Georgia’s six-month-old election reform law will see its first major test in the coming weeks as voters across the state head to the polls for municipal elections.

Many of the provisions in the Election Integrity Act of 2021 will serve as the first wake-up call for many voters who until now hadn’t given much more than a passing glance to the acrimonious partisan dustup that led to the new law.

“There are probably a lot of voters who may be surprised when they discover that what they were able to do in 2020 is no longer available to them,” veteran political observer Charles Bullock told Atlanta Civic Circle. Bullock is the Distinguished University Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia.

As of July, at least 18 states had enacted 30 laws that restrict access to voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. In March, Georgia became the first state to pass an election reform law that critics say makes it harder for people to vote. While many states like Florida, Texas and Arizona have similar features in their laws, Georgia’s is believed to be among the most extensive.

But Georgia’s election chief insists the new law provides plenty of ways to access the ballot box.”

“Georgia’s election system provides numerous ways for Georgians to cast a ballot,” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told Atlanta Civic Circle in a prepared statement.

“The new legislation expands early voting, maintains no-excuse absentee ballot voting and makes absentee ballot drop boxes a permanent part of Georgia’s election law,” Raffensperger noted. “The Georgia legislature took concrete steps to tackle long lines and put in realistic deadlines for absentee ballot requests. Bottom line: Georgia voters have plenty of ways to access the ballot box.”

(Under the new law, the Secretary of State no longer heads the State Elections Board. That role now goes to a nonpartisan appointee based on a majority vote of the state House and Senate.)

Voting rights groups take issue with Raffensperger’s assessment.

“The biggest challenge is going to be for people who want to vote absentee and don’t want to go in-person,” civil rights activist Helen Butler told Atlanta Civic Circle. Butler is executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda.

Georgia’s new law will serve as a “learning curve” for the 2022 midterm elections, Bullock said.

If you’re one of those last-minute absentee ballot voters, you’re out of luck this year. Absentee ballot applications must now be turned in 11 days before elections. Previously, people had until the Friday before Election Day to turn in applications. Absentee ballots are now due by the close of polls on election day. This hurts people who unexpectedly get sick or must travel out of town on Election Day and can’t do early voting, voting rights experts say.

And you’ll need a scanner or access to a copying service in order to provide the identification required to get an absentee ballot this year. This is an undue burden on the elderly, the poor, and rural residents, Butler said.

“How many people have a copier at their house? How many old people are going to be able to copy their ID and upload it on an email and send it in with their absentee ballot?” Butler added.

That curbside drop box near your house that you used last year to deposit your ballot is most likely gone or moved inside now. 

Voters in Douglas County, for instance, had access to 11 external drop boxes during last year’s election. Under the new law, there’s only one and it’s inside the county election’s office and only available during election office hours, Douglas County Elections Director Milton Kidd told Atlanta Civic Circle.

These may seem like mere annoyances but voting rights experts told Atlanta Civic Circle these kinds of hurdles could discourage people from voting in this year’s municipal elections. Municipal races historically already have lower voter turnout than presidential or midterm elections.

“It’s gonna be more cumbersome and more burdensome for the voter,” Butler said. It also means nonprofits such as Butler’s Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda “will have to devote more resources to turn people out to ensure that they know the process.”

People’s Agenda used to “get people’s (absentee ballot) applications and fax them in and email them in” once people filled them out. Now Butler says that “is limited to your immediate family member or your caretaker.”

While not as attention-grabbing as presidential elections (unless perhaps you’re voting in Atlanta’s mayoral race), municipal races are no less important. 

“Local elections impact your life more so than federal elections,” Butler said. “If you want your street paved. If you want something zoned. That’s done by your local city council and government. It’s nothing with, you know your taxes, it’s all determined Your home taxes and where your businesses can be located is determined by your local elected officials. Your school is determined by your local school board.

Your sheriff and police are all local and determine what kind of laws, policies and procedures you follow. So it’s critical that you get people that represent your interest.”

The municipal elections will give voters, voting rights groups and elections officials statewide their first glimpse of the new law in action.

 The November 2 election – and the weeks leading up to it – also will

serve as a “learning curve” for the 2022 midterm elections. Bullock said.

“Some election officials may look at it and say ‘Well, here’s what we need to do between now and next summer to make it go more smoothly.”

At the same time, critics of the new law may use any mishaps in the November elections to their advantage in planning for the 2022 midterms, Bullock said. 

”The critics may say, ‘Okay, So this was a stumbling block. So looking to 2022, we need to alert our supporters to be prepared for this.” 

Voting rights attorney Julie Houk says counties where there has been little effort to educate voters about the new law will face the biggest hurdles. Houk is managing counsel for election protection at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The organization represents several grassroots and civil rights groups in lawsuits against the new law.

“You’re going to have lots of voters who are going to be surprised with these new changes,” Houk said. “There are efforts by nonpartisan groups and others to get the information out to voters but, you know, in 159 counties across the state that’s a daunting task.”

Key provisions to be aware of when voting now under Georgia’s Election Integrity Act:

  • County election officials can no longer accept private donations to help run their elections.
  • There’s a shorter time to apply and turn in absentee ballots.
  • There’s a shorter time period for the runoff which could make it tough for people such as out-of-state college students to be able to request and turn in ballots on time.
  • Absentee ballot applications must now be turned in 11 days before the elections. Previously, people had until the Friday before Election Day to turn in those applications. The absentee ballots are now due by the close of polls on election day. This hurts people who unexpectedly get sick or must travel out of town on Election Day and can’t do early voting.
  • Anyone providing food or drinks to voters waiting in line face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Only poll workers are allowed to do so now.
  • Going to the wrong precinct can be an exhaustive ordeal now. You will not get a provisional ballot if you go to the wrong precinct before 5 p.m. Voters must go to their proper precinct, which can be cumbersome in traffic-laden metro areas of the state. Rural voters meanwhile face having to travel miles to get to the correct precinct. Before, voters who went to the wrong precinct could get a provisional ballot to vote in races they were entitled to vote in.

Want to learn more about political parties or candidates in Georgia?

Get smart at votesmart.org

Facing voting or other election problems?

Call toll-free 1-866 OUR VOTE (687-8683)

Want to register an election-related complaint with the state?

File your complaint online here.

What to do if you see a violation of Georgia’s new Election Integrity Act?

Call the Voter Fraud Hotline at 877 725-9797

Need a ride to the polls?

Call 877 524-8683

How can I get involved?

Here are some organizations:

Black Voters Matter

Democratic Party of Georgia

Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO)

Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda

Georgia Republican Party

League of Women Voters

Georgia NAACP

New Georgia Project

Where and when can you vote?

Georgia Secretary of State

Electionprotection.org

Your local county election board or for municipal elections, your local city clerk’s office.

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