Georgia Republicans look set to significantly cut their state’s early voting period — the latest fallout from the Supreme Court’s crippling of the Voting Rights Act.
A legislative committee voted on party lines last week to advance a bill that would shorten Georgia’s early voting period to 12 days, from a current maximum of 21 days. It would also bar counties from offering more than four hours of voting on weekends. The state’s early voting period was already cut dramatically just four years ago.
The new move comes after a 2014 election in which 44% of voters — disproportionately minorities — cast their ballot early. Many counties, responding to popular demand, offered Sunday voting for the first time.
Rep. Carolyn Hugley, a member of the Democratic legislative leadership, said the scheme is an effort to produce an electorate that's more favorable to the GOP. “We cannot choose the electorate, the electorate chooses us,” Hugley said. “And it looks like somebody has an idea that they want to choose who is going to make the decisions, based on the patterns of how people vote.”
Republicans control Georgia’s government. And if the early voting cuts pass, as expected, the federal government will be powerless to stop them, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County ruling. Until then, most southern states, including Georgia, had to get new voting laws approved by the Justice Department before they could go into effect. Since that requirement was neutered, numerous southern states and localities have moved ahead with restrictive voting laws.
When Georgia cut early voting from 45 days to 21 in 2011, those cuts were approved by the Justice Department. But since then, even more evidence has emerged that minorities are more likely than whites to vote early.
Over the last decade, Georgia’s demographics have changed dramatically, thanks to an influx of Hispanics and blacks that threatens to consign the state’s whites to minority status. Hugley said she thinks that’s playing into Republican thinking. “I just question whether or not that’s part of it,” said Hugley. “Because the reasons we’re being given are not reasons that make good sense.”
The bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Mark Hamilton, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But another leading supporter, Rep. Ed Rynders, has said the goal is simply to provide uniformity across counties. Under the current system, counties can choose how much early voting to offer, up to a maximum of 21 days. “There were complaints of some voters having more opportunities than others,” Rynders told the Albany Herald. “For instance, in Fulton County last year, early voting was conducted for 19 straight days, including two Saturdays and two Sundays. This legislation offers equal access statewide.”
But Elizabeth Poythress, the president of the Georgia chapter of the League of Women Voters, noted that in the 2012 presidential election, some Georgians waited three or four hours to vote. Further cuts to early voting, she said, are likely to worsen that problem by putting added pressure on Election Day.
Poythress said her group and others will hold a press conference Wednesday to denounce the bill, which she called "horrible".
Georgia was the scene of one of last fall’s bitterest fights over voting access. Alleging fraud, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, led a high-profile investigation into Democratic voter registration group. Ultimately there was little evidence of fraud, but Democrats charged that Kemp allowed over 40,000 voter registration forms to go unprocessed.
There was also an attempt by Republicans last year to cut early voting for municipal elections, which ultimately failed.