Here’s what’s going on with voting legislation in Georgia and why opponents say it’s clear “voter suppression”

Here's what's going on with voting legislation in Georgia
Demonstrators stand outside of the Capitol building in opposition to House Bill 531 on March 8.

Photograph by Megan Varner/Getty Images

Opponents of several voting bills introduced during Georgia’s current legislative session say Republican lawmakers are attempting to restrict access to the polls in response to three major recent losses—Georgia voters recently elected a Democratic president for the first time in nearly thirty years, along with not one but two Democratic U.S. Senators. And while critics say they expected some legislation aimed at Georgia’s elections system, the proposed bills have been more egregious than they initially anticipated.

After Monday’s Crossover Day, 12 different bills remain alive in the House and Senate and could make a variety of drastic changes to Georgia’s elections laws, including doing away with no-excuse absentee voting, requiring absentee voter ID, restricting the locations of ballot drop boxes, and limiting the hours for early voting, among other restrictions. Republicans in support of the bills say the changes are needed to protect the integrity of elections and restore faith in the voting process amongst constituents.

But Emory University professor Carol Anderson, author of One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy, says Republican lawmakers are going on a “bonanza” to deter alleged voter identity theft, despite no proof of voter fraud in recent elections. “They are targeting American citizens and denying them their right to vote,” she says. Anderson, an expert on the country’s history of voter suppression, says that the nature of the bills wasn’t surprising, but it was the sheer volume of bills introduced in Georgia during the current session that has garnered widespread attention, even as other states propose similar legislation.

For Anderson, Georgia’s bills register as textbook voter suppression that occurs after marginalized communities turn out to the polls in high numbers. She points to 1890, when Mississippi adopted a new constitution amid the need to “secure to the state of Mississippi, white supremacy,” as one delegate said during the proceedings. The new constitution imposed a poll tax and literacy test for any resident attempting to register to vote.

“There were over 190,000 Black men registered to vote in Mississippi in 1890, and two years after the rewriting of the constitution, there were only 8,600,” Anderson says. The professor cites another example occurring following Barack Obama’s two terms as president. In 2013, the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder to overturn a key portion of the Voting Rights Act created a pathway for local officials to “close polls or change voting laws without the permission of the federal government,” according to Vice News.

“The Voting Rights Act was intended to stop the very things we’re seeing in Georgia now,” Ari Berman, reporter and author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, tells Atlanta. “It was intended to stop the things we saw in the ’50s and ’60s, but also to stop the next generation of those suppression efforts.”

Earlier this month, Fair Fight, the voter rights organization started by Stacey Abrams, released a statement on Twitter that accused Georgia House Republicans of taking “yet another step to send voting rights in Georgia back to the days of Jim Crow.” The organization called House Bill 531, an omnibus bill that passed the House earlier this month, one of “the strictest and most anti-democratic pieces of voter suppression legislation in the country.” Former President Jimmy Carter also recently spoke out against proposed legislation, saying he was “disheartened, saddened, and angry” by efforts to restrict absentee voting access.

Here’s what you need to know about the issues that appear in the two most controversial voting bills, HB 531, and its Senate counterpart, SB 241.

Issues: No-excuse absentee voting and additional voter ID requirements

What does the law currently say? Georgia is currently one of dozens of states that doesn’t require an “excuse” to vote by mail, meaning that any registered voter can request and use an absentee ballot, and it’s a policy that has been supported by both political parties at different points in time. Georgia’s no-excuse law was passed in 2005, and, at the time, was backed by Republican lawmakers. According to GPB political reporter Stephen Fowler, prominent Democratic figures, including former Mayor Kasim Reed, actually opposed no-excuse absentee voting when the law was introduced 16 years ago, citing concerns of voter fraud.

Residents who have historically taken advantage of this form of voting in Georgia have largely been older, whiter, and more likely to vote Republican. The Covid-19 pandemic changed this, of course. Democrats took advantage of absentee voting more than they had in previous years, helping to flip the state.

As for proof of ID, it’s is currently required when requesting an absentee ballot online.

What would change? Senate Bill 241, a voting omnibus bill that passed the Georgia Senate on Monday, would significantly restrict absentee voting access to people who are older than 65, physically disabled or a caregiver for someone who is physically disabled, observing a religious holiday, or a military or overseas voter. They would also have to include a photo of their ID or their Georgia drivers license number.

Additionally, SB 241 would continue allow third-party organizations to distribute absentee ballot applications (you might have received several of these in the mail during last year’s elections), but those organizations will be required to notate in an increased font size that the applications are not sent from an official elections entity.

HB 531 does not place the same restrictions on who can request an absentee ballot, but it would also require absentee voters to include a photo of their ID or their Georgia drivers license number.

What are the arguments for and against it? Republican Senator Larry Walker, the bill’s sponsor, told the AJC this bill would help safeguard elections. “We don’t want to put obstacles in the way of legitimate people voting, but I think it’s so important that we have security in the vote,” he said. “There are instances in the small minority of the people that they’re going to have to make a little effort if they do not have a government-issued ID to provide some other form of identification.”

But Anderson, the Emory professor, says additional voter ID requirements aren’t harmless “One of the things about voter ID [requirements] is that it plays on a middle class bias,” she said. “It says, Everyone has an ID, how hard can it be? Requiring that you scan or make a copy of your ID [adds] another obstacle, like a notary. And it is an unnecessary obstacle because [lawmakers] have not been able to identify all of this [alleged] corruption in the use of absentee ballots.”

