This piece is co-authored by Paul Smith, vice president of Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and professor at Georgetown Law Center.
Gabriel Sterling, a top official in the office of the Georgia Secretary of State, argues in an Apr. 14 Washington Post op-ed that the new Georgia election law is not as bad as it is portrayed. But Sterling cannot airbrush away the racial bias and anti-voter tint of the new law. The law is that bad, particularly for voters of color.
Sterling’s article ignores what he of all people knows is a fundamental flaw in the legislation. It is based on a lie—that the election in Georgia was rigged. Sterling himself called such claims “hoaxes,” “fever dreams,” and “insanity.” Multiple recounts and even hand reviews of signatures found those claims false.
Rather that maintaining the progress made in 2020 in expanding access to the polls, the legislature went backward to an attack on the fundamental right to vote by people of color.
Sterling’s defense ignores potent features of that attack. Black voters heavily used absentee voting in the last election. Sterling does not mention that the new law reduces the time to apply for an absentee ballot from 180 days to 78, and makes it more difficult to apply for such ballots.
He also overlooks the virtual ban on distribution of absentee ballots by get-out-the-vote groups – a key reason Georgia had record-breaking turnout in 2020. And he says nothing about the provisions making it extremely difficult to vote even in a statewide race if the voter goes to the wrong polling place. That does not occur very often in sparsely populated, generally white rural precincts. But in densely populated mostly Black urban areas, precincts are changed and squeezed together, and the polling place closest to the voter may not be correct. Since voters go to the wrong polling place far more frequently in such urban areas, this provision has a disparate impact on communities of color.
The few specific provisions Sterling does discuss, he sugar-coats. For example, he asserts that the law expands early voting, which it does—in rural, relatively white areas but not in urban, predominantly Black ones. He says the new ID requirements for absentee ballots are not onerous, noting that voters can use their social security numbers to verify the ballot. But he fails to mention that voters cannot use social security numbers to apply for the ballot, as they can in most other states. Voters who do not have a driver’s license or state-issued ID will now be forced to scan, print, and include a photocopy of their identification in order to request an absentee ballot. Many voters in Georgia’s Black communities do not have access to printers, let alone scanners or photocopiers, in their homes. And if Sterling is correct that 97% of Georgians have a driver’s license or state issued ID, that would mean more than 220,000 disproportionately minority voters do not—about 20 times President Biden’s margin of victory in the state.
In the same vein, Sterling indignantly denies that the law permits the State Election Board to overturn elections. But consider what would have happened if the new system had been in place in 2020. The law would have relegated the Secretary of State, who rejected Trump’s calls to “find” votes, to little or no role. Instead, the Republican dominated legislature would have previously appointed a “nonpartisan” chair of the State Election Board by a simple majority and empowered that board to displace county officials, who determine which ballots to count. It is fair to question whether the Republican-controlled board, if it exercised its power to establish control over voting officials in key urban counties, would have been as steadfast in protecting the integrity of the electoral count as Sterling and his boss were.
Sterling falters seriously when he attempts to justify the provision of the new law making it a misdemeanor to give water to a voter in line at a polling place. He says that providing voters gifts of value for casting their votes has been illegal in Georgia for years. Gifts of value? Bribery is a far cry from giving a cup of water to a thirsty grandmother waiting in line for hours. And there’s no way it escaped the legislature’s attention that lines are longer in Black neighborhoods. Beyond being mean-spirited, this provision is a tell, because it can only be explained by a desire to make it harder for people of color to vote.
In the days of Jim Crow, election officials had a bag of tricks to prevent Blacks from voting, like requiring them to recite the constitution verbatim or to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar. In provision after provision, this legislation has its own bag of tricks that make it disproportionately harder for people of color to vote. Its author’s clearly understood that they could not be as publicly direct about the intended goals of their legislation, but their targets are the same.
The authors, Trevor Potter and Paul Smith, can be followed on Twitter at @thetrevorpotter and @PaulSmithCLC