Primary election season is underway in Georgia, and it’s the first big test of the state’s new election law. The Elections Integrity Act (also known by its legislative title, SB 202), which state Republican lawmakers passed in May 2021 over intense Democratic opposition, contains a list of changes to election procedure in Georgia, tweaking everything from absentee ballot requests and ballot drop-box rules, to where and when volunteers can hand out water to waiting voters.
A bevy of civil and voting rights groups oppose the law, and to date there are eight lawsuits against it, including one filed by the U.S. Department of Justice arguing that the law is racially discriminatory. Those lawsuits are ongoing, but last August, a federal judge ruled that most of the law could remain in effect during that process, which means it’s the law of the land, at least through this election cycle.
Primaries for both parties are on May 24th, but early voting is already underway. Here’s what you need to know about election changes to make sure your vote counts.
How to request and send an absentee ballot in Georgia
Anyone registered to vote in Georgia can still vote absentee—you don’t need a specific reason or “excuse.” To be counted, your absentee ballot must arrive at the county elections office on or before Election Day. Overseas voters can send a ballot postmarked on Election Day, but it must arrive within 3 days.
For most voters, the absentee ballot request only applies to the upcoming election. Some voters can fill out one absentee ballot request for the full election cycle, and the ballots will be automatically mailed. This includes voters who:
- Are over 65
- Have a physical disability
- Live overseas
- Are an active member of the military, or be the spouse or child of an active military member
Shorter request window
Voters now have a shorter window to request an absentee ballot before Election Day. Ballot requests now open 78 calendar days before, and close 11 days before Election Day (the old law allowed 180 calendar days, up to the Friday before).
For the May 24 primary: absentee ballot requests opened March 7 and close May 13.
For the November 8 general election: requests will open August 22 and close October 28.
Voter ID requirement
To vote absentee, you’ll request a ballot directly from the Georgia Secretary of State. You can submit a request online, or print a request and return it by mail, email, fax, or in person.
The biggest new change: you’ll need to verify your identity by including your Georgia driver’s license number or state ID number on your absentee ballot request application. If your license/ID is from out of state, or you don’t have either of those forms of ID, you’ll need to attach a photocopy or a photo of another form of ID. Other acceptable forms of ID include:
- Out-of-state driver’s license or state ID
- U.S. passport
- U.S. military photo ID
- Tribal photo ID
- Georgia voter ID
- Other valid forms of government photo ID
(Note: your Georgia driver’s license or state ID card IS STILL VALID even if it is expired.)
If you don’t have any of these, you can include a photocopy or printed photo of an official document with your name and address on them, such as a bank statement, paystub, government check, current utility bill, or another government document.
Once elections officials receive your ballot, they will compare this ID information to the voter registration records. That’s a change from previous elections, where elections workers matched signatures to verify identity.
Completing and returning your ballot
Previously, voters simply signed the absentee ballot to verify their identity, but new changes require more information to verify your identity, including signature, date of birth, and Georgia driver’s license or ID number, or if you don’t have one, the last four digits of your SSN.
You’ll also add your phone number or email address: this will allow local elections workers to contact you if there’s an issue with your ballot that needs to be corrected.
Before you seal your ballot, triple check to be sure you’ve filled out all the information. Your ballot comes with two envelopes, and to count, it must be returned inside both sealed envelopes (the white inner envelope is a secrecy envelope to protect both your identifying information and your voting selection). Remember to include your signature and date of birth on the outer yellow envelope—your ballot will be rejected if either envelope isn’t signed.
(Note: This information is hidden once the ballot is sealed.)
Who can return your ballot
As in previous election law, a voter’s absentee ballots can only be returned by a close relative, roommate, or caregiver. The law bans on so-called “ballot harvesting,” where an outside group collects and returns voters’ absentee ballots.
This law remains the same, with one exception: SB 202 made it a felony for unauthorized persons to collect and return absentee ballots. Though some conservative groups have claimed there was widespread illegal ballot harvesting in the 2020 election, investigators have turned up no credible evidence of this.
Once your ballot is mailed
Track your ballot’s progress online via the Secretary of State’s voter portal, My Voter Page.
