The Truth About Georgia’s Voter Law

Georgia’s law unethically constricts the fundamental rights of democracy based on a lie. It’s drawn criticism from politicians and corporations that veers from righteous indignation to incoherence.

An illustration of an X with peaches.
Getty / Adam Maida / The Atlantic

What can we honestly say about the new Georgia voting-rights law? The legislation is based on a craven conspiracy theory about 2020 voter fraud. It has drawn a barrage of criticism from Democrats, including the president, that toes the line between moral indignation and unhelpful hyperbole. And it has triggered a spasm of corporate activism that seems ethical but is, the closer you look at it, scattershot.

If that paragraph feels a bit incoherent, it’s because the fiasco surrounding the Georgia law is enveloped in incoherence.

It starts with the law’s reason for being. After the November election, Donald Trump insisted that he lost Georgia (among other states) because of widespread voter fraud, an accusation that melted on contact with reality before it dissolved in the legal system. Still, many Republican legislators seemed to agree with the former president—or at least seemed to sense that their voters agreed with him—and directed their ire toward absentee ballots used by 1.3 million Georgians. This year, the Georgia General Assembly passed a law meant to address this harmful conspiracy theory.

Democracy is complicated, but voting should be simple. You register; you get a ballot by mail or at a polling station; you check a box and deliver the ballot; your vote is counted. While the Georgia law isn’t all bad, it complicates almost every step in the voting process, especially for absentee voters.

Under the new law, registration is harder: An ID rule requires absentee voters to provide the number of their driver’s license or an equivalent state-issued ID. Formerly, they could just sign their name on the application. Requesting a ballot is harder too: Georgians had six months to request an absentee ballot in 2020; with the new law, they have only about three months. And delivering a ballot is harder: The law slashes the number of drop boxes in several urban and suburban areas; metro Atlanta, for instance, had 94 in 2020 but will have only 23 going forward. (Conservatives argue that the law requires drop boxes for the first time, and Democratic counties in Georgia will likely have more drop boxes than they did in 2016. But Georgia Republicans are straightforwardly making it harder to vote absentee just months after Trump falsely accused these ballots of being the source of a voter-fraud fantasy.)

For in-person voters, the Georgia law isn’t as restrictive. Most important, it expands early-voting periods. But the law does little else to reduce Georgia’s infamous long queues, and it even has a strange provision that outlaws offering water to a voter within 25 feet of the line or 150 feet from the polling station. Altogether, the law makes absentee voting harder, funneling citizens toward in-person voting that, on Election Day, may be a bit more parched and a bit more painful.

The most ominous provision of the law affects the final step in the voting process: the official count. The new law removes the Georgia secretary of state as chair of the State Election Board and allows the GOP-controlled legislature to handpick his replacement. “This issue is potentially pernicious,” Richard Hasen, a law and political-science professor at UC Irvine, told me. “The reason you didn’t have a total meltdown in Georgia last year is because you had a heroic secretary of state and a group of election administrators behind him who were not willing to mess with the fair counting of the vote. If this law had passed, there would have been other decision makers who would have had power to mess with the vote.”

I asked several experts if this provision would have made it easier for Trump to steal the state in 2020. “I don’t think we have any way of knowing,” Hasen said. “It’s an imponderable,” agreed the University of Georgia political scientist Charles S. Bullock III. “Could the GOP-selected chair throw out ballots that have already been tabulated, or turn away people from the polls? I don’t know how it would play out, but it would be very difficult to do, and there would be a court case.”

The uncertainty itself is a troubling thing. Across the country, Republican-controlled state legislatures are politicizing the process of voting administration in the aftermath of a close election in which the GOP loser convinced a majority of his supporters that it was stolen by Democratic fraud. That’s plenty eerie.

Does any of this actually matter? Some analysts have argued that the outrage is much ado about nothing. An analysis of voter-ID laws since 2000 found that these provisions have “no negative effect on registration or turnout” overall, or for any race, gender, or age group. The New York Times has reported that “making voting convenient doesn’t necessarily translate into more votes, research shows.” This may be, in part, because voter suppression triggers voter-mobilization efforts that overcome that suppression.

Before I bring in some liberal analysis for criticism, I want to plant a flag here. I am against voting restrictions like Georgia’s, no matter what research says about the past effects of similar laws. Consider this analogy: Imagine if every week, I put on a mask and steal an item from somebody leaving the Trader Joe’s by my building in Washington, D.C. (Bear with me here.) The grocery staff, recognizing its bandit problem, responds with a policy that allows my victims to grab a replacement item from the store for free. One year later, a sociologist studying the “D.C. bandit effect” finds, on net, no effect, since all my stolen bananas and frozen pizzas were replaced by the store. The New York Times writes it up: “Neighborhood theft doesn’t necessarily translate into social harm, research shows.” Technically accurate? Sure. But a thief is a thief, and theft is worth discouraging no matter what an econometrics paper has to say.

