Why the Georgia Voting Bill Is Bad
Monday morning, I wrote a piece for New York magazine explaining Major League Baseball’s decision-making process in pulling the All-Star Game from Georgia in the wake of that state’s legislature passing its massive overhaul of its voting process. The point of the piece was to point out that MLB’s decision was not made because it had become “woke,” but was instead because it made a bottom-line, even dispassionate decision. One point I did not feel needed repeating was that the bill itself was bad.
It does appear it needed repeating. It has become an article of faith among defenders of the bill — or, more to the point, those trying to argue that MLB and other corporations lashing back against the bill are somehow part of “cancel culture,” an argument that, depressingly, is being made by the Governor of Georgia, who signed the bill — that it doesn’t not actually do all the thing its detractors say it does and that, in fact, is no big deal at all. This default stance has been parroted constantly: How does this bill make it harder for Black people to vote? Quit calling everything racist.
In an ideal world, a world in which all political and social constructs were debated in the public square, a grand salon of fair-minded discourse, and you could accept all arguments as being made in good faith by good-faith actors, we could have a straight-up discussion about each aspect of the bill. But that is not what is happening. As The Bulwark’s Jonathan V. Last put it, “the right has defended every single aspect of the Georgia law, totally and completely. There has been no admission that this or that part of it might be pernicious. Instead of grappling with the portions of the law that are not good, the right first pivoted to complaining about the media. Then the right went into victim mode attacking the corporations who politely and legally expressed their views of the new law. And finally the right is seeking to use the levers of government to punish those corporations for expressing their views of the new law.”
It is true that there has been some overstatement about some aspects of the law from the left. As Slate’s Will Saletan pointed out, the bill actually does expand voting access for some citizens, though it’s perhaps not a coincidence that the “expansion” appears limited to rural counties. Whether it’s fair to call it a “modern-day Jim Crow” is a discussion I’ll leave to those more concerned with such specific semantics.
But the notion that this is just a simple little bill, put together by some good-hearted, just-checkin’-the-tires-and-making-sure-the-clocks-are-running-on-time Republicans in the Georgia legislature is absurd on its face. The idea that this law can be separated from its context — the context that the former President of the United States, after losing his election, became uniquely obsessed with Georgia, to the point that he called multiple state officials, including the Governor and Secretary of State, and ultimately sowed enough doubt and paranoia about his Big Lie that thousands of armed insurrectionists stormed the Capitol on January 6, you know, that context— is to pretend that we all just woke up this morning with our minds wiped clean, Men in Black style. If Georgia had not been so close, and had the former President not lost his mind trying to “find votes” so much that Georgia vote counters and officials were getting death threats, there is zero chance this legislation would have ever existed in the first place. As The Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted:
There’s always a reason that legislation is introduced, always some problem that lawmakers say needs to be addressed in the moment. In Georgia, there is no rational motivation for the passage of its new election law other than demonstrating fealty to the false claims elevated by Trump. Why did [former Secretary of State Brad] Raffensperger need to be replaced on the elections board now? Why did the rules governing absentee applications need to be tightened now, only a few months after an election in which repeated review and extensive scrutiny showed no improprieties had occurred? Once you accept the obvious answer to those questions, it’s awfully difficult to assume that the changes presented in the new law were simply good faith efforts to streamline the state’s election process.
It’s the fundamental question here: If this bill is really no big deal, if it just evens up with what other states have (an argument that is inevitably cherry-picked, as if finding a state like New York or Oregon that has an individual aspect of the law that the new Georgia one shares can possibly be separated from the long history of voter suppression in Georgia, not to mention the immediate context of Trump’s claims), what was the urgency here to pass it so quickly? Why are the defenses of it so rabid? Why is it the first thing the Georgia legislature had to do after the election?
The answer is, as Bump puts it, partly to appease Trump. But the idea of the bill itself is anodyne and innocent, and that activists and corporations are overreacting to it, is also wrong. The bill also does what it is supposed to do: It makes it more likely that Republicans will win elections in a state that has been slipping through their fingers … just in time for a 2022 cycle that will feature races for U.S. Senate (Democrat Raphael Warnock must defend his seat) and Kemp’s Governorship itself. This has been lost in the conversation. There is actual substance here.
Here’s what it does. Here’s why it’s bad:
- Shorter time for runoff elections. The Georgia runoffs changed the whole scope of this political cycle: It’s very likely there’s no stimulus bill without the runoff elections of Warnock and Jon Ossoff. So, of course, the Georgia legislature slashed the amount of time between a general election from nine weeks to four weeks, just a few years after they increased it to allow military and overseas residents to get their votes in. The reasoning? Their claim is that the long timeframe was “exhausting,” which, as a Georgia resident who was overwhelmed with political ads and mailings during that time, I do understand. But the fact that Warnock and Ossoff would have both lost had it not been for mail-in ballots is obviously not a coincidence.
- Requesting a ballot now requires “driver’s license number, state ID number or … a copy of acceptable voter ID.” This is one of those “hey, just trying to set best practices” pretend solutions for a problem that does not exist. It’s easy for you, fellow white person, or me to say, “hey, seems fair, have an ID to vote.” We have IDs handy! But there is zero question that handy, accessible IDs are disproportionately held and available by white, well-to-do individuals than historically underprivileged ones. A University of Georgia study showed that “multivariate models show that African Americans, Hispanics, and the elderly are less likely to have a DMV-issued photo ID.” This also, again, ignores the fact that no widespread fraud was found in the last election, and thus no sudden problem that requiring an ID needs to solve. It’s just a way to make voting harder for Black people … aka, the people who decided those Georgia elections in Democrats’ favors.
- The state board of elections can step in if they find voting “irregularities.” What makes an irregularity? Considering there was no evidence any actual irregularities during the last election, it sure looks like it consists of “a result that the ruling party is unhappy with.” Not surprisingly, this mostly involves primarily Black counties, particularly Atlanta’s Fulton County, which was the decisive county in the November and January elections. The State Election Board, controlled by Republicans, can now intervene in county elections, with county supervisors, whenever it wants. And guess what county they’re keeping an eye out on?
And that’s the point: Whether these measures are successful in suppressing Black voters or not, that is, obviously, their intent. And that’s all that matters.
I live in Georgia, and I love it here. One of the things I love about it is how rapidly it’s changing, how a whole state is transforming and modernizing itself right in front of everyone, in real time. You can see the future of Georgia; it’s beginning to look a lot like its present. But I also hear all the time, from people who have lived here for years and have a vested interest in keeping it the way it has always been: “This is a Republican state. 2020 was the aberration. It will go back to normal after this election.” I don’t think that’s true, and I think their “normal” is one that is specific to them, and inherently regressive. But one thing is for certain: They’re trying to keep it a Republican state, on the backs of the Black voters who are in the midst of a decade’s long battle to change that. You can agree with the bill, or you can not agree with the bill. But the notion that it doesn’t change anything, that it doesn’t matter, that activists are making a big deal out of nothing … it’s fallacy. It’s a huge deal. The fight over it is a real one. And it’s a fight worth having.
Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel How Lucky, released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.