Despite having spent countless hours in Committee meetings this session discussing election bills, the bill that was signed into law last Thursday was never vetted by the Senate. It completely skipped the committee process, and only had a minimal amount of debate on the floor. That’s because when the Senate originally passed SB 202, it was a two-page bill about absentee ballot applications. The House completely stripped that language and replaced it with 98 pages of various other election changes. Thursday’s Senate vote on SB 202 was a motion to “agree” to the changes made to the bill by the House. The bill, as passed by the House, was placed on our desks only one hour prior to the vote on the motion. Neither the public, nor even the Senators considering it, had the opportunity to really read the bill before it was signed into law. I voted to “disagree” with the changes made by the House. By all accounts, this was a bad bill, but Georgia’s legislative process needs to reform more than its election laws.
The best part of SB 202 is what’s NOT in it. Your phone calls, emails, postcards, and protests forced Republicans to back off of some of their most damaging proposals like banning absentee voting for most Georgians, restricting weekend early voting, and eliminating automatic voter registration. Your advocacy made a big difference. Don’t forget that.
How Voting Will Change
Anyone can still vote absentee — you don’t need an “excuse”.
Timing for Requesting your Ballot — Instead of being able to request your ballot 180 days prior to election day, you must now wait until less than 78 days before the election. Also, you must now request your ballot before 11 days prior to election day. The Elections office must mail your ballot between 25 and 29 days before the election (this used to be 45 – 49 days).
How to Request your Ballot — Your ballot request will be authenticated by elections staff by matching your driver’s license number (if you have one), rather than your signature. It is unclear as to whether the Secretary of State will continue to offer the on-line portal for requesting a ballot. If you do not have a driver’s license or State ID number, various other forms of ID can be substituted, but they will need to be copied and mailed or uploaded electronically. This will create a hardship for possibly thousands of voters who need to vote absentee and don’t drive, such as the elderly, disabled, and young people.
Voting your Ballot — Ballot drop boxes have now been codified in Georgia law and every county is required to have at least one dropbox. But their availability will be greatly reduced from what we saw last year. First, they will only be located inside advanced voting locations, and only available during voting hours. They will not be available at all starting the Friday before election day (end of advanced voting). The number of dropboxes will be limited to 1 per 100,000 active registered voters. In 2020, Fulton County had 38 drop boxes. Now they can only use 8. Dekalb had 32 drop boxes and now they can only use 5.
The error-prone “signature match” previously used has been eliminated. Your actual ballot will be authenticated using your driver’s license number, or, if you don’t have one, the last four digits of your social security number.
On the outside envelope and hidden under the flap, you will provide your printed name, signature, date of birth, driver’s license number (or last four digits of your social security number if no driver’s license). It is now a felony for any unqualified person to unseal the ballot envelope.
The signed oath, under penalty of false swearing, will include the statement, “I have marked and sealed this ballot in private and have not allowed any unauthorized person to observe the voting of this ballot or how this ballot was voted . . . and that I will not give or transfer this ballot to any person not authorized by law to deliver or return absentee ballots.” Authorized persons are the same as in-person voting and include a person lawfully assisting the elector, and/or the elector’s child under 18 years of age. All this will be spelled out in the instructions.
Watch the law — Penalties for illegally handling an absentee ballot request or illegally returning someone else’s ballot are a misdemeanor and a felony, respectively. This list of qualified people includes: mother, father, grandparent, aunt, uncle, sister, brother, spouse, son, daughter, niece, nephew, grandchild, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, father-in-law, father-in-law, brother-in-law and sister-in-law of the age of 18 or over.
Weekend Voting — Until now, Georgia law required a minimum of one Saturday of early voting, but counties could choose to offer more. The new law requires two Saturday early voting days. This will expand early voting in counties that previously only offered one Saturday. Originally the bill restricted early weekend voting to one Saturday and one optional Saturday or Sunday. But thanks to public pressure, this was changed to allow for two optional Sunday early voting days in addition to the two mandatory Saturdays. Hours can be set as 9am – 5pm or 7am – 7pm.
There appears to be a requirement that early/advanced voting locations be limited to “government buildings,” but this needs to be clarified.
Election Day Voting
Punishing Out-of-Precinct Voters — Previously, if a voter ended up at the wrong precinct on Election Day, they were either directed to their correct location or allowed to vote using a provisional ballot. This was important because many voters don’t have enough time during the workday to make it to the second precinct. More than 10,000 provisional ballots were cast in the last general election and 8,000 were cast in the Senate run-off, many of whom were voters of color. The new law automatically invalidates out-of-precinct provisional ballots if they are cast before 5pm. To counter this, I have filed SB 314 that gives counties the authority to allow voters to vote at any polling location on Election Day.
Refreshments while in Line — You might want to pack your own water and snacks when you head out to vote. Volunteers can no longer hand out water and snacks to voters who are standing in line — unless they are 150 feet away from the polling place. However, according to the new law, poll officers can “make available self-service water from an unattended receptacle to an elector waiting in line to vote.”
