New absentee voting rules take effect with full 2021 Georgia election law

By: - June 30, 2021 7:38 pm

The final provisions of Georgia’s voting law go into effect July 1, with many new rules for absentee voting. Much of the new voting law became official when the governor signed the legsilation in March. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Starting today, some of the most heavily scrutinized sections of Georgia’s new voting law go into effect — primarily absentee voting rules that have become the focal points of a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit.

The federal government’s lawsuit against Georgia on Friday argues that the state’s new election rules that shorten the window to request absentee ballots, place restrictions on the number of drop boxes, and a host of other new provisions adversely affect Black voters.

The new voting rules will mean adjustments for many Georgians and election workers after a record number cast their votes by mail during the 2020 election cycle when the COVID-19 pandemic flared.  

Much of the Republican-backed law based on Senate Bill 202 took effect when Gov. Brian Kemp signed it in late March soon after state lawmakers approved it.

The first elections set to be governed by some of the new rules are special elections for a pair of state House seats scheduled for runoffs on July 13. Later this year, many more Georgians will cast votes in municipal elections across the state.

And while the new voting law requires absentee drop boxes to be available in each of Georgia’s 159 counties, limitations on the number each county can provide and their locations are stirring up controversy after they were widely available during the pandemic.

Last year, the State Election Board allowed local election offices to set up secure absentee drop boxes as long as there was around-the-clock video surveillance. 

But starting this year, drop boxes must be located inside the county’s election office or early voting locations, while a restriction on the number of drop boxes that local officials can be set up will lead to a significant drop in metro Atlanta’s four most populated counties.

“SB 202 is already hurting Georgians’ access to the ballot — with particular harm to voters of color in our state who disproportionately voted by mail,” said Seth Bringman, spokesman for Fair Fight Action, the voting rights organization founded by Stacey Abrams. “There is no justification for these restrictions on the freedom to vote in Georgia other than that Republicans want to limit who participates.”

But Republicans, including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Gov. Brian Kemp and many lawmakers, have roundly dismissed charges that their voting overhaul is racially discriminatory, calling the accusations sour grapes by Abrams, President Joe Biden and other Democrats.

They claim increased security for drop boxes and new absentee ID requirements are two examples of ways the law improves election transparency. 

This week, Raffensperger defended the new ID requirements that become law today, as it replaces the signature match used in the past to determine a voter’s identity. After the high-stakes, closely contested elections of 2020, the practice of poll workers matching signatures on envelopes with versions on file stirred conspiracy theories among former President Donald Trump’s supporters. 

The signature match will remain in place for the two state House runoffs set for this month. In elections moving forward, an absentee voter must prove their identity with either their driver’s license or state ID number, the final four digits of their social security number or a copy of a utility bill or other approved documentation.

“It’s currently being used in both blue states and red states,” Raffensperger said during an interview Monday on Fox News. “It’s a nonpartisan, bipartisan way of identifying voters, objectively, and so I know that that’s going to stand up to the (DOJ lawsuit) scrutiny.” 

While lawsuits challenge new law, voters must adjust to new rules

The outcome of eight federal lawsuits challenging Georgia’s new voting law could determine how elections are run in time for next year’s election cycle, headlined by Sen. Raphael Warnock’s defense of his historic win early this year, battles over congressional seats and races for governor, secretary of state, and state lawmakers. 

In the meantime, voters must adjust to a shorter window to request an absentee ballot as it shrinks to 78 days before Election Day and no more than 11 days prior. Previously, a voter could ask for their ballot as early as 180 days before an election and as late as the Friday before Election Day.

Local elections offices will also now start sending out absentee ballots as early as 29 days before an election rather than 49 days under the previous rule.

Government agencies are now prohibited from sending out unsolicited absentee ballot applications. Last spring, the secretary of state’s office sent 7 million ballot applications to registered voters ahead of the June 2020 primary.

The new voting law now gives the state the ability to impose up to a $100 fine each time an outside organization sends duplicate absentee ballot applications without properly keeping its mailer distribution list updated.

Supporters of the rule say it will cut back on the confusion many voters experienced when a flood of absentee applications hit their mailboxes in 2020 long after they’d already voted. Detractors argue it’s another means of punishing well-intentioned groups encouraging people to vote.

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.

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