— By Stephen Fowler, GPB News, March 27, 2021 —
Georgia has a new slate of voting laws after Gov. Brian Kemp signed SB 202, a 98-page omnibus bill, on Thursday.
The “Election Integrity Act of 2021” was passed out of the legislature on a party-line vote and makes a number of controversial changes to how elections are run in the state, but also many adjustments welcomed by local elections officials who were overwhelmed by record turnout and an unprecedented shift towards mail-in voting because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Because it is such a massive piece of legislation, proponents and opponents of the bill are focusing on different sections of the law — but there are many that voters might have missed.
Ultimately, Georgia voters will be impacted by most every change that is now in effect, so here is an extensive breakdown of how voters will be affected.
Changes to absentee voting
Mail-in absentee voting will look the most different for voters, especially after 1.3 million people used that method in the November general election. Voters over 65, with a disability, in the military or who live overseas will still be able to apply once for a ballot and automatically receive one the rest of an election cycle. But the earliest voters can request a mail-in ballot will be 11 weeks before an election instead of 180 days — less than half as much time.
The final deadline to complete an application is moved earlier, too. Instead of returning an application by the Friday before election day, SB 202 now backs it up to two Fridays before. Republican sponsors of the bill and local elections officials say this will cut down on the number of ballots rejected for coming in late because of the tight turnaround.
Counties will also begin mailing out absentee ballots about three weeks later than before, starting four weeks before the election.
Requesting and returning a ballot will also require new ID rules: either your driver’s license number, state ID number or, if you don’t have those, a copy of acceptable voter ID. The law also allows for applications to be returned online, after the Secretary of State’s office launched an online request portal using your driver’s license number or state ID number ahead of November’s general election.
Poll workers will use that information, plus your name, date of birth and address, to verify your identity, and you will sign an oath swearing that everything is correct. This is a change from recent procedure that would check your signature on the application with those on file.
State and local governments are no longer allowed to send unsolicited applications, and third-party groups that send applications have new rules to follow, too. Their applications must be clearly marked as being “NOT an official government publication” that it is “NOT a ballot,” and must clearly state which group is sending the blank request.
Plus, third-party groups are only allowed to send applications to voters who have not already requested or voted an absentee ballot. The groups potentially face a penalty for each duplicate sent.
The actual absentee ballot and envelopes will look different, as well. SB 202 requires absentee ballots to be printed on special security paper, and your precinct name will now be included along with precinct ID printed at the top. Once you fill out your choices by filling in the circles for your choices, you will place it in an envelope that will have your name, signature, driver’s license or state ID number (or last four digits of your Social Security number) and date of birth. The envelope will be designed so that sensitive personal information will be hidden once it is sealed.
Military and overseas voters will have an additional set of absentee ballots mailed to them with their regular ballots — ranked choice instant-runoff ballots. Georgia’s runoffs will now be four weeks long instead of nine weeks, but federal law requires ballots to those voters be sent out by 45 days before a federal election. So now, those voters will be given these ranked choice ballots, where they rank their choices for certain races in the event they head to a runoff, and send them back with their primary or general election ballots.
Secure absentee ballot drop boxes — which did not exist a year ago — are now officially part of state law, but not without some new changes. The law now requires all 159 counties to have at least one drop box, caps the number of boxes at one per 100,000 active voters or one for every early voting site (whichever is smaller) and moves them inside early voting sites instead of outside on government property. Additionally, the drop boxes will only be accessible during early voting days and hours instead of 24/7.
The State Election Board authorized drop boxes using the emergency rule process because of the coronavirus pandemic, and even that process is now being tweaked. The board must provide more notice of proposed emergency rules and has a much more limited scope in which it can enact those rules.
Changes to early voting
One of the biggest changes in the bill would expand early voting access for most counties, adding an additional mandatory Saturday and formally codifying Sunday voting hours as optional. Counties can have early voting open as long as 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at minimum. If you live in a larger metropolitan county, you might not notice a change. For most other counties, you will have an extra weekend day, and your weekday early voting hours will likely be longer.
