By Kyle Wingfield
The 2021 legislative session is over, and the most-discussed legislation concerned election reform. While dozens of these bills were introduced, only Senate Bill 202 cleared both chambers. Gov. Brian Kemp signed it into law on March 25.
Much of what’s been said about this bill has been inaccurate. Rather than opining about it, I’m simply going to summarize the most important changes.
Early voting: For primary and general elections, early voting will continue to begin about three weeks before Election Day. After proposals to reduce early voting on weekends, the bill actually requires two Saturday early-voting days (up from one) and allows up to two Sunday early-voting days. In most counties, this will represent an increase in early voting.
Voting hours: There has been some confusion that the bill ends in-person voting at 5 p.m. That’s incorrect. Previously, early voting was required “during normal business hours”; this bill clarifies that means 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. But the bill allows counties to conduct voting as early as 7 a.m. and as late as 7 p.m., including on weekends. The bill does not change Election Day hours.
Runoff elections: One significant change is to limit runoff elections to four weeks, down from nine. The nine-week requirement was for federal elections, mandated by a court to ensure overseas voters, particularly military personnel, had time to receive and return their ballots. Georgia will shorten its runoffs by adopting ranked-choice voting for overseas voters, as some other states have. These voters will receive special ballots that allow them to indicate their order of preference for all candidates in each race. If their first choice is eliminated in the first round of voting, their ballot indicates which runoff candidate should receive their vote.
Consequently, early voting in runoffs will be reduced. It must begin “as soon as possible” and at least eight days before the runoff.
Absentee ballots: Absentee ballots historically represented a small percentage of all ballots cast and weren’t subject to ID requirements, only signature matching. The number of absentee voters rose by more than 1 million in 2020, largely due to the pandemic, and thus a sizable portion of the electorate was treated differently regarding verification. It was impractical to require photo ID for absentee ballots, so the bill instead requires these voters to submit their driver’s license number or state ID card number – or, failing those, the last four digits of their Social Security number.
Absentee ballot applications/requests: Previously, voters could request an absentee ballot up to 180 days before an election. This bill reduces that to 78 days. Further, the bill requires voters to submit a request at least 11 days before an election, since waiting longer runs the risk that a voter won’t have time to receive and return a ballot.
The bill also places new restrictions on private organizations that send unsolicited absentee-ballot applications to voters. The idea is to cut down on confusion after many voters received numerous applications last year.
Drop boxes: Prior Georgia law did not include absentee-ballot drop boxes; the State Elections Board adopted them last year during the pandemic on an emergency basis. This bill establishes drop boxes in Georgia law and regulates them. Some people don’t like how few drop boxes are allowed (one per early-voting location or one per 100,000 residents, whichever is fewer) or that they must be placed inside polling places and accessible only during business hours. Others believe this increases security while still expanding options for absentee voters.
Food and water: The bill bars private parties from giving free food and water to voters waiting in line within 150 feet of a polling place, treating it as an inducement to vote. Election officials may provide water. Importantly, the bill also takes steps to prevent long lines in the first place.
There’s more to this bill, but these are among the most controversial ones. Decide for yourself if they boost election integrity or limit voter access.
Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.