Updated: Apr 17, 2021
This post is part 1 of a 2 part series on the Georgia election law. This first post deals with the actual contents of the law; the second deals with a lesson that can be learned from the public's response to it.
For the last two weeks, the talk of the town has been Georgia's election law changes. As is so common today, people are drawing conclusions about the law based on what they hear, not on what they know from firsthand research.
Having learned this lesson the hard way, I spent some time last week reading the entire text of the bill. The following paragraphs are intended to give you direct, though summary, knowledge of what is actually contained in it. I will follow with some thoughts on the reasons for the law and its "fairness."
What's in the law?
The law, officially called the "Election Integrity Act of 2021," is a 95 page document that addresses a number of election-related issues. Most of its 53 sections deal with noncontroversial material like the State Board of Elections (section 5-6), investigating charges of election misconduct (section 7), payment of election expenses (section 9), qualifications of poll officers (section 11), run-off election processes (section 21), and restrictions on campaign activity at polling stations (section 34).
The controversial sections deal with challenging a person's right to vote (15-17) and several addressing absentee ballots (25 and 28-29). Let's take a closer look at these more controversial elements of the bill.
Challenging the Right to Vote, Sections 15-17
Section 15 deals with challenging a person attempting to register to vote. The law lays out the following requirements to make this challenge:
All challenges "shall be in writing and shall specify distinctly the grounds of the challenge."
The board of registrars has 10 days to hold a hearing on the challenge; the person being challenged must be provided 3 days notice of that hearing.
The burden is "on the elector [voter] making the challenge to prove that the person being challenged is not qualified to remain on the list of electors [voter]."
Section 16 outlines the process for challenging someone who is already registered to vote with requirements similar to Section 15.
Section 17 deals with the Secretary of State's responsibility to keep the list of voters up to date, and to remove those "who may have moved to another state, died, or otherwise [became] ineligible to vote in Georgia."
Absentee Ballots, Sections 25 and 28-29
Section 25: Applying for and verifying eligibility of absentee ballots
Request for an absentee ballot can be made from 78 to 11 days prior to the election (reduced from "not earlier than 180 days" in prior Georgia election law), and applications must be received no later than 11 days prior to the election.
To confirm the identity of the voter, the individual requesting the absentee ballot must use the form provided by the State and provide "his or her name, date of birth, address as registered, address where the elector wishes the ballot to be mailed, and the number of his or her Georgia driver's license or identification card..." with a copy of the ID attached.
No absentee ballot applications can be sent to any person unless a request has been received from that person or an authorized relative (in other words, election officials cannot simply send ballots to people who have not requested them).
No person, except as authorized by law, can handle the absentee ballot for the individual voter.
No absentee ballot can be mailed to any address other than the permanent mailing address of the voter as shown on the voter's registration card.
Section 28: Absentee ballot and advance voting process
To verify the ballot was used by the voter who requested the ballot, the voter must put his or her Georgia driver's license number or approved ID card number on outside of envelope. If the person does not have one of these two forms of ID, the last 4 digits of their social security number can be used.
Each county board of registrars must report the number of persons issued absentee ballots, the number of returned absentee ballots, and the number of absentee ballots rejected each day to the Secretary of State.
Voting period shall begin on the fourth Monday prior to the primary or election and shall end on the Friday prior to the primary or election. Specific weekday hours, as well as weekend days and hours, are specified.
The board of registrars must publish, at least 14 days in advance, the dates, times, and locations of advance voting.
Each county board of registrars must report the number of persons who have voted at the advance voting sites each day to the Secretary of State.
Section 29: Safekeeping, validation, rejection, and delivery of absentee ballots
Absentee ballots must be kept "safely, unopened, and stored in a manner that will prevent tampering and unauthorized access."
When an absentee ballot is received, the registrar or clerk "shall write the day and hour of the receipt of the ballot on its envelope," compare the ID number on the outside of the envelope with "the same information contained in the elector's voter registration records," and confirm the voter signed the ballot.
If the ballot is unsigned, the ID information does not match the voter registration record, the voter failed to provide required information, or the voter is disqualified to vote, the registrar shall write "Rejected" on the face of the envelope and note the reason for the rejection.
The voter with the rejected ballot has 2 weeks to remedy the issue with his or her ballot.
Beginning on the third Monday prior to the election, absentee ballots can be opened and scanned. "At least three persons who are registrars, deputy registrars, poll workers, or absentee ballot clerks must be present before commencing" and must be present at all times "while the absentee ballot envelopes are being opened and the absentee ballots are being scanned."
No one can "tally, tabulate, estimate, or attempt to tally, tabulate, or estimate or cause the ballot scanner or any other equipment to produce any tally or tabulate, partial or otherwise,...the absentee ballots until the time for closing of the polls" on the day of the election.
The counting of absentee ballots is open to the public, but no one but election officials can touch ballots in any way. Candidates on the ballot have the right to specify up to two people to monitor the counting process.
What do we conclude from the law?
As I read the law, two thoughts formed in my mind. First, the new provisions for challenging voters and processing absentee ballots clearly flowed from problems election officials perceived in the prior election. Most laws develop from an issue that has not been addressed in prior legislation. It seems obvious that Georgia lawmakers saw things occur in the 2020 election that needed to be addressed. This law is their way of doing that.
Second, not a single change seems unfair, discriminatory, or restrictive for a citizen's right to vote. How is defining a process to challenge someone's right to vote an infringement? Don't we all want our elections to be fair, whatever side of the political aisle we claim? How is requiring ID an unfair stipulation? If you are truly a citizen of such-and-such a state with a right to vote, how is providing an ID unjust? And don't we all want accountability as election officials count absentee votes?
What we are seeing here is not the reasonable objection to a law. What we are seeing is an attempt to continue to allow the manipulation and falsification of elections by preventing responsible state legislatures from making changes that limit those abuses. The goal is not to create fairness in voting; it is to create an opportunity to cheat that can be used when fair elections do not produce the outcome desired.
What can be learned from this situation? Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post to find out!