State Watch

Advocates warn restrictive voting bills could end Georgia's record turnout

Georgia voting rights advocates are worried Republicans are clawing back hard-won progress made in the state after it saw record turnout among voters in November's general election and the Senate runoffs earlier this year.

A new batch of bills making their way through Georgia's legislature are raising red flags among voting rights groups who say the state might not have seen the record turnout it did in the recent races if the bills were in place.

"I don't know that 5 million people would have been successful in casting ballots if the rules were some of the things that they're proposing today," said Andrea Young, the executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.

The elections bills filed by Georgia Republicans in recent weeks include legislation seeking to end no-excuse absentee voting and automatic voter registration, limit early voting on weekends and the period of time voters would have to request absentee ballots, and require more identification to vote absentee.

Nsé Ufot, founder of the New South super PAC, said if any of the elections bills including such restrictions were a factor in November, when Joe Biden narrowly defeated then-President Trump in the presidential election and Democrats Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff advanced to Senate runoff races, the outcome in the traditionally red state could have been entirely different.

"If any one of these bills would have been on the books in November, it would have wiped out the margin that we saw and that's essentially what they were trying to do," said Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan group that registered more than 50,000 Georgians to vote last year.

In January, nearly 4.5 million ballots were cast in Georgia's pivotal U.S. runoffs, in which Warnock and Ossoff secured slim victories over then-Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R) and David Perdue (R). The figure was a record high for runoffs in the state, according to Georgia's secretary of state office. 

The Democratic wins, which tilted control of the upper chamber in the U.S. Congress to that party, came just months after the state flipped blue for a presidential candidate for the first time since 1992 in a general election that saw over 5 million ballots cast, setting another high water mark for total turnout. That same election also set a new high for the number of absentee by mail ballots cast.

Republicans in the state have claimed the proposed voting measures are aimed at boosting election security and public trust in Georgia's elections after Trump pushed unsubstantiated claims about widespread voter fraud when he sought to overturn the results of the presidential election.

"There is no theft of voting that's been substantiated," Derrick Johnson, CEO and president of the NAACP, told The Hill. "The only thing we have seen is more energized, diverse and engaged voter participation from many communities."

Johnson said conservatives "have decided to seek measures to shrink the ability of voters to participate" when they should be "expanding their agenda to be more inclusive." 

While Democrats have criticized the GOP-backed bills in Georgia as a response to their party's wins in the recent runoffs and presidential election, some also wonder whether the bills could hurt Republicans' chances in the state by making it more difficult for their own supporters to vote.

"The interesting thing about voter suppression is that it's kind of like chemotherapy. It's thinking you're going to kill more the cells you don't want than you are the cells you do want ... and so that's the gamble that they're making," Young said.

"From our perspective, it's wrong because it's making it more difficult for Georgia citizens to vote because all these measures are addressed at eligible Georgia voters," she added. 

GOP state Sen. Larry Walker, a sponsor of a few of the voting bills in Georgia, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month that "the purpose of this proposal is not to make it hard to cast a legal ballot, but to make it harder to cast an illegal ballot."

That reasoning does not convince most voting rights advocates.

"We really need to stop pretending like there's anything that is redeemable in any of these bills," Ufot said, adding she thinks the bills "all are designed" to create hurdles to vote for "folks who want to access the franchise and who want to participate in our elections."

The New Georgia Project is under investigation by Georgia's Republican secretary of state regarding its methods to help register some of those voters in a probe that Ufot called "partisan and racist."

"What they're responding to [with these bills] is a historic election, where the people that have been historically disenfranchised or disincentivized from participating in our elections because they thought that their vote didn't count, they participated and they participated in massive numbers this year," Ufot said. 

According to data released by the Pew Research Center last December, more than 520,000 new voters have registered in the state since 2016. The research revealed significant gains made by Latino registered voters, a group that had grown at nearly the same rate as their white counterparts in the four-year span despite being dwarfed by white registered voters, 260,000 to 3.8 million, in 2016. Asian registered voters, a group that totaled 188,000 in October 2020, also grew by 63,000 in the same time frame, according to the center. 

Black voters saw the biggest spike in registration when compared to the other racial groups, the center said. With an increase of nearly 130,000 people added to the voter rolls between October 2016 and October 2020, the group accounted for about a fourth of the increase of new registered voters seen in the state in the four-year period. 

Democrats, including Ossoff, have credited strong turnout from the voting bloc, which exit poll data from CNN showed overwhelmingly voted blue in both the November general election and the January runoffs, as crucial to helping bolster the party's chances in Georgia. 

The NAACP's Johnson told The Hill that there is "a new energy to adopt known vote suppression tactics to limit access to voting" in the nation as a result of the Republican party losing the two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia and coupled with Trump's defeat in November.

"A bunch of what has taken place is perhaps the most aggressive voter suppression initiative we have seen across the country since the fifties," he added.

As of Feb. 19, more than 250 bills that include provisions that would restrict voter access are under consideration in 43 states, according to the Brennan Center's State Voting Bills Tracker. Of those bills, more than a dozen, all backed by Republicans, have been filed in the Georgia General Assembly alone.

Among the proposals, Ufot took issue with a provision included in measures like House Bill 531, which recently passed the state House in a party-line vote, that would limit advance voting on Sunday, a day Black churches in the state have previously used to increase voter participation among congregants with "Souls to the Polls" efforts. 

Bishop Reginald Thomas Jackson, presiding prelate of the Sixth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which includes more than 500 churches in the Peach State, issued a fiery rebuke of the provision late last month, calling it "another attempt to suppress the Black vote."

"We used 'Souls to the Polls' as a means particularly to get our seniors and other members of our congregations to vote, to gather for worship and following worship to go to the polls to cast our ballot," Jackson said.

Another provision of the bill proposing photo identification requirements for absentee voting also drew pushback from NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which noted the "disparate impact" the practice has had on "historically disenfranchised groups" in testimony submitted to a state House panel last month.

The groups said proponents of the bill failed to provide sufficient evidence backing "vague claims that vote-by-mail procedures in Georgia are not secure."

Young, Johnson and Ufot all agreed the recent spate of elections bills in Georgia raise the stakes on Congress to pass sweeping voting measures like the For The People Act, which the Democratic-led U.S. House voted largely along party lines to pass earlier this week, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

In addition to expanding vote by mail and adding Election Day to the government's list of federal holidays, the For The People Act, also known as H.R. 1., would afford more power to the Department of Justice to enforce voting rights. 

The legislation named for Lewis, a civil rights icon and former Georgia congressman who died at the age of 80 last year, would also require states found to have had repeated voting rights violations in recent history to receive federal approval for voting changes, restoring a significant provision of the Voting Rights Act thrown out by the Supreme Court in 2013. 

The legislation was introduced by Democrats in 2019 and passed later that year by the House. The Senate has not yet voted on the measure.  

Georgia is among the states expected to be subjected to pre-clearance for voting changes if the legislation is enacted. 

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