Covering the Rev. Raphael Warnock’s and Jon Ossoff’s Georgia Senate runoff campaigns early this year, I witnessed Democrats running not two but three races, the third being the frantic, multifront effort to beat back GOP attempts at voter suppression. Out-of-state conservative activists tried (and mostly failed) to disqualify hundreds of thousands of absentee ballot requests. Officials in a majority of Georgia counties also tried (and mostly failed) to erect new voting obstacles. Democrats like Atlanta Representative Bee Nguyen were running around helping to fix absentee ballots with problems (like a signature in the wrong place).
And Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who’d otherwise mostly acted fairly from November through January, insisted he’d prosecute anyone who provided food or drink to voters on long lines (an activity known as “line warming”) on that cold January election day, under state rules prohibiting offering “gifts or bribes” to voters. “I’ve got tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of pizza and scarves and hot chocolate and water,” New Georgia Project director Nsé Ufot told me. “We are going to get those things to Georgians—we’re preparing for a showdown.”
Ufot did—and Democrats won all three races. Warnock and Ossoff gave Democrats their fragile Senate majority (backed by Vice President Kamala Harris), and voter turnout hit record highs for a runoff, despite the GOP’s throwing big, sharp tacks on the road along the way. Most significantly, in a reversal from previous runoffs, which always saw a sharp drop-off from the general election, Black voter turnout declined only slightly—and less than white voter turnout did—thanks especially to early voting, and the youth vote remained unexpectedly strong. Meanwhile, turnout by white Donald Trump supporters dropped most of all, thanks largely to the former president’s deranged claims that Georgia’s GOP officials had presided over a November election they’d rigged for Democrats.
Less than three months later, Trump’s entirely debunked voter fraud allegations ultimately won the day in Georgia. Despite state Republican officials’ insisting that the 2020 general and 2021 runoff elections had been uncommonly well-run and fair, those same officials last week passed new and more heinous voter restrictions. “There’s no doubt there were many alarming issues with how the election was handled, and those problems, understandably, led to a crisis of confidence,” Governor Brian Kemp said as he signed the abominable bill into law.
But “those problems,” and the “crisis of confidence,” were entirely the product of Trump’s big lie. The disgraced, twice-impeached former president lost his election battle, but his baseless complaints could help Georgia Republicans win their war against democracy in this rapidly diversifying and increasingly more liberal state.
The law’s worst features? There are so many. “You don’t do it justice by pulling out individual pieces,” warns voting rights attorney Marc Elias, who’s suing to overturn the bill as unconstitutional, especially for its particular impact on Black voters.
But we have to wrap our minds around it, so here’s just a start: Voters who request absentee ballots will now have to send in a copy of state-validated ID when they do so (and many either don’t have one or can’t easily copy it); the number of drop boxes to return those ballots will be cut dramatically, limited only to early-voting sites (rather than libraries and other public buildings), and they will close four days before the election (when it’s too late to reliably mail ballots). Providing food and water to voters in long lines is now, officially, classified by law as a crime (thanks, Brad!). Perhaps worst of all, the state legislature is empowered to step in and take control of county elections in the event it sees something wrong—and in 2020, “something wrong” was too many Democrats voting.
Oh, and the GOP-gerrymandered legislature also removed the secretary of state as the head of the state board of election—punishment for Raffensperger’s mostly fair administration of the presidential balloting and the runoff—and put itself in charge.
Brian Kemp signed the new law immediately, outrageously seated beneath a painting of an antebellum Georgia plantation and flanked by seven white male lawmakers. Just outside, state police arrested Democratic state Representative Park Cannon, who is Black, for the crime of knocking on Kemp’s door. Lots of Georgians, and smart outsiders, think that ugly tableau was intentional, to assure demoralized Trump voters that everything in Georgia is returning to the racist way it ever was; now they can relax and vote Republican again, no matter what Trump says.
“But our voters won’t forget that,” insists Bee Nguyen.
That racist tableau still won’t endear Kemp to Trump, who is looking to support a 2022 primary challenger as payback for Kemp’s crime of certifying his election defeat last year. It is also likely to inflame Georgia Democrats next November, when Warnock will be running again, and many expect, or at least hope, voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams will seek a rematch against the vote-suppressing Republican governor.
When it comes to that November election, Kemp might have been signing his own political death warrant when he signed SB 202. Certainly some political observers think so. Cook Political Report editor Dave Wasserman tweeted that the Georgia GOP “just handed Democrats their best turnout tool for 2022 & beyond.” Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin called the criminalizing of providing food and water a “Republican blunder” that could galvanize Georgia Democrats, especially those of color, to new heights of participation.
Seth Bringman of Fair Fight Action, the Abrams-led group that works for voting rights, certainly hopes that’s true. If legal efforts to challenge SB 202 fail, and congressional action to shore up voting rights stalls, “then we’ll have to organize around it,” he told me. “It’s true that earlier efforts at voter suppression have empowered voters here to take action,” Bringman added. But he notes that it’s tough to know how many voters were suppressed by those measures, even as others turned out. And putting the onus back on Black voters who have been discouraged, brutalized, and even killed for exercising their right to vote, rather than on the white lawmakers who’ve historically done the brutalizing, is tough for many to take.