If there’s something wrong with your ballot, your county elections officials will contact you to resolve it, which may require coming to the elections office, or in some cases, filling out a new ballot and signing an affidavit affirming that the first ballot was lost or rejected.
If there’s not enough time to resolve the issue before election day, you can vote in person at a polling site, but you must sign an affidavit affirming you voted only once. It is (and has always been) a felony to vote absentee and then cast an in-person ballot.
Another big change in Georgia election law is rules around drop boxes. Drop boxes are secure drop-off stations for absentee ballots, which the State Election Board authorized for the first time ahead of the 2020 primary, as officials scrambled to keep voters safe during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The new Elections Integrity Act does legalize drop boxes, codifying what had previously been an emergency measure: every country must have at least one drop box. But the number of drop boxes is limited, either to 1 box per 100,000 registered voters, or one for each early voting location, whichever is smaller.
The law also changes where and when drop boxes are available. Previously, drop boxes were available outside, on government property, and open at all hours, monitored by surveillance cameras. Under the new law, drop boxes must be inside early voting sites, monitored at all times by an authorized person, and are available only during the same hours as in-person voting.
What changes were made to early in-person voting?
SB 202 standardized the number of early voting days, which in most counties expanded that option. Every county must have exactly 17 days of early voting, and early polls must be open on at least two Saturdays.
Sunday voting was spared the attempt to ban it, and is still an option if counties so choose. During floor debates over the bill, GOP lawmakers tried to curtail Sunday voting, inspiring howling opposition from voting rights groups: Sunday is famously the day of “Souls to the polls,” when Black churches mobilize parishioners to vote after Sunday service.
Under the new law, early voting hours must be from 9 a.m until 5 p.m., with the option of expanding hours from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
On Election Day, you must vote at your assigned precinct, but Georgia law allows early voting at any open location in your county. You can find early voting sites in your county, along with hours, on the Secretary of State’s website here.
Whether you vote early or on Election Day, you must have a valid form of photo I.D to vote in-person. This can be driver’s license or state ID from any state, or an expired Georgia driver’s license or state ID. For a list of other valid forms of photo ID, use this guide.
What about “line warming,” e.g. giving voters water and food while they wait to cast a ballot?
Georgia’s June 2020 primary made headlines across the nation for the lines. Really, really long lines. Voters waited up to five hours to cast a ballot, with lines stretching around neighborhood blocks. Many observed that wait times were longer in precincts with higher percentages of non-white voters: subsequent investigation found that record voter registration outpaced the introduction of new polling sites, and a rush of Election Day voters in high-density urban counties like Fulton and Gwinnett, coupled with faulty new elections technology, caused major delays.
To encourage voters to stay in line to cast their ballot, ad hoc groups of volunteers began organizing snack and water stations, handing out pizza, bottled water, and other food for free. Groups like Chefs for the Polls brought food trucks to busy polling stations, serving free meals to voters (and their antsy children).
These volunteers were nonpartisan, in keeping with existing Georgia elections law that prohibits campaigning or party promotion within 150 feet of a polling place or within 25 feet of a voter in line to vote. But after the November 2020 election, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger accused volunteers of “line warming,” asserting that they were conducting political activity under the guise of delivering drinks and snacks. Volunteer groups insisted they were not working on behalf of any candidate or party, and never asked people how they planned to vote.
Nevertheless, SB 202 banned the practice: it’s now a misdemeanor to hand out food or water within 25 feet of a voter or 150 feet of a polling place, regardless of whether it’s done by a political organization or a nonpartisan group. Doing so is subject to a $1,000 fine or up to a year in jail. (Poll workers can set up self-serve water stations for those in line.)
It’s not clear whether the law will actually be enforced, but critics have called foul on the change, saying it punishes voters of color who stand in line longer than white voters. Some organizers said they will test the law this year through civil disobedience, and hope anger against it will boost turnout in this year’s elections. “You know something is wrong when you can’t give grandma a bottle of water and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” Rev. Tim McDonald, a pastor in Atlanta, told CNN.
What should I do if I’m having trouble voting?
You can also contact your county elections office directly: find your county’s contact info here.
If you need direct help figuring out how to vote, or if you were turned away from voting and aren’t sure what to do, the voter protection coalition Election Coalition, led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, has hotlines you can call for assistance throughout the election period, including lines in various languages.