Another new rule that affects both in-person early voting and election day voting would prohibit anyone except poll workers from handing out water to voters in line, and outlaw passing out food and water to voters within 150 feet of the building that serves as a poll, inside a polling place or within 25 feet of any voter standing in line. Depending on the location, it is still possible for third-party groups to have food and water available — and it is possible for the lines to extend beyond 150 feet.
During early voting, counties must publicly report daily how many people have voted in person, how many absentee ballots have been issued, returned, accepted and rejected. Early voting sites and times must be published publicly ahead of time.
For runoffs, things would be tighter: the law says early voting should start “as soon as possible” after a primary or general election, and requires in-person early voting the Monday through Friday before the election. This means counties may not be able to offer weekend early voting depending on how quickly it takes them to finish the first election and prepare for the second.
Changes to vote counting
A change local officials embrace is a section that allows them to begin processing, but not tabulating, absentee ballots starting two weeks before the election. There’s extra incentive to do so, by way of a new requirement that counties count all of the ballots nonstop as soon as polls close and finish by 5 p.m. the next day or potentially face investigation.
Plus, local officials are required to post and report the total number of ballots cast on election day, during early voting, via absentee voting and provisional ballots, all by 10:00 p.m. on election night, essentially providing the public with a denominator to understand the total possible votes out there as results trickle in.
Changes affecting local elections offices
In the 2020 election, many rural and urban counties received grant funding from philanthropic outlets such as the Center for Tech and Civic Life and the Schwarzenegger Institute. Under the new law, those elections offices could no longer directly receive funding. But the State Election Board is slated to propose a method to receive donations and distribute them equitably by October 2021.
Another change that was proposed last year and is now law would require large polling places with long lines to take action if wait times surpass an hour at certain times during the day. Those massive polls with more than 2,000 voters and wait times longer than an hour would have to hire more staff, add more workers or split up the precinct after that election. More than 1,500 of Georgia’s precincts have over 2,000 voters.
After the 2020 election cycle saw an influx of partisan poll watchers who sometimes interfered with vote counting, the GOP-backed bill requires poll watchers be trained before allowing them to work, and gives local officials the authority to set where those watchers can observe from.
Poll workers, in short supply for the June 2020 primary because of the pandemic, may now serve in adjoining counties.
Scanned ballot images will now be subject to public records disclosures, and the secretary of state’s office shall create a pilot program for posting those images online as well.
Changes affecting the State Election Board
While most Georgians don’t directly interact with the State Election Board, several changes made by the Republican legislature could have an impact on local elections offices.
The secretary of state will no longer chair the State Election Board, becoming instead a non-voting ex-officio member. The new chair would be nonpartisan but appointed by a majority of the state House and Senate. The chair would not be allowed to have been a candidate, participate in a political party organization or campaign or made campaign contributions for two years prior to being appointed.
The law also says the governor should appoint someone if the position becomes vacant when lawmakers are not in session.
Other changes to the State Election Board’s powers would give the board — and by extension, the legislature — more power to intervene in county elections boards that are deemed underperforming. In addition to the legislature-appointed chair, the five-member board is made up of one member appointed by the House, one appointed by the Senate and one each picked by the Democratic and Republican state parties.
There are other more intangible changes that will not directly impact how you vote. For example, the law says the Attorney General’s office shall have the authority to set up a hotline for people to file complaints about voter intimidation and “illegal election activities,” including anonymous tips. That section also says the AG’s office shall have the authority to review the complaints within three business days (or as “expeditiously as possible”) and determine if the complaint should be investigated.
The State Election Board and secretary of state’s office would not be allowed to enter into any settlement agreements for election lawsuits without notifying lawmakers first. New language for certain judicial vacancies or candidates who die before election day has been added and the legislature has reiterated the state should be part of a multi-state voter registration database.
In addition to the shortening of the runoff period, SB 202 would end so-called “jungle primary” special elections, requiring a special primary before a special election.
Because of the delays in the 2020 census, the law also allows some of the municipal boundary line redrawing to wait until after upcoming elections.