Strong turnout in Georgia’s runoff election, which cemented Democrats’ control of the US Senate, sparks fresh debate about the impact of the state’s controversial 2021 election law and could trigger a new round of changes election rules next year in the Republican-led state legislature.
Voters turned out in droves for the midterm elections, with more than 3.5 million casting ballots in the Dec. 6 runoff – about 90% of the general election turnout, a rate far higher than typical polls. And leading Georgia Republicans, including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, have argued that those numbers refute claims that the 2021 law was designed to suppress votes in the increasingly competitive state.
“There is no truth in voter suppression,” Raffensperger said in an interview this week with CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, a day after Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock secured re-election in the first federal election cycle since. entry into force of the electoral law in Georgia.
Georgia Democrats and voting rights groups, however, continue to criticize the 2021 law — signed into law following Democratic gains two years ago — as erecting multiple barriers to voting. And the high turnout, they said, masked the extraordinary efforts of voters and activists to overcome new and longstanding barriers to voting rights in this once deep red state.
“Just because people endured long lines that wrapped around buildings, certain blocks…doesn’t mean voter suppression doesn’t exist,” Warnock said during the interview. his victory speech on Tuesday – echoing a theme he repeated repeatedly during the election campaign. “It just means that you, the people, have decided that your voices will not be silenced.”
Warnock’s victory on Tuesday solidified Georgia’s position as a battleground state and comes after Warnock and fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff won the runoff in the 2020 election cycle. In this election, the President Joe Biden has become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the Peach State in nearly three decades.
Suffrage campaigners said the 2021 law made it harder to vote in multiple ways: It limited the number and location of ballot boxes, instituted new identification requirements for voting by mail and shortened the run-off window from nine weeks in the 2020 election to four weeks, contributing to long lines during the early voting period.
Additionally, the voter registration deadline fell on Nov. 7 – the day before the general election and before Georgians knew for sure the contest would advance to a second round because neither Warnock nor his Republican challenger Herschel Walker won’t. had passed the 50% threshold to win the general election outright.
In the 2020 election cycle, at least 23,000 people who registered after Election Day voted in the Senate runoff in January 2021, according to an analysis of Georgian Secretary of State data by Catalist, a company that provides data, analytics and other services. to Democrats, academics, and nonprofit advocacy organizations.
And only an 11th-hour court victory for Warnock and Democrats paved the way for counties to hold an early in-person vote on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. State election officials had opposed voting on that date, saying Georgia law prohibited voting on Saturdays if there was a public holiday on the previous Thursday or Friday.
“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” Kendra Cotton, CEO of voting rights group New Georgia Project Action Fund, said of the new restrictions. “They don’t try to hit the jugular, so you bleed immediately. It’s these little gashes, so you slowly become anemic before you pass out.
“It’s a game of margins,” she added. “I want people to stop acting like the purpose of SB202 is to disenfranchise the masses. Joe Biden won this state by just under 12,000 votes. I can guarantee you there’s more of 12,000 people in this state who were eligible to vote in this election and they couldn’t.”
Even Cotton’s 21-year-old daughter, Jarah Cotton, was trapped.
The youngest Cotton, a Harvard University senior, said she had planned to vote by mail in the general election in November – but misunderstood a new requirement in Georgia law: that she print her application in mail-in ballot line, sign it “with pen and ink” and then upload it.
In the second round, Jarah Cotton said she successfully completed her mail-in ballot application but did not receive it before returning home to Powder Springs, Georgia, for the Thanksgiving holiday.
The court’s decision allowing voting on the Saturday after Thanksgiving allowed him to vote in person in the second round – but only after his family paid $180 to delay his flight back to Boston by a day.
“I don’t think it should be that hard,” Jarah Cotton said of her experience. “It should be simpler, but I think it reflects the voting process in Georgia.”
Gabriel Sterling, the chief operating officer of the secretary of state’s office, said too many critics of the state’s voting process compare the 2022 election to the ease of voting at the height of the pandemic in the 2020 election cycle when election officials across the state “moved heaven and earth” to secure candor.
That so many people voted in a four-week runoff shows “the system is working very well,” he told CNN in an interview Friday. “The problem now is that it has become so politicized. I have been saying now, for 24 months, that both sides must stop arming the electoral administration.
Suffrage activists say the state’s trickle-down system, first enacted in 1964, is itself a holdover from voter suppression efforts from the state’s dark past. Its original sponsor sought to ensure that candidates backed by black Georgians could not win with a plurality of votes.
Most states decide general election winners based on which candidate gets the most votes, unlike Georgia, where candidates must win more than 50 percent of the votes cast to avoid a runoff.
Runoffs are also costly affairs.
A recent study by researchers at Kennesaw State University estimated that the Senate runoff in the 2020 election cycle had a cost to taxpayers of $75 million.
In the CNN interview earlier this week, Raffensperger suggested the Republican-controlled General Assembly could overhaul some of the state’s election rules, including potentially lowering the threshold needed to win a general election to 45%.
He also said he wanted to work with counties to ensure more polling places are available to ease the long lines voters endured during the second-round early voting window.
And Raffensperger said lawmakers could weigh a ranked-choice instant trickle-down system. In so-called snap polls, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If a candidate does not receive more than 50% of the vote, the voters’ second choices would be used to determine the winner, without the need for a second election.
Given the shortened runoff schedule in Georgia, state lawmakers instituted instant runoff for a narrow slice of voters — those in the military and overseas — midway through this year.
“There will be a push for this in the next legislative session,” said Daniel Baggerman, president of Better Ballot Georgia, a group that advocates for the instant runoff.
“It’s a lot to ask voters ‘to stand again for a second round’ when there is an easy way that achieves the same result,” he said.
Sterling agreed there ‘needs to be a discussion about the second round of the general election’, but said he feared the move to an instant ballot system could risk disenfranchising a wide range of Georgians. who might not understand the process without “an enormous amount of voter education.” ”