The strong turnout in Georgia’s runoff election that cemented Democrats’ control of the US Senate is sparking fresh debate about the impact of the state’s controversial 2021 election law and could trigger a new round of election rule changes next year in the Republican-led state legislature.
Voters showed up in droves for the midterms, with more than 3.5 million casting ballots in the December 6 runoff – or some 90% of the general election turnout, a far higher rate than typical runoffs. And top Republicans in Georgia, including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, argued those numbers refute claims that the 2021 law was designed to suppress votes in this increasingly competitive state.
“There’s no truth to voter suppression,” Raffensperger said in an interview this week with CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, a day after Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock secured reelection in the first federal election cycle since Georgia voting law took effect.
Georgia Democrats and voting rights groups, however, continue to criticize the 2021 law – enacted in the wake of Democratic gains two years ago – as erecting multiple barriers to voting. And the surging turnout, they said, masked extraordinary efforts by voters and activists to overcome both new and longstanding obstacles to the franchise in this once deep-red state.
“Just because people endured long lines that wrapped around buildings, some blocks long … doesn’t mean that voter suppression does not exist,” Warnock said during his victory speech Tuesday – echoing a theme he made repeatedly on the campaign trail. “It simply means that you, the people, have decided that your voices will not be silenced.”
Warnock’s victory Tuesday solidified Georgia’s standing as a battleground state and comes after Warnock and fellow Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff won runoffs in the 2020 election cycle. In that election, President Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the Peach State in nearly three decades.
‘Death by a thousand cuts’
Voting rights activists said the 2021 law made it harder to cast a ballot in myriad ways: It limited the number and location of ballot drop boxes, instituted new ID requirements to vote by mail and shortened the window for a runoff from the nine weeks in the 2020 election to four weeks, contributing to long lines during the early voting period.
Additionally, the voter registration deadline fell on November 7 – the day before the general election and before Georgians knew for certain that the contest would advance to a runoff because neither Warnock nor his Republican challenger Herschel Walker had surpassed the 50% threshold to win outright in the general election.
In the 2020 election cycle, at least 23,000 people who registered after Election Day went on to vote in the Senate runoff in January 2021, according to an analysis of Georgia’s Secretary of State data by Catalist, a company that provides data, analytics and other services to Democrats, academics and nonprofit issue-advocacy organizations.
And only an 11th hour court victory for Warnock and Democrats paved the way for counties to hold early in-person voting on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. State election officials had opposed casting ballots on that date, saying Georgia law prohibited voting on a Saturday if there is a state holiday on the Thursday or Friday before.
“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” Kendra Cotton, CEO of the voting rights group New Georgia Project Action Fund, said of the new restrictions. “They are not trying to hit the jugular, so you bleed out at once. It’s these little nicks, so you slowly become anemic before you pass out.”
“It’s a margins game,” she added. “I wish folks would stop acting like the purpose of SB202 was to disenfranchise the masses. Joe Biden won this state by a little less than 12,000 votes. I can guarantee you that there are more than 12,000 people across this state who were eligible to vote in this election and they could not.”
Even Cotton’s 21-year-old daughter, Jarah Cotton, became ensnared.
The younger Cotton, a Harvard University senior, said she had planned to vote absentee in November’s general election – but misunderstood a new requirement of Georgia’s law: that she print out her online application for absentee ballot, sign it “with a pen and ink” and then upload it.
In the runoff, Jarah Cotton said she successfully completed her application for an absentee ballot but did not receive it before she returned home to Powder Springs, Georgia, for the Thanksgiving holiday.
The court ruling permitting voting the Saturday after Thanksgiving allowed her to cast an in-person ballot in the runoff – but only after her family paid $180 to delay her return flight to Boston by a day.
“I don’t think it should be this hard,” Jarah Cotton said of her experience. “It should be more straightforward, but I think that’s reflective of the voting process in Georgia.”
Gabriel Sterling, the chief operating officer in the secretary of state’s office, said too many critics of the state’s voting process are comparing the 2022 election with the ease of voting during the height of the pandemic in the 2020 election cycle when election officials across the state “moved heaven and earth” to guarantee the franchise.
That so many people voted in a four-week runoff shows “the system works really well,” he told CNN in an interview Friday. “The problem now is that it that is has become so politicized. I’ve been saying now, for 24 months, that both sides have to stop weaponizing election administration.”
Runoff system scrutinized
Voting rights activists say the state’s runoff system, first enacted in 1964, itself is a vestige of voter-suppression efforts from the state’s dark past. Its original sponsor sought to guarantee that candidates backed by Black Georgians could not win outright with a plurality of the vote.
Most states decide general election winners based on which candidate gets the most votes, unlike Georgia, where candidates must win more than 50% of the votes cast to avoid a runoff.
Runoffs also are costly affairs.
A recent study by researchers at Kennesaw State University estimated that the Senate runoffs in the 2020 election cycle had a $75 million price tag for taxpayers.
In the CNN interview earlier this week, Raffensperger suggested that the Republican-controlled General Assembly might revisit some of the state’s election rules, including potentially lowering to 45% the threshold needed to win a general election outright.
He also said he wanted to work with counties to guarantee more polling places are available to ease the long lines voters endured during the early voting window in the runoff.
And Raffensperger said lawmakers might weigh a ranked-choice instant runoff system. In so-called instant runoffs, voters rank candidates by order of preference. If one candidate doesn’t receive more than 50% of the vote, voters’ second choices would be used to determine the winner, without the need to hold a second election.
Given the shortened runoff schedule in Georgia, state lawmakers instituted the instant runoff for a narrow slice of voters – those in the military and overseas – in this year’s midterms.
“There will be a push for this in the upcoming legislative session,” said Daniel Baggerman, president of Better Ballot Georgia, a group advocating for the instant runoff.
“It’s asking a lot from voters” to show up again for a runoff “when there’s a simple way that achieves the same outcome,” he said.
Sterling agreed that there “needs to be a discussion about general election runoffs,” but he said he worries that moving to an instant runoff system risks disenfranchising a wide swath of Georgians who might not understand the process without “a tremendous amount of voter education.”