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Atlanta Civic Circle Columns Democracy Main Slider Tom Baxter

The nation’s focus has been on Georgia, for way too long; the voting law won’t help that much

By Tom Baxter

Big Media’s searching eye is, in fact, quite lazy. It drifts familiarly over Washington and New York, with an occasional glance toward bad weather or civil unrest in the hinterlands. Only rarely is its gaze trained on one place for as long as it has been, over the past several months, on Georgia.

From the fall elections to the runoffs, to the spa shootings, the passage of the voting bill and the backlash to it, Georgia has remained at center focus for the nation. We’ve grown accustomed to hearing the state called the epicenter, the nexus or the fulcrum, depending what news channel you select. We own the Saturday Night Live cold open.

This gets old. By the time Major League Baseball announced last week that it was moving this year’s All-Star Game because of the voting law, all this national attention had come to feel like the glaring light dentists use to peer in your mouth.

The battle over voting rights will be moving on to other states soon, but one unfortunate feature of the Georgia voting bill is that it’s loaded with provisions which will almost certainly cause Big Media’s eye to return again.

The most problematic parts of this bill are those which politicize the State Election Board and allow it to replace county election officials. But what most insures more national attention are several measures which will have the effect of increasing confusion on election day and prolonging the vote count.

Voters who end up in the wrong precinct will have less time to correct their mistake. Absentee ballots can be opened earlier, but they can’t be counted until after the polls close. The process of extending voting hours in an emergency has been made more difficult, increasing the likelihood for chaos if polls are closed with voters who have stood for hours still waiting in line. In these and other ways, the bill makes it more likely that close elections will become cliffhangers, and local election disputes will become national news.

As for the portion of the law which prohibits giving food or water to voters waiting in line, we’re talking cable bonanza in two years. Don’t worry overmuch about its effect on voters standing in long lines, either. So long as there are edgy young restauranteurs out to make a name for themselves and voting rights activists who would consider a misdemeanor for passing out drinks to be a badge of honor, no Atlanta voter is going to hunger or thirst. Had his provision been on the books already, it wouldn’t have stirred much notice. Now, it’s a neon sign for civil disobedience, and ludicrously unenforceable.

Any time the legislature creates a new statewide position, it’s a big deal. With little notice, this law does that by removing the secretary of state from the State Election Board and creating a new chair of the board, to be elected by a vote of the state House and Senate. This person has to be someone who has not made a political contribution or run for office for at least two years, which suggests the authors have someone specific in mind.

This act of spite toward Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger replaces an official elected in a statewide general election with one elected by the General Assembly. That may not look so good when this case gets to court.

Many laws in Georgia are written with a future court test in mind, this one included.

“Following the 2018 and 2020 elections, there was a significant lack of confidence in Georgia election systems, with many electors concerned about allegations of rampant voter suppression (that would be the Democrats in 2018) and many electors concerned about allegations of rampant voter fraud (that would be the Republicans in 2020),” the law says at the beginning of a long section justifying its existence.

Are the federal courts, which currently have four separate challenges to the law before them, going to accept “a significant lack of confidence” as grounds for this many changes to the state’s voting system, especially when the remedies being proposed have only the vaguest relation to the rampant voter suppression and fraud they are supposed to address? That will be for the courts to decide, and until then, hopefully, Georgia can avoid the spotlight for a while.

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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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2 Comments

  1. Dana F. Blankenhorn April 6, 2021 2:01 pm

    It’s unfortunate that Georgia got so much attention, but it was inevitable. This is where the turn in America’s future was played out most starkly. This is where the turn was most dramatic. This was where the backlash was so immediate. Then there’s the state’s history. It’s catnip to reporters who want to tell simple stories.

    Personally I am very proud of what we did, and the part both my former state rep (Stacey Abrams) and current one (Bee Nguyen) have played. When I first moved to my current house in 1983, my rep was virtually unknown outside the state. Fellow named Hosea Williams, whose face now graces my MARTA station.Report

    Reply
  2. LEON A VAN GELDEREN April 8, 2021 10:50 am

    Sure would be nice if Tom and other reporters focused their attention on the most important parts of the new voting law. The powers given to the state election board and how they are selected are frightening. That is where the real power play is – not water bottles and voter Id. Just read the transcripts o fthe Board (available online) to see what problems their investigations revealed. why was power stripped from Raffensperger? What effect will this have on future court cases where consent Orders have to be approved by the Legislature? Who selects the new Chairman?Report

    Reply

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