Last month, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger issued a press release announcing that he had certified the results of the U.S. Senate runoff elections held on January 5. He concluded it with a paean to his state’s voting laws. “Georgia is recognized as a national leader in elections,” he claimed. “It was the first state in the country to implement the trifecta of automatic voter registration, at least 16 days of early voting (which has been called the ‘gold standard’), and no-excuse absentee voting.”
He also touted the state’s high voter-turnout numbers, which served as a benchmark of success for the state electoral system itself. “Georgia continues to set records for voter turnout and election participation,” Raffensperger went on, “seeing the largest increase in average turnout of any other state in the 2018 midterm election and record turnout in 2020, with over 1.3 million absentee by-mail voters and over 3.6 million in-person voters utilizing Georgia’s new, secure, paper-ballot voting system.”
Naturally, a group of Republican state lawmakers now seek to end all that. Donald Trump and his allies spent the last three months trying to sue, pressure, and cajole state officials into somehow overturning his defeat there. At the same time, they sowed seeds of doubt in Republican voters’ minds about the result, convincing many of them that the Democratic victory in Georgia and other key states was illegitimate and stolen. Now they are set to reap the harvest: a wave of anti-voting legislation that will make it harder for groups that traditionally vote Democratic to cast a ballot in the future.
Georgia Public Broadcasting identified eight bills introduced by state senators in recent weeks that would rewrite the state election laws. Some of the proposals draw heavily upon right-wing conspiracy theories. One of them, Senate Bill 72, requires county registrars to obtain lists of deaths from coroners and funeral homes, presumably to identify dead voters for removal from the rolls. Conservative activists and outfits “reported” that the recently deceased had somehow cast ballots in the November election. These claims were often refuted not only by state and local officials but sometimes even by the voters themselves, who turned out to be very much alive.
Other bills, however, could have a major impact on how the state carries out its elections. Senate Bill 67, for example, would require absentee voters to provide an I.D. to apply for an absentee ballot. Senate Bill 71 would sharply narrow the categories of voters who can apply for an absentee ballot in the first place. Georgians who are 75 years old or older, have a physical disability, or fall into other minor categories would still be allowed to cast one. Everyone else would have to vote in person, either early or on Election Day if these bills become law. That would mark a dramatic shift from Georgia’s current system of no-excuse absentee voting, which roughly 1.3 million voters used in last year’s general election.
Other bills proposed by senators would create new pitfalls for Georgia voters. Senate Bill 69 would scrap the state’s automatic voter-registration system by no longer updating voters’ registration whenever they “obtain, renew, or change” their driver’s license information. Instead, they would have to opt in to the system. It’s hard to see a fraud-based justification for the move, since a first-time driver’s license applicant in Georgia generally provides a host of documents to prove their identity, including their Social Security number and proof of U.S. citizenship. The best explanation may be the most straightforward one: The bill’s co-sponsors simply want fewer Georgians registered and able to vote.
As Georgia Public Broadcasting noted, many of the bills’ co-sponsors spread misinformation about the general election on Trump’s behalf over the past few months. Some even filed briefs in favor of Texas’s attempt to get the Supreme Court to throw out electoral votes for President Joe Biden. Other backers are more circumspect. “I want every legal vote counted, and I want better access for all voters,” Georgia State Senator Butch Miller, who co-sponsored some of the bills, told the Associated Press. “Accusing our reform efforts of suppression is a political tactic, pure and simple. Even those of us who never claimed that the election was stolen recognize that the electorate has lost confidence in the legitimacy of the system.”
This is a pretty convenient explanation. There is, of course, no substantive proof of fraud or misconduct in Georgia’s general election results. Raffensperger ordered a statewide audit and recount of more than five million paper ballots that produced a slight net gain of votes for Trump but did not seriously alter the outcome of the presidential race. At the Trump campaign’s request, the state also conducted a recount of the machine results, which confirmed Biden’s victory yet again. And though their partisan affiliation shouldn’t matter, Georgia’s elections are overseen by a Republican governor and a Republican secretary of state.
But Republicans at the state and national level, insisting that something had to be amiss, sought action to correct this false perception. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s most fervent supplicants, called Raffensperger to inquire about whether he could throw out an entire county’s absentee ballots. Trump himself also pressed Georgia’s secretary of state by phone to alter the results in his favor. “All I want to do is this: I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have, because we won the state,” Trump told Raffensperger, suggesting that his political future might be at risk if he didn’t help. Maybe the real voter fraud was inside them all along.
So when a Republican elected official says that they have to act because “the electorate has lost confidence in the legitimacy of the system,” they elide that it was Republicans themselves who baselessly undermined confidence in the electoral system. The result is a Republican voter base that’s primed to support restrictive voting measures that will make it easier for the GOP to win elections. As I noted last month, state GOP leaders have already started considering ways to tilt the Electoral College even further in their favor through gerrymandering. This energy will also likely galvanize Republicans in Congress to oppose a new Voting Rights Act if Democrats move forward with it this year.
This problem isn’t limited to Georgia. GOP lawmakers in multiple states are introducing bills that would suppress turnout and throw up new barriers between the electorate and the ballot box. But Georgia may still be the best example of what’s really driving these proposed changes. Republicans aren’t sincerely concerned that Democrats will steal the next election; they’re worried that they’ll simply win it.