SB 202, Georgia’s restrictive new voting law, explained

Table of Contents The most important provisions in the Georgia bill are about who gets…

Georgia’s new voting law, signed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday night, is a small-d democrat’s nightmare.

The bill, known as SB 202, gives state-level officials the authority to usurp the powers of county election boards — allowing the Republican-dominated state government to potentially disqualify voters in Democratic-leaning areas. It criminalizes the provision of food and water to voters waiting in line, in a state where lines are notoriously long in heavily nonwhite precincts. It requires ID for absentee ballots and limits the placement of ballot drop boxes.

Coming on the heels of President Trump’s potentially illegal campaign to pressure Georgia’s election officials into flipping the state into his column, the intent of the bill is clear: to wrest a state that’s increasingly trending blue back toward Republicans.

“This is anti-democratic,” says Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. “It literally tries to undermine the one-person, one-vote principle that is at the core of democracy.”

SB 202 will almost certainly make elections less fair, giving the GOP a structural advantage well outsize to its actual strength among Georgia voters. It doesn’t signal the end of democracy in Georgia, but it is the latest significant step in the Republican Party’s move toward becoming an anti-democratic political faction.

The Georgia law is part of a broader wave of GOP efforts, at the state and national level, to undermine the fairness of American elections. What happened in Georgia reveals the true face of the modern Republican Party: a far-right institution that threatens American democracy even after Trump’s defeat.

The most important provisions in the Georgia bill are about who gets to run elections

The most significant provisions in SB 202 don’t create new election rules, exactly. Instead, they change who gets to determine how those rules are implemented — handing significant power to the Republicans who control the state legislature, called the General Assembly.

“One of the worst aspects of the bill is the part making election administration even more partisan,” says Rick Hasen, an election law expert at UC Irvine. “That’s a move in exactly the wrong direction.”

Under current law, key issues in election management — including decisions on disqualifying ballots and voter eligibility — are made by county boards of election. The new law allows the State Board of Elections to determine that these county boards are performing poorly, replacing the entire board with an administrator chosen at the state level.

At the same time, the bill enhances the General Assembly’s control over the state board.

It removes Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who famously stood up to Trump’s attempts to overturn the election results in Georgia, from his role as both chair and voting member of the board. The new chair would be appointed by the legislature, which already appoints two members of the five-person board — meaning that a full majority of the board will now be appointed by the Republican-dominated body.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
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To simplify: The state board, which now will be fully controlled by the Republican legislative majority, is unilaterally empowered to take over (among other things) the process of disqualifying ballots across the state. Given that Georgia Republicans have helped promote false allegations of voter fraud, it’s easy to see why handing them so much power over local election authorities is so worrying.

The greatest area of concern here for Democrats is Fulton County, home to Atlanta and a disproportionate number of Black voters. Republicans have baselessly alleged that this Democratic bastion was a major site of fraud, citing (among other things) a purported video of ballot-stuffing in the county. Though official investigations, court cases, and independent fact-checks found no evidence of such fraud — in the video or otherwise — the myth that it happened persists.

The new bill would allow Republicans to seize control of how elections are administered in Fulton County and other heavily Democratic areas, disqualifying voters and ballots as they see fit.

“I think the provision for state takeover of local election processes is a natural choice for a party whose election policy is driven by Trump’s ‘big lie,’” Josh McLaurin, a Democratic representative in the Georgia House of Representatives, tells me, referring to Trump’s baseless claims that the election was stolen. “By centralizing control over those processes, Republicans make their own manipulation easier while also removing a principal barrier to their lies.”

The Georgia bill’s other key provisions, explained

While the changes to election administration are the most troubling provisions in SB 202, they are far from the only significant changes to the state’s laws.

One attention-grabbing section prohibits “the giving of any money or gifts, including, but not limited to, food and drink, to an elector…within 25 feet of any voter standing in line to vote at any polling place.” In effect, this means that it is now illegal in Georgia to provide food and water to people waiting in line to vote.

Observers were quick to note that in 2020, many voters had to wait in hours-long lines to vote, especially in heavily Black areas. This is a real and long-running problem: One study of the 2018 elections found that, nationwide, voters in low-income and minority communities had to wait in longer lines than voters in wealthier and whiter areas. The longest lines in the country, according the study, were in Fulton County.

This is a problem of the Georgia GOP’s making. As Georgia’s population has grown in the past few years, particularly in Democratic-leaning areas, the Republicans who control state elections have cut the number of polling places statewide by 10 percent. And now it’s illegal for people to bring food and water to help the voters who wait in these artificially long lines.

Other notable provisions in the bill include:

  • Allowing any individual Georgian citizen to file an unlimited number of challenges to the eligibility of particular voters, effectively increasing the number of opportunities for newly centralized election authorities to exercise their powers to disqualify Democrats
  • Imposing new limitations on ballot drop boxes that effectively ban their widespread deployment outside of a governor-declared emergency
  • Applies voter ID laws to mail-in ballots by requiring voters to submit their driver’s license or state ID number as part of their vote-by-mail application. If they have neither number, they need to submit a photocopy or electronic image of an acceptable form of identification (e.g., a passport).
  • Creating a fraud hotline that allows people to anonymously complain about allegedly fraudulent behavior at the polls

When you put all of that together, it’s fairly clear what this bill is designed to do: create barriers to voting that are most likely to affect voters who don’t have the time and resources to navigate them. In Georgia, as in most places, that’s low-income and minority voters — two disproportionately Democratic groups.

