It seems the one basic fact everyone can agree on with respect to Georgia’s controversial new voting law is that an outrageous injustice has been committed.
What that outrage is depends on who you talk to.
Opponents of the just-passed bill call it a modern-day version of racist old laws that enforced segregation in the U.S. for decades. “Jim Crow 2.0,” is how Park Cannon, a state lawmaker arrested while protesting the bill, described it to CBC News.
Its defenders call that a fact-free calumny not based on anything in the actual law. “It’s unfairly criticized,” says Gabriel Sterling, a Republican Georgia state official who made international news a few months ago for publicly reprimanding Donald Trump.
“What it definitely isn’t is Jim Crow 2.0.”
Georgia thus finds itself at the epicentre of a national battle over voting rights, with racial overtones.
Republican lawmakers in dozens of states have rushed to introduce hundreds of bills with voting restrictions following last year’s election loss.
The early attention has gone to Georgia because it’s the first major state to pass such a law, it’s a swing state and it will host a key U.S. Senate race next year.
What the law does
Headlines have been dominated by reaction to Georgia’s law: President Joe Biden has called it “Jim Crow on steroids,” there was a corporate outcry, lawsuits, the removal of baseball’s all-star game, and now conservative boycotts against corporations criticizing it.
One academic who studies election administration has watched with incredulity as a cascade of negative attention crashes into his state.
In Trey Hood’s view, this criticism is way over the top. He blames the press for doing a poor job explaining the law, which in his view has allowed people to distort and exaggerate it.
“I don’t think this is going to impede anyone’s access to the ballot box,” said Hood, a University of Georgia researcher and contributor to MIT’s Election Lab network.
In its most controversial provision so far, the law makes it a crime to hand someone food or water in a voting line — punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine or year in prison. Local poll officials can provide water.
Democrats have focused on that part in fundraising messaging: “[That’s] one thing in particular that gets my blood boiling,” said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in a party fundraising message this week.
But defenders of the bill say this merely reinforces existing Georgia laws — which already made it illegal to give voters presents, or to campaign within 25 feet of a voting line. For example, Starbucks was forced to cancel a national promotion in 2008 where it offered voters coffee, after an uproar in Georgia and elsewhere.
Sterling said people have been using food and refreshments to approach voters in line and to campaign there, which he called illegal.
- ID will be required for voting by mail. Previously, officials checked signatures against the one on file, and rejected ballots in the event of a mismatch. Now voters can use a driver’s licence — or other commonly issued state-issued ID, or a social-security number, or utility bill. Hood said this is hardly restrictive, and is in fact fairer than leaving it up to election workers to analyze signatures.
- There will be fewer drop-box locations where absentee voters can deposit ballots. Before last year, these boxes were not used in Georgia but were temporarily allowed during the pandemic. The new law confirms drop-box locations can be used in the future — though at a reduced number per county compared to 2020.
- Mobile voting centres are banned. Last year, thousands of people in Atlanta voted in polling stations on wheels.
- It will be harder to extend voting hours in polling locations that encounter service interruptions.
- Absentee ballot applications can no longer be mass-mailed; if someone wants to vote by mail, they have to download their own application.
- It guarantees between 17 and 19 days of early in-person voting.
- It gives the state legislature, controlled by Republicans, far more power in election administration.
On that last point, some observers fear this is the true time bomb ticking in this bill — a threat to fair elections that risks detonating when American democracy is already vulnerable.
You might recall how Sterling’s boss, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, stood up to Trump in a tense phone call, defending his state’s certification of the 2020 election.
Raffensperger is now stripped of his role as chair of the state elections board. A majority of the board will now be appointed by the Republican-controlled legislature.
In addition to that, the board has been given power to suspend local election officials if they violate election procedure.
This raises the prospect of power struggles between Democratic officials in Atlanta and Republican state-level officials.
