Opinion: What Georgia’s record-breaking early voting means
Editor’s Note: Jay Bookman is an author and national award-winning political columnist from Georgia who has written for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other newspapers. He now writes regularly for the Georgia Recorder. Follow him on Twitter at @jaysbookman. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Voters continue to turn out in record numbers here in Georgia, with early voting totals approaching those of a presidential election year. In a closely watched, high-stakes, bitterly fought campaign season like this one, the question is natural: What does it mean ?
In terms of predicting outcomes, it’s hard to say. In the Trump era, high turnout is not necessarily the advantage that it used to be for Democrats, and we don’t know how much of the early-voter surge represents newly motivated voters or are merely voters who would have cast their ballots anyway through some other means. High-profile candidates in the Senate and governor’s races are no doubt driving voters to the polls, and with so many wild-card factors in play this year – from the overturning of Roe v. Wade to inflation to changes in state election law – it’s impossible to know what the 2022 electorate is going to look like.
That uncertainty is a nightmare for pollsters. Predicting how people will vote is pretty easy. Predicting whether they’ll vote is where things get complicated – and results get misleading. In a tumultuous year like this one, with so many variables, that’s a caution to the rest of us about putting too much credence in pollsters’ work product.
Georgia Republicans, however, are ready to claim victory on at least one front. They believe the high turnout represents vindication, proving that SB 202 – the “Election Integrity Act” that they passed last year – wasn’t an effort to suppress voter turnout , as Democrats had claimed.
But that boast about Georgia’s 98-page voting bill doesn’t hold up, for several reasons:
- The fear and anger apparently driving voters of both parties to the polls this year may have swamped whatever suppressive impact last year’s SB 202 was intended to have.
- Democrats have built an effective, well-funded voter-protection apparatus to help people overcome whatever bureaucratic hurdles are placed between them and the ballot box.
- Voter suppression isn’t intended to drive down overall turnout, but instead attempts to target specific subgroups. We won’t know its real impact until all the votes are counted and analyzed, and even then we won’t be certain.
- Attempted voter suppression, like attempted insurrection, is still attempted suppression even if it doesn’t succeed.
That last point is critical. To their base, Republicans have said the changes implemented in SB 202 – making absentee balloting more difficult, significantly reducing the number of drop boxes in urban areas – were necessary to fight voter fraud. But logically, that motive makes no sense.
Gov. Brian Kemp, who signed the bill into law, and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who advocated for it, had already conceded that voter fraud played no role in recent election outcomes. In Raffensperger’s words, “we had safe, secure, honest elections,” a conclusion shared by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, federal officials in former President Donald Trump’s Department of Justice, and state and federal judges. And if fraud wasn’t the real reason for those changes, what was?
From the beginning, the entire “voting fraud” industry has been a bad-faith invention by the right to serve as cover for its voter suppression targeting minorities. We know that because every Republican administration in the last quarter of a century has tried desperately to find evidence of such fraud on a scale sufficient to swing elections, and every such investigation has failed abysmally. When he served as Georgia secretary of state from 2010 to 2018, Kemp tried and failed to find such fraud. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis continues to try to find it, and so far he, too, continues to come up empty.
And it’s the consequences of that bad-faith narrative that ought to worry us. As we witnessed in 2020, Trump took the suspicion and distrust of the electoral system that the GOP had nurtured over decades and he repurposed it to an even more nefarious goal, transforming it from an excuse to suppress voting into an excuse to treat election outcomes as illegitimate altogether.
Trump is still making that argument to this day, telling supporters at rallies this fall that “I don’t believe we’ll have a fair election again. I don’t believe it.”
That purposeful, corrosive cynicism has an impact on the very foundations of democratic self-government because it finds an audience.
In SB 202, for example, Georgia Republicans added a clarifying sentence to a section of state law regarding how a voter, or elector, can legally challenge the eligibility of other voters to cast ballots. It now says that “There shall not be a limit on the number of persons whose qualifications such elector may challenge.” The new law also requires local election boards to hold a hearing on such challenges within 10 business days.
If that sounds like an invitation to wreak chaos, it is exactly that.
Around the state, conservatives are attempting to challenge the eligibility of tens of thousands of legally registered voters on extremely flimsy grounds and are growing frustrated that those challenges keep failing.
In suburban Gwinnett County, for example, “voting integrity” activists have challenged the eligibility of more than 40,000 registered voters in the increasingly diverse, increasingly Democratic county, putting an incredible burden on the county’s small elections staff. The challenges that have been acted upon so far have been rejected in a 3-2, party-line vote, with two Democrats and an independent outvoting Republicans.
“We are doing your job,” one frustrated activist told the Gwinnett elections board at its October 19 meeting. “Get your county in order or get your things in order.”
That’s what happens when you sell people on a false narrative, then rewrite state law to encourage taking action on that false narrative. If voting isn’t being suppressed so far, confidence in voting surely has been.