What Georgia’s new voting law really does – 9 facts

National News

Georgia’s 98-page election law, passed by a GOP-controlled legislature and signed by Republican Governor Brian Kemp at the end of March, has stirred a nationwide debate over voting rights in the wake of the 2020 election. 

Democrats and voting rights groups were outraged by voter ID provisions and changes to mail voting that they believe will make more difficult for some minorities and poorer voters to cast a ballot. Within days, major corporations, including Georgia-based Coca-Cola and Delta, along with CBS News’ parent company ViacomCBS, spoke out against the bill, and Major League Baseball pulled its All-Star Game out of Georgia a day after President Biden threw his support behind the idea. 

In writing the bill, Georgia lawmakers debated several high-profile changes to voting laws, including banning Sunday voting, a tradition for Black voters following church services, and getting rid of no-excuse absentee voting, a measure passed by Republicans in 2005, neither of which made it into the new law. 

The effect of the new law on Georgia’s 7.4 million voters will be mixed: it contains new restrictions on absentee voting, while at the same time expanding early voting opportunities. The law also formalizes provisions that were put in place to accommodate voters during the coronavirus pandemic and changes the composition of the state election board, which is charged with conducting all of Georgia’s elections. 

The law does make significant changes to the way the state will run elections moving forward. It expands early voting access for some Georgia voters, adds an ID requirement for absentee voting, codifies the use of drop boxes with strict rules on how they can be used and sets new rules for state and local election officials. 

Here are 9 facts about the new Georgia voting law:

1. Early voting expands in most Georgia counties

Nearly 2.7 million Georgians voted early during the 2020 general election and the new law will offer more opportunities for early voting in most of Georgia’s counties. There will be at least 17 days of early voting, starting on the Monday that is 22 days before Election Day until the Friday before an election. 

The bill requires counties to have at least two Saturdays of early voting, with the option of offering voting on Sundays as well. Previously, Georgia required only one Saturday of early voting. Many of the larger counties, where most Georgia voters live, already offered early voting on two Saturdays, but the new law will expand access to early voting in many of the smaller, more rural counties. Counties must operate early voting from at least 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., but can offer it from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. if they choose to offer expanded hours.  

2. ID is now required not just for in-person voting, but also for mail-in voting 

Previously in Georgia, a form of identification was required for voting in person but not for voting absentee by mail. The new law requires those requesting and returning ballots by mail to also submit a driver’s license number or state ID number. If the voter does not have one, he or she can submit a photocopy of a different form of identification. The county registrar’s offices or the Georgia Department of Driver Services can issue free state ID cards. When a voter returns an absentee ballot, he or she can also provide the last four digits of their Social Security number in place of an ID number.

This provision replaces a signature requirement for verifying a person’s identification, and it’s opposed by voting rights groups who point to some studies that show that voter ID requirements tend to disproportionately affect voters of color. At the same time, incomplete or mismatched signatures have often caused ballots to be rejected. In the June 2020 primary, about 3,200 of 1.1 million mail ballots were rejected for signature issues, according to a CBS News analysis last year. As a result, the ID requirement could help election officials process ballots more efficiently. 

3. Absentee voting: New rules regulate drop boxes and shorten time frame for requesting and returning mail ballots 

While no-excuse absentee voting has been in place in Georgia since 2005, the state didn’t authorize the use of secure drop boxes as a way to return ballots until the 2020 election, as a response to the pandemic. The new law mandates at least one drop box per county, but restricts where they may be placed and when they may be accessed. 

They must be located inside the clerk’s office or inside a voting location and are only going to be accessible during early voting hours, and then closed when the early voting period ends. This is a departure from the 2020 elections, when drop boxes were available 24-7. And there can only be one drop box for every 100,000 voters in a county. 

The timeline for requesting and returning ballots has also shortened under the new law. Previously, voters could request a ballot 180 days out from an election. Now they can request them 78 days before an election. Ballot applications must be received by the clerk no later than 11 days prior to the election — earlier than the previous deadline. 

State government officials will not be able to send unsolicited ballot request forms to voters. Only voters who request absentee ballots will receive them. Third parties can still send out ballot request forms, but the front of those forms must be marked: “This is NOT an official government publication and was NOT provided to you by any governmental entity and this is NOT a ballot.”

4. Food and drink distribution to voters in line by non-poll workers is banned, but “self-service” water stands are allowed

One of the most contentious provisions is Georgia’s ban on giving voters food or water while they’re in line at the polls. During the primary last June, precincts around the state were plagued by hours-long lines, and voting rights groups were quick to point out that the late spring and summer heat make the ban on distributing food and water especially onerous. Volunteers and third-party groups regularly hand out water on hot days or hot drinks on cold days to voters standing in line.  

