Over just a few hours Thursday, Georgia's Legislature and Gov. Brian Kemp drew the first battle line in the high-stakes struggle to decide how American voters will cast ballots in the future after the pandemic-ridden election of 2020.
The Republican-controlled state put itself firmly in the camp of voter ID requirements, limited drop boxes and expanded weekend voting. And depending on the eye of the beholder, it was either a win for election integrity or a return to the era of Jim Crow voter suppression.
And the debate may be coming soon to a ballot box near you, as conservatives like Heritage Action for America and liberals like Stacey Abrams' Fair Fight gird to fight the issues in all 50 states and in Congress, likely all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Georgia's actions Thursday "helped galvanize an election integrity movement surging toward restored trust & confidence in elections where it's easy to vote & hard to cheat," the conservative Susan B. Anthony group crowed.
Countered Abrams on Twitter: "Now more than ever, we need federal action to protect voting rights as we continue to fight against these blatantly unconstitutional efforts that are nothing less than Jim Crow 2.0."
Democrats are pinning their hopes on the federal legislation known as H.R. 1, which would create federal mandates outlawing voter ID requirements and permitting widespread mail voting, while Republicans are turning to their GOP-controlled legislatures in the key battleground states and possibly the Supreme Court for a final verdict.
Where that battle ends, nobody knows. But almost everybody is certain it will be fought in the shadows of the 2022 election for Congress and the 2024 presidential contest, potentially setting the ground rules for a generation or more of voting.
Remarkably, the concept of voter ID that was widely embraced just 16 years ago by a bipartisan election commission chaired by former President Jimmy Carter has now become the leading symbol of what Democrats allege are Republican voter suppression tactics, even though most Americans need an ID for flying, buying beer or taking the SATs. (Carter himself now says the Georgia voter ID requirement makes him "saddened and angry.")
"Photo IDs currently are needed to board a plane, enter federal buildings, and cash a check," the Commission on Federal Election Reform declared in 2005. "Voting is equally important."
Georgia's GOP-controlled state government rejected the notion that asking for an ID for a ballot was somehow inflammatory or suppressive. In fact, it thought it was a good solution to all the angst over the 2020 election processes.
"There's no doubt there were many alarming issues with how the election was handled, and those problems really led to a crisis of confidence in the ballot box here in Georgia," Gov. Kemp declared after signing the bill.
The 95-page bill written by Republicans passed the House of Representatives in a 100-75 party-line vote and in the Senate by a 34-20 party-line vote. It followed tight 2020 electoral contests in the state that saw Democrats win the presidency and the state's U.S. Senate seats.
The legislation's signature provision requires absentee voters to provide ID, replacing the signature-verifications used in 2020, and it prohibited the state from mailing out absentee ballot applications unsolicited as happened during the pandemic.
The law also:
- restricted ballot drop boxes to be located inside early voting locations, and to be unavailable in the last four days of an election;
- expanded weekend voting before general elections with required voting hours on two Saturdays statewide, and the option for counties to offer early voting on two Sundays;
- empowered the State Election Board to assume control of county election boards that it deemed need intervention;
- reduced the time span between elections and runoffs from nine weeks to four weeks.
- outlawed private money going to election officials after a $350 million campaign funded by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg did just that nationwide in the last election.
The bill ignited debate across the state, with Democrats howling it would restrict access to voting.
"It is unbelievable that there are still some people trying to stop people from voting today," Democratic state Rep. Erica Thomas said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "You are changing the rules, cutting the voting hours, and making it more difficult for people to vote. Too many people fought, bled and died for our right to vote."
Republicans countered that the 2020 election was conducted under rules that were too loose and undermined confidence in lawful voting.
"Our goal is to ensure that voters in Georgia have confidence in the elections process," said state Sen. Max Burns, according to the Journal-Constitution. "This is a solid step in the right direction to provide voter integrity in Georgia."
The legislation reverberated all the way to Washington, where Biden called it "un-American" and vowed to fight election reform efforts in GOP states while the conservative Heritage Action for America group hailed it as a necessary reform that ensures absentee ballots can't be abused.
"The Peach State is in better hands because of these election integrity reforms," the group tweeted in a congratulatory statement shortly after Kemp signed the bill.
On Friday, several Georgia voting rights groups filed a complaint alleging the voting Law Gov. Kemp signed on Thursday illegally suppresses votes in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other constitutional protections, according to The Hill.