“It’s Jim Crow in a suit and tie,” writes Stacey Abrams, a voting rights advocate and the 2018 Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia. “Cutting off access, adding restrictions, encouraging more ‘show me your papers’ actions to challenge a citizen’s right to vote [is] facially neutral but racially targeted.”

SB 202 is part of a nationwide GOP effort to undermine democracy

It would be one thing if the Georgia bill were a standalone: an aberration that reflects the agenda of one particularly brazen state Republican Party. But it’s not: Across the country, Republican statehouses are working to stack the electoral deck in their favor.

The Brennan Center, a nonpartisan institute focused on voting rights, has been tracking the spread of new voting restrictions across the country. As of February 19, the last time its data was updated, there were more than 250 bills under consideration in statehouses that would limit access to the ballot box. That’s “over seven times the number of restrictive bills as compared to roughly this time last year,” according to Brennan’s calculations.

Not all of these bills are equally damaging. Historically, both parties benefit from mail-in voting in non-pandemic conditions; restricting it, while clearly undemocratic, might not help Republicans too much in the 2022 midterms. The evidence on the impact of voter ID laws on turnout is somewhat mixed.

But the parts of the Georgia bill mostly likely to affect election outcomes — the partisan power grab over actual electoral administration — are far from unique.

“Nationwide, Republican lawmakers in at least eight states controlled by the party are angling to pry power over elections from secretaries of state, governors and nonpartisan election boards,” the New York Times’s Nick Corasaniti reports. A few of his examples:

In Arizona, Republicans are pushing for control over the rules of the state’s elections. In Iowa, the G.O.P. has installed harsh new criminal penalties for county election officials who enact emergency voting rules. In Tennessee, a Republican legislator is trying to remove a sitting judge who ruled against the party in an election case.

This surge in voting restrictions is clearly motivated by Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 elections. It’s now an article of faith among Trump supporters, who make up a majority of the GOP primary electorate, that the election was stolen from him. Republican legislators at the state level are pushing legislation that’s designed both to appeal to these voters and to cement their own power.

But at the same time, the Republican use of state-level power to give themselves a leg up long predates Trump.

President-Elect Joe Biden Campaigns For Georgia Senate Candidates Ossoff And Warnock

Stacey Abrams.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Take the last round of redistricting, after the 2010 census. That year’s midterm election swept Republicans to power in statehouses across the country; the party’s legislators used the conjunction of these victories and federally mandated redistricting to embark on a systematic campaign of extreme gerrymandering. Their new lines, with few parallels in Democratic-controlled states, gave it a profoundly unfair leg up in state and House elections in swing states like Wisconsin and North Carolina.

There is a reason that a 2019 survey of political scientists found that the GOP’s closest peers abroad are not normal center-right parties, like Canada’s CPC or Germany’s CDU, but rather extreme anti-democratic parties like Turkey’s AKP or Poland’s PiS. The GOP is a radical right faction that increasingly sees its opposition as fundamentally illegitimate, and is willing to abuse its political power to lock them out.

This kind of democratic backsliding, where an established political party works to degrade the fairness and quality of the electoral system, is not unique internationally. But the GOP’s strategy for implementing it is particularly American.

The party takes advantage of our federalized electoral system to tilt elections at the local level, creating pockets of electoral unfairness in an otherwise free system, giving them a significant leg up. It simultaneously uses the many veto points available to them at the national level — including the filibuster and control over the Supreme Court — to prevent Democrats from doing anything about it when they do manage to overcome these barriers.

The obvious parallel in American history, as people like Abrams note, is Jim Crow — voting laws in Southern states that effectively blocked Black voters from casting ballots. To be clear, the current Georgia system is nowhere near as restrictive as the way things worked in the pre-civil rights South.

But scholars who study that period still think the current bill should trouble anyone committed to democracy, in part because (unlike Jim Crow) it represents a coherent national Republican approach to voting issues rather than the interests of one sectional faction.

“What worries me most in this voter suppression package is the ability of the state to overwhelm county election boards in counting/certification of the count,” says Rob Mickey, a political scientist and the author of Paths Out of Dixie (a study of authoritarianism in the Jim Crow South). “This in GA, and nationally, is the scariest part of the nexus between state-level Republicans’ long-standing (since ~2000) attack on voting around the county and the spasm of response to the 2020 presidential election.”

What we are seeing in Georgia is democratic backsliding, American-style. And it won’t be the last attempt we’ll see.

Correction, March 26: An earlier version of this article misstated the manner in which SB202 applies Georgia’s voter ID law to mail-in ballot applications. Photographic proof of ID is only necessary as part of the application if the voter lacks a state ID number or driver’s license ID number, not in all cases.