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Columns Tom Baxter

Georgia democracy: A hit show that’s getting harder to produce

By Tom Baxter

While we wait for the results to come in, let’s cheer the long-suffering poll workers who made this election possible and pat ourselves on the back one more time for standing in line to vote.

Then let’s get real about it.

This runoff election has been trumpeted as a great success because of the heavy turnout, demonstrating again that the 2021 election law didn’t suppress full participation in the democratic process. There are several levels of hogwash in that claim.

Those daily voting records that have been broadcast were records set in an election in which there were fewer early voting days. Overall, turnout in the shortened early voting period was down 644,689 votes from the early voting period in 2020. People stood in longer lines, not only because there were fewer days, but because the new law has caused the virtual collapse of mail-in voting, which has declined by 81 percent since the 2020 election.

Proponents of the 2021 law may argue that it didn’t change the outcome of any races, and from what I can see they’re right. That’s just as good a reason for sunsetting the law, which has put additional strains on an already stretched electoral system.

Georgia and its counties have been running elections on the cheap for a long time, and especially where there is rapid population growth, it’s beginning to show. There’s a lot of improvisation. In Fulton County, the early voting locations for the November election weren’t all the same as those for the December runoff. In the two early voting locations I saw, there seemed to be a significant difference in the way voters were moved along the process. These are minor things, but added up across the state, they show a growing lack of uniformity in the system.

Speaking of uniformity, why is it that you can vote at any early voting site in your county, but only at one site on Election Day? That’s because early voting was grafted onto the older, single-day voting system as a means of siphoning off a few votes. There has never been a serious discussion about what it would take to create a system in which every voter has the same experience, early or on time.

We’re not even going to touch on the problem of recruiting people to conduct elections in places where they could be subject to harassment or intimidation. There have been repeated warnings that our voting system is facing a breakdown at the ballot box level. This runoff election, in which so many have stood in line for so long to cast a vote in only one race, should not comfort us.

After two consecutive cycles with costly statewide runoffs, we’re hearing calls for the state to adopt an instant runoff system, which uses some kind of ranked-choice formula to determine a winner without another vote. That’s worth considering, but there’s more we may have to consider.

Political organizations have become like the sports franchises that make fortunes from games played in facilities they sucker local governments into paying for. Total spending from the two candidates and a mob of outside groups which bought air time in the runoff is going to be north of $380 million. WSB-TV, a prominent recipient of that spending, is the most profitable television station in the country.

There would, of course, be a First Amendment battle if you tried to tax any of that money. The legislature even included a provision in the 2021 law specifically preventing outside organizations like the Gates Foundation from helping pay the expenses of elections in Georgia. But it seems foolish to put on a show for the country and not get a cut of the gate.

 

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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