This is perhaps a long-winded way of making a simple point: Limitations on voting rights in a democracy, especially those based on a conspiracy theory, are just plain wrong.

But Democrats are accusing this unethical law of graver sins than plain wrongness. They’re accusing Georgia Republicans of bringing back the Jim Crow era. To bolster their case, they’re misrepresenting the truth.

President Joe Biden has called the law “Jim Crow on steroids” and has falsely suggested that it mandates ending voting hours early. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has seemed to double down on these misleading accusations. (During the expanded early-voting period, the law requires that polling stations are open, at a minimum, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Biden claimed that these minimums were actually maximums that outlawed casting a ballot after 5 p.m.) Comparisons to Jim Crow have become commonplace among liberal critics, who are drawing historical connections between the law’s restrictions and America’s history of violently segregating Black Americans and systematically denying their suffrage.

Political hyperbole is neither sin nor modern invention. But suggesting that the Georgia provisions are a steroidal version of poll taxes, literacy tests, whites-only primaries, armed sheriffs patrolling voting lines, and outright domestic terrorism is not helpful. “There’s no doubt about it: This new law does not make it easier to vote,” Bullock said. “But I hear it being billed as Jim Crow 2.0, and it’s really not anywhere near that. This law does not compare to the cataclysms of the white primary or poll taxes.”

As Delaware’s former senator, Biden would be on firmer ground excoriating Georgia for “Jim Crow 2.0” if he could hold up his home state as a model for voting rights. But Delaware has been a laggard on early voting, and its legislature is still trying to legalize no-excuse absentee voting, which allows any voter to request a mail-in ballot. Georgia, by contrast, permits many weeks of early voting and has allowed no-excuse absentee voting since 2005. Voting-rights activists may justifiably focus their outrage on a swing state like Georgia that, unlike Delaware, actually determines the balance of power. But “Jim Crow” rhetoric from northeastern politicians and media figures loses some bite when we consider that Georgia’s voting rights have long been more accommodating than those of deep-blue states including not only Delaware, but also Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York.

Voting-rights activism, hyperbolic or not, has been effective so far. Several large companies have publicly criticized the law, including Delta Air Lines, Georgia’s largest employer; Coca-Cola; and others. Major League Baseball announced that it would move its All-Star Game and draft out of Atlanta, possibly to spare its players several months of having to answer post-game questions about absentee-voter restrictions.

As a matter of punishing states for moving in the wrong direction on election law, or of deterring states from passing rules with discriminatory intent, these corporate decisions are commendable. As a broader matter of identifying and punishing bad election rules wherever they may be, they’re inconsistent. Baseball’s headquarters and Hall of Fame are in New York, which has “abysmal election administration,” Hasen said. He added that if New York “were a southern Republican state, there would be protests and calls for businesses to boycott [the state], because it’s that terrible. But it’s a blue state, so you don’t see that.” Granted, the difference in reception may also arise from the fact that New York’s shortcomings tend to flow from mere incompetence and neglect rather than a direct reaction to Trumpist conspiracy.

Extreme and inconsistent rhetoric hasn’t been limited to the Democratic side of the aisle. Senator Mitch McConnell, for instance, has threatened “consequences” for companies like Delta and Coca-Cola that punish states like Georgia. This is ridiculous too. With Citizens United v. FEC and similar cases, conservatives fought for the rights of companies to speak with their money. Now they’re objecting to the rights of businesses to speak with their business. The fundamental facts of modern capitalism haven’t changed in the age of so-called woke capital: Companies responding to social-justice campaigns are just acting, as they always will, to accommodate employees and maximize long-term cash flow. Fluctuating currencies, fluctuating tax rates, fluctuating outrage cycles—these are all mere appearances in corporate consciousness. Activists have learned this lesson, and it’s taught them to harness the attention spans of chief executives when they have to. Just as politicians know they can entice companies with tax subsidies to move business into a state, activists know they can entice companies with moral suasion to move business out of a state. We are staring at a novel nexus of politics and capitalism, and everybody should probably just get used to it.

This is what we’ve learned from the Georgia voting-rights fiasco: Corporations are still corporations, the White House’s metaphors are overheated, and the Georgia legislation is far worse. Democrats’ rhetorical embellishments pale in comparison to both the voting-fraud conspiracy theory that inspired Georgia Republicans and the needless provisions of the law itself. Lurking beneath all this confusion and incoherence is a basic partisan difference: GOP activism is about making it harder to vote; Democratic activism is about making it harder to make it harder to vote. If that is the choice before us, I for one know which box I’m prepared to check.