Georgia had already outlawed campaigns or other groups from distributing or displaying any campaign material within 150 feet of a polling place or within 25 feet of any voters standing in line for a polling site, and the new law now bans  giving voters any gifts, “including but not limited to, food and drink.” 

Gabriel Sterling, one of the top officials at the Georgia secretary of state’s office, told CBS affiliate WMAZ that the ban is meant to prevent groups from using food and water to campaign within the restricted areas. The law provides an exception to allow poll workers to set up “self-service water” so people waiting in line can stay hydrated. 

5. Changes to in-person voting are being implemented to address long lines and reduce provisional voting

Georgia’s new law makes a few changes to in-person voting, including efforts to mitigate long lines and changing the rules around provisional ballots. 

If a voter goes to the wrong precinct in his or her county before 5 p.m., poll workers are supposed to direct that person to the correct precinct, rather than directing the voter to cast a provisional ballot. After 5 p.m., a voter arriving at the wrong polling site may cast a provisional ballot if unable to reach correct precinct before polls close.

In November, about 8,200 provisional ballots were cast because a voter wasn’t at his or her correct precinct. Nearly 6,800 of those votes were accepted. Overall, 17,697 provisional ballots were cast in the 2020 general election and 11,781 were accepted. 

The law also attempts to address long lines, demanding that counties with any precinct with over 2,000 voters in the last election or one that kept voters waiting for over an hour to vote must create an additional precinct or add more resources to reduce wait times. 

6. State election board will have new powers and won’t be chaired by the secretary of state

The five-person state election board will no longer be chaired by the secretary of state, who now becomes a “non voting ex officio member.” GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has been at the center of attacks by fellow Republicans for pushing back against attacks from former President Trump. 

The chair and board members will be elected by the General Assembly, giving more power to the Republican-controlled state legislature. But no members of the board may serve simultaneously in the state legislature. And while elected by the legislature, the chair is supposed to be non-partisan. The new law prohibits the chair from actively participating in a political party or organization, donating to a political campaign, or running for public office during his or her service and in the two years preceding the term as chair. 

The state election board has new powers over local election officials. It can, for instance,  suspend county or municipal superintendents based on performance or violation of election board rules, after first conducting a preliminary investigation and hearing. It may then appoint temporary replacements, but it can’t suspend more than four officials. 

7. Results are to be reported faster

CBS News didn’t project a winner in the presidential race in Georgia until 10 days after Election Day, partly because it took counties so long to count the massive influx of mail ballots. There are several new provisions in SB 202 that will likely lead to faster results in future elections. Because of the pandemic, the state election board passed an emergency rule in 2020 that enabled election workers to start processing absentee ballots 15 days before Election Day in November and the January runoffs.  

The new law codifies that change, meaning workers will be able to start processing, but not tabulating, absentee ballots 15 days before Election Day for future elections. County officials will be allowed to start tabulating absentee ballots after 7 a.m. on Election Day, but results can’t be reported until polls close. Counties must now report returns from absentee ballots by 5 p.m. the day after Election Day or else they could face an investigation. 

The new law also requires election officials to post the total number of ballots cast, including  Election Day, early voting and absentee ballots, by 10 p.m. on Election Day. The intent is to provide a clearer picture of how many votes were cast early in the counting process. Under the new law, election workers will not be able to stop counting ballots once they’ve started, so that they can produce faster results. With the new procedures comes a shorter timeline for counties to certify results: six days, rather than 10.

8. Voters may call a new hotline with complaints alleging voter intimidation or illegal activity

The new law allows the Georgia attorney general to set up a hotline for voters to file complaints and allegations of voter intimidation or illegal activity. Georgians may also call anonymously. The attorney general is able to review each allegation to determine if it should be investigated or prosecuted. 

Separately, a provision in SB 202 allows a voter to make unlimited challenges to another voter’s qualifications to cast a ballot.

Leading up to the 2020 election runoffs, True the Vote, a conservative group, challenged the eligibility of 360,000 voters, but courts blocked the effort. Allowing voters to make unlimited challenges may bog down election officials and could make it difficult for voters to prove they are eligible when they may have done nothing wrong. The state board of elections could establish procedures designed to make sure that illegitimate challenges don’t place a burden on legitimate voters. 

9. Runoff election period will be five weeks shorter

Following Georgia’s high-profile Senate runoffs, which delivered Senate control to Democrats, the state is changing its runoff process. The law still requires a candidate to win a majority of votes to avoid a runoff, but SB 202 abbreviates the runoff period. 

Previously, nine weeks separated the general election from the runoff, but the new law now requires a runoff to be held 28 days after the election. The law says early voting should start “as soon as possible” before a runoff, but only requires early voting to be held on Monday through Friday. Some counties may not offer weekend early voting during runoff elections, depending how long it takes to finish work from the previous election.

Because of the shorter period before a runoff election, military and overseas voters will have ranked-choice voting on their general election or primary ballots.   

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