the representative that was trying to shuffle [HB] 531," he said. "And I said, 'Well hell, I've been fighting him since 2015!'"
In the streets of downtown Sparta, Warren pointed to a dusty sidewalk where he said he was hit with a fire engine’s water hose, a building where he could get a hamburger — but only from the back door — and the county courthouse where he used a separate entrance and said today’s fights over voting rights are nothing new.
"I've been here long enough to see what we have experienced in 1962-65, and now I'm here again 50 years later fixing to do the same thing again. You've got to stop ... it's gotta end."
One year out, there are a slate of GOP primary challengers that are rallying around so-called election integrity seeking to replace Republicans that didn’t overturn the election, including Congressman Jody Hice running for Secretary of State and gubernatorial primary challengers like Vernon Jones and Kandiss Taylor.
All of this, of course, is spurred on by Trump, who has been singularly focused on Georgia and its election laws for a year.
"They attacked and cheated on our elections, and they did it right here in Georgia," Trump said at a recent rally in Perry. "Now the people of Georgia must replace the RINOs and weak Republicans who made it all possible. In particular, your incompetent and strange… there’s something wrong with this guy, your Secretary of State Raffensperger."
At the rally in Perry in September — far smaller than his previous events — the hardcore Trump conservatives showed up and cheered for Trump and his insistence that his loss was a victory. He pushed lies about Georgia, Arizona and other states, and issued a prescient statement about the state of the party heading into the midterms.
"And by the way, we never forget 2020, just in case you have any questions, We’re not forgetting 2020," he said. "The most corrupt election in the history of our country."
There has been other fallout since November’s election in Georgia, like the ongoing tug-of-war within the Republican Party over its future, a rise in talk of hot-button cultural issues like crime and the political fight over health care amidst a global pandemic.
And all of these big developments in Georgia politics must be viewed in the context of another big story: the once-a-decade census and redistricting process. Today’s Georgia is a microcosm of a changing America, with growing diversity, a shifting economy and ground zero for so many political debates.
Next week, we take a deeper dive into Georgia’s shifting demographics, citizen involvement in the redistricting process and lawmakers’ battle over proposed electoral district maps.
Battleground: Ballot Box is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Our producer is Jess Mador, our editor is Wayne Drash. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger. You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you get podcasts.
Copyright 2021 Georgia Public Broadcasting