Early voting in Georgia started this week, in accordance with the state's controversial voting law passed last year. While many worried the new rules would suppress turnout, more than 100,000 Georgians voted on Monday, a state record for the first day of early voting. Similarly, the number of people who voted early in May's primary was more than double the number from the 2018 midterms.
But while opponents' worst fears may not have come to pass, much of their criticism obscured the more noxious parts of the bill.
Georgia Republicans passed S.B. 202 to overhaul the state's voting law just two months after losing both of the state's Senate seats to Democrats and four months after President Donald Trump lost reelection. The so-called "Election Integrity Act of 2021" sought to undo pandemic-era changes to voting rules intended to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
After the bill's passage, many Democrats and progressives likened the bill to the era of segregation. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia called it "Georgia's Anti-Voter Law." In an official statement, President Joe Biden called the law "Jim Crow in the 21st Century." But many of these criticisms hyperbolized or elided the bill's very real issues.
Biden told ESPN that the law would "close a polling place at 5 o'clock when working people just get off," suggesting it was intended to disenfranchise blue-collar voters. In fact, the law merely stipulates that polls must stay open between at least 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., with the option of going as long as 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. It also states that polling locations must be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on at least two Saturdays prior to election day.
Biden also claimed that the law meant that "there will be no absentee ballots under the most rigid circumstances." The law did not end absentee ballots, though, somewhat cravenly, it did limit the reasons a person could request one and cut the time period in which one could request an absentee ballot from six months to less than three. Trump famously insisted for months that mail-in voting was ripe for fraud despite no evidence to support his contention.
According to The Washington Post's roundup of Biden's first 100 days in office, one-eighth of his false statements during that period involved Georgia's voting law.
Meanwhile, there is plenty to dislike about the bill: In addition to sharply narrowing who can request absentee ballots, it significantly curtails the number of ballot drop boxes a county is allowed to have. The New York Times estimated that the four counties comprising metro Atlanta would go from 94 drop boxes to 23. The law also removed Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who famously resisted Trump's entreaties to "find" enough votes to flip Georgia to the former president, as both the chair and a voting member of the State Election Board.
That board further has the power to "suspend" state and county election officials and appoint "temporary" replacements in their stead. In the months after the law passed, it remade entire counties' election boards by replacing Democrats with Republicans.
Clearly, Georgia's voting law has issues: The ability of the state to directly meddle in counties' election boards is a fundamentally illiberal exercise of power, and based on the timing, it seems obvious that the law was intended to placate Trump's ego. But by hyperbolically characterizing the bill as an outright assault on voting rights akin to the racist laws and practices of the past, opponents papered over its more pernicious aspects.