Anderson says other states have privileged certain types of IDs that are more common amongst Republican residents over those that Democratic residents might have. For instance, Texas has notably allowed the use of gun licenses as a form of ID, but not student IDs. In Alabama, critics have complained that public housing ID doesn’t count as an acceptable form of ID for voting.

Issue: Early voting

What does the law currently say? State law requires early voting to begin on the fourth Monday prior to an election and “as soon as possible” prior to runoffs. Early voting ends the Friday before Election Day. Counties are allowed to hold early voting beyond weekday business hours, including weekend voting. And as elections are run in Georgia at the county level, early voting hours can vary from place to place.

What would change? SB 241 has the most controversial changes to early voting of the omnibus bills. The bill includes a provision that would add “uniformity” to early voting. During the three weeks before Election Day, all counties in Georgia would be required to hold early voting from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. The second Saturday before the election would also serve as a mandatory early voting day, lasting from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Notably, counties wouldn’t be allowed to hold early voting on Sundays, which is when Black churches have traditionally hosted their “souls to the polls” initiatives.

What are the arguments for and against it?

As stated in the bill, supporters believe SB 241 will add “uniformity” to voting throughout Georgia’s 159 counties.

But, referring specifically to the popular “souls to the polls” mobilization efforts, professor Anderson says this piece of the bill is directly aimed at Black voters. “Africans Americans disproportionately vote on the weekend, particularly on Sundays,” she says. “This is a stunt [lawmakers] pulled in North Carolina, where they looked at the data in terms of when African Americans used early voting and then eliminated those days. The court looked at that and said this is as close to a smoking gun as we’re ever going to see.”

Issue: Mobile voting buses

How have they previously been used? Fulton County introduced two mobile voting precincts before the 2020 presidential election, following complaints of long lines and other challenges during the primaries. According to the AJC, each vehicle holds “eight ballot-marking devices that voters will use to select candidates, one scanner where voters will feed their printed selections, and two places to check in on polls pads.” The newspaper reported the buses were able to respond to polling locations that were experiencing long lines or other challenges.

What would change? Under SB 241, mobile units would only be allowed to replace voting precincts that have been deemed unsafe or have failing utilities, not supplement them.

Similarly, HB 531 would only allow for the use of mobile precincts in emergencies.

What are the arguments for and against it? Of the proposed changes that have sparked an outcry, this has perhaps garnered the least attention. Still, voting rights advocates have long stated that options such as mobile buses and drop boxes allows voters to have more flexibility and prevents longer lines.

Issue: Limiting access to ballot drop boxes

How have they previously been used? With residents limiting contact during the Covid-19 pandemic and amid USPS delays, ballot drop boxes became a safe, reliable way to vote in 2020. According to WABE, the drop boxes were used for the first time in Georgia last year. The boxes were accessible 24/7 and under constant video surveillance. Fulton County alone had more than 30 available for voters.

What would change? Of the two omnibus bills, HB 531 has garnered the most attention for its proposed changes to ballot drop boxes. The bill would limit the number of drop boxes and place them inside early voting sites, meaning voters would only be able to access them during in-person early voting hours.

What are the arguments for and against it? Republican Jan Jones, speaker pro tempore, told GPB that these restrictions would not create a challenge for voters. “Drop boxes are the most inconvenient way to vote absentee,” she says. “Were we to eliminate drop boxes, which we are not, not a single absentee voter would be inconvenienced because every voter has a drop box called a mailbox.”

Even once the pandemic has ended, reporter Berman says limiting access to drop boxes could be a “total inconvenience” to voters, especially if postal delays continue. Berman says requiring that drop boxes be inside early voting locations and only accessible during the hours when people can vote in-person “defeats the entire purpose of having a drop box.”

“You might as well just vote in-person if you’re going into the polls to vote [via drop box],” he says.

Issues(s): Line warming

What does the law currently say? When hours-long lines form at polling sites, you might see folks arrive with bottled water, snacks, and even slices of pizza to pass out to voters while they wait. But the process has long endured a bit of legal questioning. In an article last year exploring whether or not volunteers were legally allowed to offer food or drinks to voters, Henri Hollis of the AJC described the practice of “line warming” as one that “falls through the cracks.”

“At the crux of the issue are both federal and state laws meant to prevent special-interest groups from ‘rewarding’ voters for casting their ballots. The law is meant to prevent groups from buying votes through money or other means,” he writes. “However, according to attorney Dara Lindenbaum, counsel for the nonprofit voting rights group Fair Fight Action, there’s a loophole: As long as anyone, such as poll workers or passers-by, can partake in the offerings, the food and drink are clearly not a reward to voters.”

What would change? HB 531 is the bill that takes direct aim at “line warming.” It aims to make this practice a misdemeanor offense.

What are the arguments for and against it? Nse Ufot, CEO of the voting rights group New Georgia Project, calls bills such as HB 531 a “solution in search of a problem.”

“This has nothing to do with election integrity and everything to do with voter suppression and trying to cheat because of Georgia’s historic election performance,” she says.

Ufot says she’s particularly disturbed the idea that people handing out food and water to voters in line could be charged with a misdemeanor. “That’s just evil,” she says. “People are doing a full shift on their feet waiting to vote. Subjecting those volunteers, the church ladies, groups like New Georgia Project to criminal charges for taking care of our neighbors . . . indefensible.”

Volunteers, including celebrities and prominent figures, notably gave out food and water during the 2020 general election in an effort to convince voters to remain in line. But Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has said line warming violates the Georgia law that prohibits campaigning near polling locations. According to 11 Alive, Reffensperger said the practice could “inappropriately influence voters in the crucial final moments before they cast their ballots.”