Answering 7 Questions about the Georgia Election Law

The new law really is bad, but not every bad thing said about it is true.

A lot of hot air about this law is being blown in both directions. There are good reasons to oppose it, and I believe Georgia Republicans had bad motives for passing it. But it’s easy (and counterproductive, I think) to overstate the case against it.

So let’s back up and start at the beginning.

After 2020, are there good reasons to pass new election laws?

Actually, yes, but not the reasons that Republicans are giving.

Around the country, states adjusted to the pandemic by improvising new practices for the 2020 elections. State after state made it easier to vote by mail, vote early, vote at the curb of a polling place, or get a ballot by mail and cast it in a drop box. Some states made those changes by an act of the legislature, some by court order, and some by executive decision at either the state or local level.

Wherever the decision was made, it was extensively litigated before the election, which is the appropriate time to do it. [1] Across the board, the two parties followed the conventional wisdom that Democrats do better when more people vote. [2]

So in jurisdictions controlled by Democrats, officials aggressively responded to the pandemic by making voting easier, and were challenged in court by Republicans (who claimed the Democrats exceeded their authority or promoted fraud). In jurisdictions controlled by Republicans, voting rules were changed reluctantly or not at all, and were challenged in court by Democrats (who argued that making people stand in line during a pandemic infringed on their right to vote). I think it’s fair to say that even before Election Day, the 2020 elections were already the most litigated elections in American history, with the possible exception of Bush v Gore in 2000.

But whoever made the pandemic election rules, they were largely made on the fly and under time pressure. So it would be entirely reasonable for a legislature to review their pandemic election procedures now, when they can do the research, look at lessons learned, and hold the extensive debate there wasn’t time for in 2020.

Of course, that’s not at all what happened in Georgia or is happening in other Republican-controlled legislatures around the country.

Republicans in Georgia sped a sweeping elections bill into law Thursday, making it the first presidential battleground to impose new voting restrictions following President Joe Biden’s victory in the state. The bill passed both chambers of the legislature in the span of a few hours before Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed it Thursday evening.

What happened in 2020?

When you sweep away the partisan noise about the 2020 elections, two facts stand out:

  • The easier voting procedures led to a record turnout.
  • The election results have stood up to scrutiny wherever they’ve been challenged.

The turnout is indisputable. Nationwide, around 158 million votes were cast in the presidential election, compared to 137 million in 2016 and 129 million in 2012. In Georgia, 5 million people voted for president in 2020, 4.1 millon in 2016, and 3.9 million in 2012.

In part that increase is due to population growth, and some may be evidence of highly motivated voters on both sides. But to a large extent this is an if-you-build-it-they-will-come effect: When voting gets easier, more people vote.

One thing we can be very sure of (in spite of Trump’s claims otherwise) is that the votes were counted accurately, particularly in Georgia. Because the race was so close, Georgia’s voting-machine results were re-tallied, followed by a hand recount of paper ballots. There were minor differences in the three counts (as there always are), but nothing approaching the scale of Biden’s 11K-vote victory.

A second Trump claim was that substantial numbers of mail-in ballots were fraudulent. Again, the evidence says otherwise. The Republican secretary of state conducted a review of signatures on mail-in ballots in one large county, finding that the Cobb County Elections Department had “a 99.99% accuracy rate in performing correct signature verification procedures.”

One Georgia election official — also a Republican — characterized Trump’s subsequent fraud claims as “whack-a-mole“. As soon as one was disproved, another would pop up. What Trump really had was a desired conclusion — that he really won — and his people kept manufacturing baseless arguments to reach that conclusion.

What lessons should legislators learn from the 2020 results?

If you believe in democracy, the two outcomes above — high turnout, accurate results — are entirely good. So the obvious and simple lesson of 2020 is that many of the irregular procedures motivated by the pandemic ought to be regularized.