Despite Elias’s fair warning against itemizing the bill’s components and designating what’s worst, advocates and analysts are doing that. They have to. The provision criminalizing “line-warming,” or bringing snacks and drinks to voters stuck in long lines, has gotten the most attention in the bill. It’s got a real “What would Jesus not do?” vibe. President Biden singled it out when he attacked the entire law, calling it “sick, sick.” And its racially discriminatory intent seems clear. A lawsuit charging that SB 202 places “unconstitutional burdens on the right to vote,” brought by Elias on behalf of the New Georgia Project and others, quotes a study that found that in the much-criticized June 2020 primary elections, “the average wait time in Georgia after polls were scheduled to close was six minutes in neighborhoods that were at least 90% white, and 51 minutes in places that were at least 90% nonwhite.”
“There’s no other way to interpret this other than that Georgia Republicans want voters of color to leave those lines and not vote,” says Fair Fight Action’s Bringman.
But other provisions could have a bigger impact, including restrictions on early voting, voter ID requirements for absentee ballots and limits on the number and the hours of ballot drop boxes. Such changes will disproportionately burden voters of color, who adopted those voter access reforms with new enthusiasm in 2020, especially given the dangers of the pandemic. Limiting those measures will also force many voters back onto those long Election Day lines, where they’ll no longer be supported by volunteers providing food and drink. Yeah, it’s a vicious—and very efficient—voter-suppression circle.
Georgia’s most recent, actual election emergency was last June’s primaries, especially in heavily Democratic counties. State Republican officials had already closed precincts, purged “inactive” voters, and conducted other voter suppression exercises in prior elections, but the problems in the primary, creating the extraordinarily long lines, were in some ways worse—or at least more obvious—than what the nation saw in the 2018 governor’s race. Stacey Abrams told me at the time that the 2020 primary mess was was “a combination of malice and incompetence.”
Those problems were widely blamed on Raffensperger, who had inherited the mess. But he in turn blamed them on county election boards in Fulton and DeKalb and other places with lots of Democrats. Elias didn’t entirely disagree: Around the country, “I’ve sued Democratic counties,” he told me. “Voting is an essential service; when it goes well, we shouldn’t act like it’s a treat.”
So those embattled county election boards took action for the November election. They secured mobile voting sites, expanded absentee voting and vote by mail, and added drop boxes for those votes. In Fulton County, they got enormous help in the form of the donation of State Farm Arena as a massive polling place. Sports were shut down during the pandemic, but fans could nonetheless troop there and cast ballots—and they did. By November, Fulton County still had lines in a few places, but the combination of early voting, mail-in voting, expanded dropboxes, mobile sites, and, yes, State Farm Arena reduced the traditional election day lines in Black counties to manageable. Those same fixes made the January runoff run more smoothly.
SB 202 says to those Georgia counties that “all those solutions that you used to fix those problems after last June? You can’t use them now,” says Mother Jones’s voting rights expert Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot and the forthcoming Minority Rule. Elias agrees. Republicans blamed Democratic counties for “creating the long lines. Now they’re preventing the amelioration of those long lines,” he says. For one thing, counties are now prohibited from accepting donations to help them solve voting problems—which some have interpreted as forbidding help from, say, liberal foundations to ease vote-counting burdens, but others believe would ban the acceptance of State Farm Arena access, and even access to churches.
Still, no one, not even Elias, is confident the legal challenges to the bill, however well-founded, will prevail. The federal district court that will hear the case is still fairly balanced, but the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit is heavy with GOP appointees. And we all know about the Supreme Court, which struck down the Voting Rights Act in 2013, led by still–Chief Justice John Roberts. Back then the partisan balance was 5-4 GOP; now it’s 6-3, and nobody expects even a well-crafted challenge to voter suppression to survive that Trump-enhanced Thunderdome.
“We really need HR 1 and HR 4 [the Democrats’ two expanded voting rights bills that are in the Senate currently],” Elias says. “They can do more good than lawyers like me.” He also thinks there will be a backlash to Georgia’s awful new law by voters of color, but adds: “You can’t romanticize that!” The media, he tells me (and I agree) does that virtually every election cycle, pointing to long lines in Black polling places, not just in Georgia. “They say, ‘Oh, look at the enthusiasm, the passion!’” Elias continues, “The fact that Black voters wait in long lines is admirable—I don’t want to diminish that. But the fact is this law is going to make all of the ills of voting in Georgia much worse.”
Nguyen agrees with Elias on that point. Nevertheless, she tells me, outraged Democrats will fight back with “more national money and better organizing infrastructure.” She adds: “The world is paying attention.”
I wound up my reporting still angry that all of us expect Black voters, and voters of color generally, to do the heavy lifting to strike back at this law—and inspired that they probably will. If the pandemic fades into the vaccine future, as it seems to be doing, I’ll see you all in Georgia a lot next year.