On March 25, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed a sweeping election law that includes measures to impose stricter identification requirements for absentee voting, limit the number of ballot drop boxes, shift oversight of elections to the legislature from the secretary of state, and empower the state’s Board of Elections with far-reaching jurisdiction over county election boards.
ASD Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine, who previously served as Elections Director of Ada County, Idaho, answers questions about how this legislation will impact the way Georgia elections are administered and secured.
Proponents of Georgia’s election bill say that it is necessary to strengthen the integrity of the state’s elections, while opponents have argued that it will make voter participation more difficult. How will the legislation impact voter access?
It is a mixed bag. While there are some good things, such as expanded in-person early voting access for most counties, too often the new Georgia legislation is a solution in search of a problem.
Let us take the legislation’s language on ballot drop boxes, which are now officially part of state law, but not before unduly onerous restrictions were put in place. For example, while all 159 counties are now required to have at least one drop box, they cannot have more than one per 100,000 active voters or one for every early voting site (whichever one is smaller). This is at odds with guidance from the United States Election Assistance Commission, which recommends that election officials install one drop box for every 15,000 to 20,000 registered voters and consider adding additional drop boxes to areas with historically low rates of vote-by-mail usage.
The new state law also requires that the drop boxes be moved inside to early voting sites instead of outside on government property, and that they now only be accessible during early voting days and hours, instead of 24 hours per day, seven days a week. The justifications supporting such changes are lacking.
For one, there is no clear evidence that using ballot drop boxes increases the risk of voter fraud.
Secondly, drop boxes have become an increasingly popular option because they allow voters to submit completed mail ballots to officials without using the mail. As Tonnie Adams, the elections supervisor for Heard County and legislative committee chairman for the Georgia Association of Voter Registration and Election Officials, recently noted, such limitations could “render them useless” because voters who cannot drop off a ballot during early voting days and hours would then have to submit their ballot via the post office, which takes more time and could potentially result in a ballot not arriving in time to be counted.
Finally, requiring that drop boxes be placed inside is unnecessary so long as reasonable security precautions are taken when they are outside. This includes placing them in well-lit areas that are accessible to voters, ensuring that they are durable (constructed from steel or other strong materials), permanently bolting them to the ground, building them to be tamper-proof, and monitoring them with 24-hour video surveillance, many of the same precautions Georgia election officials used to ensure they were secure and successful during the 2020 election cycle.
Another unfortunate provision in the law is one that bans mobile voting units, except during an emergency declared by the governor. There are many reasons why Americans do not vote, but one is inconvenience: if a polling place is hard to reach and/or has long lines, it is less likely that every eligible voter will use it. Mobile voting units give voters an additional, secure way to vote and they can also help lessen the likelihood of voters waiting in long lines on election day.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said that the 2020 elections were the most secure in U.S. history. How will the bill affect the resiliency of Georgia’s election infrastructure?
This bill may enhance the resiliency of Georgia’s election infrastructure in a couple of ways. For example, one of the complaints Georgia and other states received during the 2020 election was how long it took for some for some local election officials to release their final vote totals. The new law will allow local election officials to begin processing, but not tabulating, mail ballots starting two weeks before an election, which increases the likelihood that they will have all of their ballots counted soon after the polls close. As a former local election official, I can tell you firsthand that processing these ballots takes time. In many cases, once a voter has been verified, ballots are often sorted and placed into batches. Then, they can be removed from the outer envelope, separated from any private envelope, and fed by batch through a ballot scanner. Giving election officials this additional time to process mail ballots before Election Day reduces the window of time for malign actors to sow doubt over the outcome of an election and undermine voter confidence in the integrity of the vote.
On the flip side, the new law has a requirement that counties must count all their ballots non-stop as soon as polls close and finish by 5pm the day after Election Day, or potentially face investigation. This requirement appears unnecessary at best and harmful at worst. There are plenty of incentives already for election officials to count ballots as quickly as possible, whether its heading off mis- and disinformation, or being responsive to the media, candidates, and voters. Furthermore, while the extended timeframe for pre-processing mail-in ballots increases the likelihood that election officials can process more of their ballots before election day, much depends on when voters submit their ballots. And if many of these ballots are not submitted to election officials until close to election day, a significant influx of absentee ballots could mean that volunteers and officials are required to continually count for an inexorably long period of time. This could lead exhausted administrators and counting teams to make mistakes.
Another provision that could help ensure the resilience of Georgia’s election infrastructure is a provision that allows poll workers to serve in adjoining counties. If coordinated properly between state and local election officials, this provision could reduce the likelihood that any one county does not have enough trained pollworkers to serve their voters. If one county unexpectedly finds itself short of pollworkers, due to a pandemic or other unforeseen event, it can now reach out to a neighboring county and see if they have any extra workers to spare. For example, when I served as Elections Director for Ada County, Idaho, we sometimes collaborated with neighboring Canyon County to ensure that one or both counties had adequate numbers of trained workers for a given election.