In particular, mail-in ballots work. This should not surprise anyone, since vote-by-mail was already the default system in five states (Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Colorado, and Utah) plus the District of Columbia. Fraud has not been a major issue in any of these states. There is still no credible evidence that it was a problem in any state that expanded vote-by-mail in 2020. [3]

It would be entirely legitimate, though, for legislatures (in those extensive hearings that Georgia did not hold) to examine their systems to eliminate fraud possibilities that were not exploited in 2020. Republicans undoubtedly would do this in bad faith, but a good-faith effort would be possible.

What lessons did Republicans learn?

The lesson Republicans appear to have learned from 2020 is “We lost because too many people voted.”

The most disturbing post-election change is that many in the GOP are now openly speaking out against democracy. In Arizona, for example, a state legislator said “Everybody shouldn’t be voting. … Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well.” And Utah Senator Mike Lee tweeted: “We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”

Some conservative intellectuals are making arguments that are simply fascist: America has been contaminated by citizens who are not “true” Americans. They should not be allowed to elect the officials that govern the country.

Most people living in the United States today — certainly more than half — are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term. They do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people. It is not obvious what we should call these citizen-aliens, these non-American Americans; but they are something else. …

The US Constitution no longer works. What is actually required now is a recovery, or even a refounding, of America as it was long and originally understood but which now exists only in the hearts and minds of a minority of citizens. … Overturning the existing post-American order, and re-establishing America’s ancient principles in practice, is a sort of counter-revolution, and the only road forward.

In other words, rule by the minority that remains true to “America’s ancient principles” is justified and good. That fascist viewpoint may not represent the majority of Republicans (yet). But more and more it is tolerated, and even pandered to, as a legitimate voice in the intra-party debate.

What does the Georgia law do?

Good summaries have been published by The Washington Post and The New York Times. Oversimplifying slightly the law (1) changes the rules, and (2) changes who implements the rules. The significance of (1) has been overblown somewhat, but (2) hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves.

The rule-changes almost all go in the wrong direction (making voting harder and less likely), but mostly are not out of line with what goes on in other states. For example: Absentee ballots will be harder to get, but the new standards are not draconian in themselves. Rather than being able to request an absentee ballot six months in advance of the election, you now have to do it within 78 days. Absentee ballots will be harder to fill out and probably more mistakes will be made that allow the ballots to be tossed. For example, you can’t just sign the ballot any more, you also have to copy your driver’s license number (or some other number from a list of acceptable IDs) onto the ballot. (Georgia already had a voter-ID law for in-person voting.) If you’ve ever tried to copy a long meaningless number, you can imagine that a lot of people — especially old, sick, or poorly educated people — will screw that up. So their votes won’t count.

Small counties (which mostly vote Republican) will get more ballot drop-boxes, but large counties (mostly Democratic) will get fewer. The boxes have to be taken indoors in off-hours, an inconvenience that hits people who work during the day and can’t easily take unsupervised breaks. Small counties will extend their early-voting periods, but large counties were already at the maximum. Even granting that, though, there are many parts of the country that have even less early voting and/or ballot drop-boxes.

The change that gives the game away, though, is that distributing food or water to people waiting in line to vote is now considered electioneering at a polling place and is a misdemeanor. [4] So while many of the other changes will result in more people voting on Election Day, with correspondingly longer lines in areas with large populations (i.e. Democratic Atlanta), this change will make waiting in line an endurance test.

None of that is as blatant as the cartoon below, but all of it raises the question: Why? Did something bad happen in 2020 that makes all this necessary? The only real answer to that is: Too many people voted and Republicans lost. That’s the problem this law is trying to solve.

What about the implementation changes?

To me, this is the part that is most sinister. Again and again in 2020, Trump pressured Republican officials to overturn the election results. (The best known case is the Raffensperger phone call, when he pushed the Georgia secretary of state to “find” enough votes for him to win, and threatened him with prosecution if he didn’t. But Trump also pressured the US attorney in Georgia, a Georgia elections investigator, state legislators in Michigan, and probably many others we don’t know about.)