Reduced Run-Off Elections Time — The new law requires run-off elections to be held 28 days after the general election, instead of nine weeks. Ballots for military and overseas voters will include “instant run-off” selections (rank choice voting) where the voter chooses a second choice candidate upfront. The shortened run-off period will likely restrict early voting to one week and it may be difficult for election offices to process large volumes of absentee ballots.
How Election Administration will change
Election offices have a challenging task ahead of them to properly implement the hodgepodge of new voting administration laws. A large portion of SB 202 is dedicated to covering these changes. Not properly implementing the new laws can result in a state takeover of a local elections office. Here are some highlights:
Absentee Ballot Processing — Thanks to Senator Jen Jordan, county elections staff can now begin processing absentee ballots — opening envelopes, checking ID, etc. — early to allow for a quicker vote count on Election Day.
Improved Notification of Precinct Changes — Thanks to Senator Nikki Merritt, county elections officials must place visible 4 foot by 4 foot signage at polling locations that have changed. This was an issue for both Gwinnett and Dekalb voters in 2020.
Reduced Certification Time and Continuous Counting — County elections staff will now have less time to certify results and will be required to count votes around the clock to speed up results times. This gives voters and elections officials less time to cure provisional ballots.
Mobile Voting Ban — Mobile voting units are now only allowed to be used in an emergency.
Private Funding Ban and Unfunded Mandates — The bill bans counties from accepting private funding and other support, all while creating expensive unfunded mandates like using special security paper, new ballot design specifications for absentee ballots and having to count ballots without breaks. In 2020, 43 Georgia counties, including many rural counties, received over 32 million dollars in grant funding. State and local governments will need to provide adequate funding to fill these gaps. Despite these unfunded mandates, the author of SB 202 never requested a fiscal note that documents costs to local governments, as is required by law if expenses to local governments exceed $5 million. This was challenged in the Senate, but the Lt. Governor overruled the objection and allowed the bill to proceed without a fiscal note .
Poll officer flexibility — Poll officers can now serve in counties that adjoin their county of residence. However, they must demonstrate that there is unmet need in the adjoining county and that county of residency can be adequately staffed.
Election Superintendent Discretion — Gives the election superintendent discretion of the ratio of 250 votes to one machine during non-general elections.
Reporting of numbers and chain of custody — Reporting requirements to the Secretary of State office are greatly increased as well as penalties. For instance, “If a superintendent fails to report the returns of verified and accepted absentee ballots by the day following the election at 5pm, the State Election Board may convene an independent performance review board.”
Secretary of State and Legislative Power over Local Election Boards
SB 202 greatly increases the power of the legislature over Local Election Boards.
State Elections Board and Secretary of State’s Office Takeover — The new law demotes the Secretary of State as the State Election Board chair to a non-voting ex-officio member, and replaces the Chair with a legislative appointment. The Chair is supposed to be non-partisan, defined as not having been active with a political party nor having donated to or campaigned for a candidate during the two years prior to becoming the Chair, and while serving as Chair.
State Takeover of County Elections — The State Elections Board, county governing authority (county commission), or members of the county’s legislative delegation, can petition for a temporary takeover of a county elections board, replacing the entire board with an individual appointed by the State Elections Board, who then has the authority to hire and fire any and all elections staff.
Change in Composition of Local Election Boards — Though not part of SB 202, about a dozen legislators have passed local legislation changing the way election board members are appointed, for instance by all Republican county commissioners, resulting in more partisan boards. This, combined with a more political State Elections Board, is concerning.
Three more days until Sine Die, the end of the 2021 legislative session! Monday is the 39th day and we have about 60 bills scheduled for Senate floor votes. Tuesday is reserved for committee work, and Wednesday, March 31, is the final day.
End of Session Legislative Town Hall — Our Senate District 40 House Representatives and I were so sorry to have to postpone our town hall event at the last minute. As is often the case at the Capitol, our schedules can change without much notice. Both the House and Senate floor sessions went into the evening. We will reschedule as soon as we can coordinate calendars.
Fully Fund NOW/COMP in Five Press Conference — On Tuesday, March 30, I will be holding a press conference with members of the disability community, community leaders, and allies to demand that Governor Kemp fully fund the NOW/COMP Medicaid waivers waiting list over the next 5 years. This event is open to all that wish to attend and we hope you’ll join us at 10 am by the South stairs inside the Capitol.
When asked about the new law, Black Voters Matter founder Cliff Albright told the AJC, “It’s always going to have an impact. The question is whether we’re going to be able to overcome that impact. We won recent elections not because there wasn’t voter suppression, but because we were able to out-organize it.”
Our future focus needs to be preparing voters to work around the new voting requirements and channeling our advocacy efforts to demand transparency in advance of the upcoming special redistricting session later this year. SB 202 was only part one of Republicans rigging elections. Redistricting will be part two.