Other provisions that should be watched carefully are Georgia’s new identification document (ID) rules for requesting and returning absentee ballots. Despite no evidence of systemic fraud or irregularities, Georgia’s vote by mail process now has additional requirements. The most common way election officials secured their absentee ballots, including in Georgia, was through signature verification, a process whereby before a mail ballot can be counted, election officials compare the voters’ signature and other details provided on their mail ballot with those on file at the elections office to confirm their identity and eligibility to vote.
If there were no major issues with Georgia’s signature matching during the last election, why was there a wholesale change to the process? If there were small issues with the process, that would seem to justify having a more robust signature curing option that gives voters sufficient opportunity to correct signatures before their ballot is rejected, not eliminating the whole process. While requiring a voter to provide a driver’s license number, state ID number, or copy of a voter ID will be an easy lift for many, it will undoubtedly be more difficult for some voters than signing their name, and it is not clear how such a provision makes absentee voting more secure. In fact, some local officials say that requiring a driver’s license or ID # is less secure than a signature match and more susceptible or identity theft concerns. As a result, such a provision could undermine confidence in Georgia’s election processes.
Georgia election officials worked hard to increase voter confidence in the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Will this bill impact voter confidence in election outcomes?
The bill could certainly impact voter confidence. One rule in Georgia’s new law would prohibit anyone except poll workers from handing out water to voters in line and would prohibit passing out food and water to voters within 150 feet of the building that serves as a polling place, inside a polling place, or within 25 feet of any voter standing in line. Such prohibitions are unnecessary, at best, and inhumane, at worst. The mere act of passing out food or water to a voter in line should not be illegal.
After 1.3 million voters voted absentee in the 2020 presidential election, Georgia’s new law thankfully still allows for no-excuse absentee voting, but rather than building on this success and making the process easier, it took several actions that seem to make the process a bit more difficult. This seems counter-intuitive when you consider that once voters experience the convenience of absentee voting, they tend to want to keep voting that way.
Under this legislation, the earliest that voters can request a mail-in ballot will now be 11 weeks before an election instead of 180 days, and counties will now begin mailing out absentee ballots four weeks before an election, rather than seven. The legislation still allows voters over 65, with a disability, in the military, or who live overseas to apply for a ballot and automatically receive one for the rest of any election cycle, but it no longer allows other voters to avail themselves of this option. Such changes constrain voters more than is necessary, and if there are concerns about the administrative burden of handling an influx of absentee ballots, that would seem to support moving to a permanent list of voters who want to always vote absentee, rather than making a voter repeatedly reapply. Such a move could cut processing time and costs while still authenticating voters the first time they apply. Doing this can also help election officials better allocated resources between absentee and in-person voting.
The pandemic required officials to make a lot of changes to the way elections were administered. Did lessons from that experience inform this law?
Lessons from that experience certainly informed this law, but too often the lessons learned appear to be the wrong ones.
The Georgia Secretary of State largely did a good job of overseeing the state’s 2020 presidential election. Yet, under this legislation, the secretary of state will no longer chair the State Election Board, becoming instead a non-voting ex-officio member. This does not seem like the kind of action one would take to reward an election official who successfully fought to protect democracy in the face of numerous threats to him and his family. The new chair would ostensibly be nonpartisan but would be appointed by a majority of the state House and Senate, which could make it harder to remain impartial if the results of a given election are at odds with the desires of the majority of the state House and Senate.
For an example of a good lesson learned, Georgia legislators smartly moved back the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot application from the Friday before an election to two Fridays before. The previous deadline left insufficient time for postal delivery of ballots to voters and back to local election offices. The new deadline should cut down on the number of ballots rejected for coming in late because of the tight turnaround period.
However, if the Georgia legislature were truly concerned with ensuring all mail ballots are received in a timely manner, it would not have unduly restricted the use of drop boxes, which are a helpful option for voters, particularly if they are not sure whether they can return their ballots via the mail in a timely manner. In other words, secure, outdoor drop boxes that are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week can significantly help offset any potential problems voters and/or election officials experience with the USPS.
State legislators around the country are considering changes to election laws. Is Georgia’s legislation the beginning of a nation-wide effort to reform elections?
It certainly looks that way. There are efforts in states across the country that largely try and restrict voting rights, and an effort in Congress to try and expand them. About the only thing these efforts share is a desire to significantly reform our election processes. Whether the reforms enacted are for the betterment of our elections and democracy more broadly remains to be seen.