Ossoff to introduce bill bringing back water handouts at the polls

    During the 2020 election primary voters often waited for hours to cast ballots and volunteers often donated water and snacks to encourage people to stay in line. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

    Georgia U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff will introduce legislation this week aiming to restore Georgians’ ability to hand out food and water to voters waiting in lines outside of polling precincts.

    At a virtual press briefing Monday, Ossoff called his Voters’ Access to Water Act a “direct response” to a controversial portion of Senate Bill 202, the expansive elections bill signed by Gov. Brian Kemp in March.

    The state provision Ossoff is targeting makes it a misdemeanor to give anything, including food and water, to a voter within 150 feet of the polling place or 25 feet of any voter standing in line, the same distances from which campaign activity is barred. Georgia’s new law allows but does not require poll workers to make self-serve water stations available at voting sites.

    The federal bill, which staff said will be filed this week, would ban states from prohibiting volunteers from handing out food or water to voters so long as the volunteers are not engaging in political activity and offer the food and drink to every voter. Ossoff said he aims to add his proposal to the For the People Act, a sweeping Democrat-sponsored bill currently stuck in the U.S. Senate after clearing the House in March

    “This is not about partisan politics, this is about decency, basic decency,” Ossoff said. “This is about the health and well-being of a senior citizen who’s being made to wait six hours in line to vote, and allowing a volunteer to hand that senior citizen a bottle of water without facing up to a year in jail.”

    Democrats have called the measure needlessly cruel and say it targets minorities, who are more likely to live in places with long waits to vote.

    Republicans say the measure simply bars political organizations from trying to curry last-minute favor and accuse Democrats of partisan histrionics.

    “You would think that 150 feet of your currently-protected space for campaigning activities was like the three miles to walk in the snow to school that my father always told me about. Just to be clear, in the bill, it allows for water for grandma,” Rep. Jan Jones, a north Fulton Republican who is the speaker pro tempore, said as the bill was debated in the House in March. 

    The controversy around Georgia’s election law, passed in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s unsupported allegations that the state’s election was stolen from him, which sparked protest at home and at times captured the country’s attention. 

    In March, a Democratic lawmaker was arrested after knocking on Gov. Brian Kemp’s door in protest of the bill, though the local prosecutor declined to pursue charges. Some activists have called for protests of Georgia businesses, but no prominent Democrats have supported such an idea. In April, Major League Baseball decided to move its All-Star game out of Georgia because of the law. 

    Other Republican-led state Legislatures have been eyeing aspects of Georgia’s new election law, though none have so far implemented a measure similar to Georgia’s ban on giving food and drinks.

    Ossoff said Georgia’s law is so extreme it will require congressional intervention, but pledged to also push for federal voting protections like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

    Ross Williams
    Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.