“I think it’s important to remember the context here,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
“The Georgia legislation is built on a lie [that the election was stolen].… What we’re seeing here is, for politicians who didn’t like the outcome, they’re not changing their policies to win more votes; they’re changing the rules to exclude more voters.”
WATCH | Critics say Georgia’s new voting law targets voters of colour:
Could this law have changed the 2020 election?
Recall the post-election aftermath last year.
State officials came under sweltering pressure from angry Republican voters who demanded the results be overturned. Animated by a steady diet of conspiracy theories, these voters wanted Trump declared the winner.
There were even death threats against officials in control of state institutions.
It took individual acts from independent-minded officials to ensure the results got certified. And now some of these bills, including Georgia’s, take aim at such officials.
Michigan is another example. A single Republican there bucked his own party to certify the results in a crucial county that encompasses Detroit, a Democratic stronghold where 78 per cent of the population is Black.
Now, the Republicans who control Michigan’s legislature are moving to make sure that can’t happen again. They want to make it harder for canvassing boards in larger counties — meaning Detroit — to certify an election unless multiple members of each party agree.
The change is in one of dozens of bills being proposed in that state alone, and, once any such bills are inevitably vetoed by the state’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, Republicans hope to override her veto by collecting the required 340,000 signatures in a petition.
Arizona and Florida are other large states with bills in the works.
Andrea Young, the daughter of civil-rights leader and politician Andrew Young, said she can’t believe these battles are taking place now, 56 years after she and her family attended the bloody voting-rights march at Selma, Alabama in 1965.
“We’ve never seen anything like this. This sort of tsunami of bills,” said Young, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.
The reason it’s happening now is obvious, she says: Voters of colour have new demographic power, and white conservatives want to halt that by changing the rules.
“These [efforts are an] attempt to prevent majority rule in Georgia,” she said at a recent press conference.
Atlanta’s history of corporate activism
The bill’s opponents don’t have the numbers to fight back in the legislature. So they’re turning to other avenues: economic pressure, and courtrooms.
Activists interviewed in recent weeks said they intended to pressure companies to speak out and said there’s a strong history of corporate activism in Atlanta.
Several mentioned the most famous example: when Martin Luther King won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and city leaders initially resisted holding a celebratory event for him.
King’s prize had been disparaged by former president Harry Truman, who called the civil-rights leader a troublemaker; one Alabama hotel even refused to serve guests from Norway, home of the Nobel Prize.
But the head of Coca-Cola, Paul Austin, had worked in apartheid South Africa and saw the damage that racism could do to a place’s reputation. He told local business leaders it would be an embarrassment for Coca-Cola to continue being headquartered in a city, Atlanta, that refused to honour a Nobel Prize winner.
The celebration dinner went ahead; tickets became a hot commodity.
In the modern-day struggle, a number of companies have spoken out against the law, including Atlanta-based Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines; Major League Baseball has moved its all-star game to Colorado, which votes almost entirely by mail.
Now Trump and others are calling for boycotts of all those companies.
Quelling the Republican base
Ultimately, this struggle will likely play out in court. Several groups are suing, claiming the bill targets Black voters, including the NAACP, which says the voting methods under attack are disproportionately used by people of colour.
Sterling, for his part, dismisses some of the complaints as a political marketing slogan, being used by Georgia Democrats to raise money and galvanize voters.
So, he was asked: why was this bill necessary? If Sterling, and other officials, said the last election was fair, and the fraud concerns ill-founded, why make all these changes?
He cited a few reasons — the need to update old administrative procedures, and the need for permanent standards for mail-in voting which was previously rare in Georgia.
He appeared to acknowledge, however, that it was partly about the internal politics of the Republican Party, and about quelling a backlash from the base if something hadn’t been done.
“There would have been millions of Georgians screaming their ever-loving heads off, ‘Y’all didn’t do anything when we told you you had to do something,'” Sterling told CBC News.
“So when a lot of these representatives get … hundreds and thousands of phone calls and emails and stuff, guess what? They tend to respond to that, whether it comes off of the basis of reality or not.”