What Ted Cruz et al were hoping to accomplish on January 6 was to make an opening for Republican legislatures in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, and Michigan to overrule the voters and install their own slate of pro-Trump electors. Fortunately, most Republicans in Congress did not go along with this anti-democracy scheme.

Trump failed in his attempt to hang onto power in spite of the voters, largely because Republican officials refused to commit crimes or exceed their authority to reverse the election that he lost so decisively. But many of those officials have subsequently been punished. The Michigan election-board member who noted that his board had no authority to throw out the county-level certifications — he was not renominated. Raffensperger is going to be primaried by a Trumpist, and is expected to lose.

Similarly, most of the Republicans who voted to uphold democracy by impeaching Trump for inciting a riot against Congress — they’ve been censured by their local Republican parties.

The message from the Trump base is clear: Republican officials should not have integrity. They should be partisans first, and cheat if necessary to make sure elections come out “right”. (This makes perfect sense if you believe that “Most people living in the United States today — certainly more than half — are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.”)

This context makes the implementation changes in the Georgia bill ominous. The Secretary of State (i.e., Raffensperger) is removed from the State Election Board, which is now more completely under the control of the legislature. And the State Election Board is given power to remove and replace county election officials. It’s easy to see the target here: Fulton County, where Atlanta is.

So the next time a Trump wants to throw out a bunch of ballots in inner-city Atlanta, the state mechanisms are in place to make that happen.

What is being done to protest this law?

One purpose of rushing the law through so quickly was to prevent an effective response, which takes time to organize. (Think about it: If there were good reasons for this law and it enjoyed wide support, Republicans should have played it for all it was worth: Hold extensive public hearings about all the election fraud it would prevent. Explain in detail the destructive effects of handing out bottles of water to people waiting in hours-long lines. Lay out the case for why Atlanta shouldn’t be allowed to manage its own elections. And so on.)

As a result, big Georgia corporations like Coke and Delta didn’t oppose the law until after it passed, and they faced the threat of boycotts. (Home Depot and Aflac still haven’t commented.) The owner of the Atlanta Falcons football franchise did not mention the law specifically, but issued a statement saying “The right to vote is simply sacred. We should be working to make voting easier, not harder for every eligible citizen.” Major League Baseball pulled the All Star Game, which had been scheduled to happen in suburban Atlanta on July 13. (In addition to its fans, MLB also needs to consider its players, particularly the big-name players whose voluntary participation makes the All Star Game worth watching.) It’s not clear how far this movement will spread.

Republicans have been striking back. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee are calling for Congress to end MLB’s exemption from antitrust laws, which has been in place since 1922. The Georgia House voted to revoke a tax break for Delta. [5]

RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel tweeted:

Guess what I am doing today? Not watching baseball!!!!

And the WaPo conservative columnist Hugh Hewitt proclaimed MLB “an arm of the Democratic Party … with values opposed to the Constitution and representative government.”

It’s the conservative version of cancel culture.

One thing Republicans are adamant about is that this is not racist, so all the comparisons to Jim Crow are over the top. But some of the comments they make clearly are racist, like this tweet from Mike Huckabee.

I’ve decided to “identify” as Chinese. Coke will like me, Delta will agree with my “values” and I’ll probably get shoes from Nike & tickets to @MLB games. Ain’t America great?

Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu from California decided not to take that lying down. (He usually doesn’t. If you’re not following him on Twitter, you should.)

Hey Mike Huckabee, I asked around and Coke likes me, Delta agrees with my values, I wear Nikes and my hometown Dodgers won the World Series. But it’s not because of my ethnicity. It’s because I’m not a sh*thead like you who is adding fuel to anti-Asian hate.

[1] That’s one reason why many of Trump’s post-election lawsuits were thrown out without hearing evidence: Although Trump’s lawyers were claiming fraud in the press, when they went to court they often didn’t mention fraud, but focused on voting or vote-counting procedures that should have been — and often had been — litigated before the election. American courts look skeptically at parties that participate in an election, lose, and only then complain about the rules.

