The new Georgian electoral law SB 202, which many experts have described as an attack on the basic fairness of state elections, has been compared to Jim Crow by many leading Democrats. Now some observers are pushing back, arguing that the bill falls far short of a democratic apocalyptic.
In the New York Times, Nate Cohn concluded that "the electoral provisions of the law are unlikely to have a material impact on voter turnout or democratic opportunities." Slate's Will Saletan notes that some provisions are really worrying, but that the bill also contains good provisions and that critics have "exaggerated" their concerns. Brian Riedl, Senior Fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, writes: "The idea that this is an epic war on suffrage is just absurd."
On one level, it's fair to talk about, and the critics make some good points. Studies of the impact of voter ID requirements often have little or no impact on voter turnout. President Joe Biden's description of the bill as "Jim Crow on Steroids" is undoubtedly exaggerating the case.
At the same time, part of the political talk about Georgia law is deeply frustrating. The exact reading often takes place in a vacuum unrelated to the context from which the law emerged in the first place.
The basic truth about SB 202 is: Its existence is based on a lie. The passage of the bill was motivated by unsubstantiated allegations of fraud in the Georgia presidential election – lies that Donald Trump was spreading and spreading with the help of state and national Republicans.
"President Biden, the left and the national media are determined to destroy the sanctity and security of the ballot box, "Georgia governor Brian Kemp said in a statement following the signing of the law.
The problem with discussing Georgian law in just the narrowest sense of what does this or that provision is that it implicitly acknowledges that the law is a reasonable undertaking to begin with: that the rationale for its adoption is more legitimate than the endeavor to promote a scam and dangerous narrative.
“The conversation is something like the mid-2000s debate about whether torture works. Basically, that is not the case, but to have this debate at all is to have given up something, ”writes Seth Masket, political scientist at the University of Denver.
Georgia law is not just the sum of its provisions in a country where 60 percent of Republicans believe the 2020 presidential election was "stolen" from Trump by electoral fraud – it confirms a lie that corrodes American democracy. It also expands and deepens a much older Republican campaign to manipulate the system in their favor.
The debate on the provisions of the draft law was briefly explained
First, let's clarify what the new Georgian law actually does.
SB 202 is a large law that contains a number of provisions that affect various aspects of the right to vote. In his analysis, Cohn divides these provisions into four areas: new regulations for postal voting, new rules for personal voting, changes in runoff elections and the expansion of the state parliament's power over the election administration.
Many critics of Georgian law, including myself, have argued that this last provision is the most troubling. It gives the Republican-controlled General Assembly in Georgia effective control over the State Board of Elections and empowers the State Board to take over the local county boards. That way, Republicans can choose the people responsible for disqualifying ballots in democratic places like Atlanta.
Saletan argues that the bill contains sufficient safeguards to prevent abuse of these powers, but that is a minority view. Proxies, experts I've spoken to, and even Cohn believe there is serious potential for abuse here. "This poses an obvious threat to American democracy," he concludes after an in-depth analysis of the new regulations.
The more serious arguments that Georgian law isn't that dangerous center on Cohn's other three buckets, which include regulations that:
Expand the requirements for the voter ID card to include postal ballot papers
Strongly restrict the use of ballot boxes
Extend the weekend voting during the early voting period
Urge large districts to take action to limit the crowd
Criminalize giving food and water to voters while they stand in line (with the exception of poll workers).
Cut the time between election day and all subsequent runoffs from nine to four weeks, greatly reducing the deadline for early voting for runoffs
These provisions will clearly make it a little more difficult to vote in the mail. The impact on personal voting is harder to see, but could plausibly make it harder to vote in democratic areas and easier in republican areas.
But here's the surprising thing: there is some decent political science research that doesn't really affect a slightly easier or more difficult voting by guidelines like voter ID laws or expanding the use of dropboxes.
An early voting line in Atlanta in December during the Senate runoff election.
Jessica McGowan / Getty Images
"In today's United States, where there is such wide and easy access to the ballot, changes to the margins do not deprive people of rights," Rich Lowry writes in the National Review. "It's hard to believe that the new (Georgian) rules will prevent a real voter from voting."
Lowry is exaggerating the case. Experts like Charlotte Hill, a graduate student at UC-Berkeley who studies elections, cited research suggesting that so-called “convenience” reforms that make voting easier are really important to voter turnout.
The likely impact of the rules on access to ballot papers in Georgia is the kind of thing that reasonable people cannot agree on. The evidence for its effects is really mixed; It is fair, and even important, to try to determine exactly what impact certain provisions of the bill are likely to have.
