Sweeping law to limit voting access passed in the US state of Georgia

Georgia’s state legislature passed a law which drastically reconstitutes the State election board, requires mandatory identification proofs for absentee voters, and makes it illegal to offer food or water to voters standing in line

March 26, 2021 by Anish R M
Demonstration in front of the Georgia State Capitol against the Election Integrity Act in the days leading up to the passing of the bill. Photo: Justice for Georgia/Twitter

The US State of Georgia pushed through a highly contentious legislation on Thursday, March 25, that is widely feared to limit voting access. The legislation titled the Election Integrity Act of 2021 (HB-531) was rushed through both the houses of the State legislature and received the governor’s assent in a matter of hours.

The Republican Party which controls the legislature and also holds the governor’s office passed the law despite strong opposition from the State opposition Democratic Party and voting rights activists. The new law will bring in drastic measures which the state administration claims is necessary to “boost confidence” in the electoral process.

The law will bring in mandatory voter identification criteria for absentee ballots, which earlier only required a signed application from the voter with their details. It will also significantly cut down the usage of ballot drop boxes, shorten the time between run-off elections, and make it illegal to approach voters waiting in line with food or water.

The law will also change the constitution of the State election board, stripping the secretary of State’s ex-officio position as the chair. Instead, the chair will now be a person elected jointly by both houses of the legislature. This is particularly notable considering that the incumbent secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, was widely attacked by his fellow Republican leaders for not giving in to pressure from former president Donald Trump to undermine the election results.

Among the other four members of the five-person board, two will be elected by each house of the state legislature. The election will also have wide-ranging powers, including the power to dismiss local election officials and replace them with a person appointed by the board.

The earlier version of the bill also provisions to restrict Sunday voting. This was a measure that particularly affected the state’s Black population who have responded overwhelmingly in recent years to the “Souls to the Polls” campaign, which encouraged Black voters to submit their ballots after their Sunday church prayers.

This, along with a provision to drop no-excuse absentee voting, were measures that could have seriously affected voting access, but were dropped after much backlash from the people. Despite these prominent omissions, the bill is still expected to affect voting access for the working classes and racial minorities.

The opposition has called the measures as nothing short of voter suppression, with the state senate minority leader Gloria Butler stating that “(w)e are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we’ve seen since the Jim Crow era.”

The measure comes as Republican-controlled states are pushing for measures to limit access to voting, especially in states where they suffered losses in the 2020 general elections. On March 8, the state of Iowa which witnessed a dramatic rise in voting turnout in 2020 elections, signed into law measures significantly cutting down early in-person voting period.

Republicans and right-wing groups have been making unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud, after their narrow defeat in the federal elections. Former president Donald Trump, who refused to concede the election results had reportedly made abortive attempts to pressure state officials into backing his claims of a “stolen” election, especially in key battleground states like Georgia.

Georgia, where Republican have consistently won state and federal general elections for nearly two decades, delivered close but significant victories for the Democrats who won the presidential vote and the two senate seats that were up for election. The flip in voting behavior was a result of years of efforts by civil rights groups to expand voting access to poorer and minority groups in the state.

The new law will also affect the manner in which elections will be conducted in future federal and state general elections. Almost immediately responding to the passing of the bill, a lawsuit was filed at a federal court against the state by three Georgia-based organizations. The New Georgia Project, Black Voters Matter Fund and Rise, jointly filed the lawsuit at the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on Thursday.

The lawsuit challenged multiple provisions of the law to be in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution and US Voting Rights Act of 1965. These provisions include voter identification requirements, limiting the number of ballot drop boxes, mobile polling places, invalidation of votes filed after 5 pm in the wrong precinct, and criminalizing offering water and food to voters waiting in line, among other things.

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