Before an election, courts can remedy a situation by ordering that bad rules be changed. Afterwards, the only possible remedy is to throw out ballots that legitimate voters cast in good faith. Judges are understandably reluctant to do this.

[2] It’s not completely obvious this is in fact true, and if it is, nobody knows exactly how big that high-turnout advantage is for Democrats. But it’s fair to say that both parties have acted as if they believe high turnout favors Democrats.

A lawyer for the Arizona Republican Party admitted as much to the Supreme Court. One issue in that case concerned voters who go to a polling place in the wrong precinct. Democrats want to handle this situation by counting their votes, but only for the offices they would have been entitled to vote on had they gone to the correct precinct. Republicans want to throw their ballots out. Remember: these are legal voters casting ballots in elections they are legally entitled to vote on, but getting confused and doing it in the wrong place — and so possibly giving officials an excuse not to count their votes.

“What’s the interest of the Arizona RNC in keeping, say, the out-of-precinct ballot disqualification rules on the books?” Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked, referencing legal standing.

“Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats,” said Michael Carvin, the lawyer defending the state’s restrictions. “Politics is a zero-sum game. And every extra vote they get through unlawful interpretation of Section 2 hurts us”

In theory, the extra votes the Democrats’ interpretation would allow might benefit Republicans, but the ARNC lawyer seemed to discount that possibility.

[3] Again and again, the apparently credible evidence you may have heard about in November or December collapsed under scrutiny.

[4] The only time I’ve ever seen snacks used as electioneering was in 2004, when I was given a Clark bar at a Wesley Clark rally. Doing something like that a polling place (which I don’t think Clark did) should be illegal.

[5] I’m struck by the lack of any justifying connection. Both seem to be pure power moves: We don’t like what you did, so we’re going to hurt you.

There is no legitimate tit-for-tat here. Like individuals, private-sector businesses have every right to comment on the actions of government and take whatever actions they deem appropriate. There is no comparable right in the other direction. Individual government officials are free to express their opinions, but governments are obligated to pursue the public good. Delta’s political views are not relevant to whether or not a tax break on jet fuel is in the public interest. For contrast, I don’t believe that Hobby Lobby suffered any official reprisals for challenging ObamaCare.

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  •  On April 5, 2021 at 12:48 pm

    Hello Dr. Doug…

    I have been reading your weekly postings for about 4 years now. I hope they never stop because along with the NYTimes, WaPo and LATimes the Weekly Sift makes my Monday morning reading regimen all the more informative. Also your outlook on the issues resonate with my own but your advanced talent with the English language expresses it in substance and style an ongoing learning experience for me. I offer this constructive comment nevertheless.

    I read the Weekly Sift on my Windows 10 systems using the Outlook 365 reading pane. Unlike everything else I read in the same manner the Weekly Sift message does not autofit to the width of the reading pane; instead I have to perform scans to get to the preset format width of the message. It is somewhat annoying. I suspect the Weekly Sift is done on an Apple device which defaults to a formatting scheme not fully compatible with MSWord, which is the editor of choice with Outlook. A fix would make the reading all the more pleasurable.

    Thanks Angelo Canino

    • weeklysift  On April 7, 2021 at 9:08 am


      I wish I knew what to do about this. I do write on an iMac, but it gets filtered through WordPress’ version of HTML, so the problem is probably either there or in the WordPress theme I use.

      Anybody out there have any insight into this problem?

    • pauljbradford  On April 12, 2021 at 10:15 am

      I find it much easier to just click the link in the email and read the Sift in a separate browser window, not in my email window.


  • By Watching Takes Its Toll | The Weekly Sift on April 5, 2021 at 1:26 pm

    […] This week’s featured post is “Answering 7 Questions About the Georgia Election Law“. […]

  • By Unacceptable Behavior | The Weekly Sift on April 12, 2021 at 11:29 am

    […] rhetoric is getting increasingly explicit in Republican circles. Last week I quoted from an article from the Claremont Institute calling for a […]

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