But it's not the most helpful way to think about the Georgia bill and frame the conversation.
The Georgia bill confirms Trump's big lie
Guidelines are put in place to solve problems. In the case of SB 202, the alleged "problem" is simple: voters had a crisis of confidence in the results of the 2020 vote and the integrity of the elections in Georgia.
"The way we're beginning to restore confidence in our voting system is by getting this bill passed," said Georgia Rep. Barry Fleming, sponsor of the bill, during a floor debate over his proposal.
However, this is a problem caused solely by the Republicans themselves. From Trump on, key party leaders and activists have worked to cast doubt on the validity of the 2020 results. By passing SB 202, the Republicans of Georgia are simply ratifying their own lie.
Think about it from the point of view of someone who believes in the Trump story of the 2020 election: mail-in ballots were fraudulent, personal polls are the only reliable ones that defrauded local election officials in heavily democratic areas like Atlanta, and that moronic state-level Republicans like Georgian Foreign Secretary Brad Raffensperger refused to intervene to save them from cowardice.
Trump supporters gather in Washington, DC on January 6th.
It's all a ridiculous fantasy, of course. But if you really believed it and wanted to prevent it in the future, you would have drafted a bill like SB 202: one that makes mail-in voting difficult and takes power away from election officials who failed to stop the theft 2020.
And that actually seems to have been what the state legislators were concerned with when the bill was drafted. Stephen Fowler, a Georgia reporter who covers elections, writes that "the vast majority of Georgian Republican elected officials have jumped on board a series of rabbit-brained lawsuits and plans to try to overthrow the state elections." In December, Georgia House Republicans held a series of hearings inviting speakers such as Trump's attorney Rudy Giuliani to spread theories about how Trump's election was stolen.
"Democrats rely on the ever-suspicious postal voting process to stay one step ahead in Georgia and other nearby states," Fleming wrote in December. "If elections were like coastal cities, postal voting would be the shady part of town near the docks that you don't want to wander into because the chance of getting shanghaied is substantial."
Josh McLaurin, a Democrat in the Georgian house, told me that the state-run GOP "is a party whose electoral policy is determined by Trump's" big lie "- reverse engineering SB 202 to address the totally fictional problems invented by Trump and his allies to solve.
The new rules are not based on just one lie. Your passing also confirms this lie.
The successes and failures of the GOP's anti-democratic agenda
Here is another context in which the debate over the provisions of SB 202 is missing: The GOP has been working for years to set the rules for state elections across the country in their favor, a campaign that emerged in the wake of Trump's allegations of a stolen election accelerated.
According to the Brennan Center, a non-partisan institute that studies voting rights, there are currently 361 bills in 47 state houses across the country that would restrict the right to vote – most trying to limit the number of postal votes. According to Brennan, these bills are "a backlash to historic 2020 voter turnout," which is being promoted "on the pretext of responding to baseless and racist allegations of electoral fraud and electoral irregularities."
So far, these laws have only been passed in Republican-controlled governments like Georgia – and recent history suggests that they are likely to be passed only in such governments. A new working paper by Jake Grumbach of the University of Washington attempted to measure the health of democracy in all 50 states between 2000 and 2018. The results were clear: Republican control over state government correlated with large and measurable declines in the health of a democratic state.
At this point it is fair to say that the Republican Party has made a long-standing, sometimes systematic, attempt to change the rules in its favor. Not every tactic they used in combat was equally effective. Gerrymandering has a much clearer partisan effect at both state and national levels than voter identification laws.
However, the fact that some of these laws are not effective at suppressing voter turnout is not a defense of the GOP. Attempted murder is still a crime. Focusing too much on the details of a bill not only overlooks this overall context, but also normalizes the GOP's anti-democratic project.
Trump at CPAC 2021.
Of course, Democrats shouldn't lie or even exaggerate about Georgia’s law. But you are right that the bill contains several extremely dangerous new provisions, and you are also right that the broader context suggests that the stakes of our current struggle for voting are really existential.
"We are so obsessed with gauging the causal effects of repression that we have ceded important normative reasons," writes Hakeem Jefferson, Stanford political scientist. “The right to vote is sacred. Access to the ballot should be expanded and not encumbered. "
There is only one party in modern history whose presidential candidate refused to admit when they lost a national election. It is the party whose candidate still insists he won the 2020 election, whose partisans violently attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to keep their husband in power. Now this party is using its fraudulent fantasies to justify laws like those passed in Georgia.
And we can expect further attacks on the integrity of the elections of GOP-controlled state houses in the coming months – because the Republican Party as an institution seems quite ready to use Trump's big lie as an excuse to seize more power.
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