New York Times argues Georgia voting law won't shrink turnout — but what it does might be worse

Voting rights groups push back against New York Times analysis downplaying the impact of Georgia's restrictions

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published April 15, 2021 5:50AM (EDT)

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Democrats have criticized Georgia's new voting restrictions as "Jim Crow in the 21st century," drawing complaints from Republicans that they are playing the "race card" and overhyping the effects of the law. A New York Times analysis last week lent credence to those Republican talking points, arguing that the restrictions are unlikely to have a large effect on voter turnout. But that analysis casts aside the intent of the law, voting rights groups say, and the law could have even worse effects than reducing turnout.

The Georgia law, clearly written in response to false claims of election fraud by former President Donald Trump and his allies, appears to be an attempt to reverse-engineer conditions that might have allowed Republicans to prevent or overturn his 2020 loss. The new regulations will likely make it harder to vote, argued Nate Cohn, the Times' election data guru. But setting intent aside, he says, research suggests that making it harder to vote is "unlikely to significantly affect turnout or Democratic chances."

The sweeping 98-page law makes it harder to request and return an absentee ballot, requires voter ID for absentee ballots, limits the time voters have to vote by mail, and severely limits ballot drop boxes. About 1.3 million Georgians voted by absentee ballot in the last election, with 65% of them voting for President Joe Biden. Some studies have found that voter ID laws can have a small but statistically significant effect on voter turnout that is more pronounced among voters of color. The dropbox restrictions will have a disproportionate impact on the Atlanta area, which has a large number of Democratic and Black voters, with the region's 94 round-the-clock drop boxes in 2020 limited to no more than 23 drop boxes that will only be available during business hours in future elections.

The law also reduces the period for runoff elections from nine weeks to four after Republicans lost both Senate runoff races this January, makes it harder for voters to correct ballot mistakes, and makes it a crime to provide water or food to voters in long lines. The final bill excluded previously proposed provisions that would have ended no-excuse absentee voting and automatic voter registration entirely and included cuts to Sunday early voting that would have disproportionately impacted Black voters. The law also expands in-person early voting, though this will primarily affect rural areas, and requires large precincts in urban areas with long lines to add machines and staff or split the precinct, though it's unclear how this will be implemented.

In all, a separate New York Times analysis identified 16 provisions in the law that would make it more difficult to vote or give more power over elections to Republican lawmakers, including the ban on Fulton County's mobile buses and the ban on sending absentee ballot applications to all voters, both of which appear aimed at recent efforts by Atlanta-area officials to expand voter access. It also points to bans on third-party funding for county election and voter assistance, after Republicans complained about turnout-boosting efforts by groups like the Stacey Abrams-founded Fair Fight Action.

"This is really the fallout from the 10 weeks of misinformation that flew in from former President Donald Trump," Georgia's Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan told CNN, blaming Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani's testimony to the state legislature for "spreading misinformation and sowing doubt" in the results.

Setting aside the obvious intent of Republicans who pushed this law after their party suffered defeats amid record turnout, Cohn argues that "expanding voting options to make it more convenient hasn't seemed to have a huge effect on turnout or electoral outcomes" in studies of early and absentee voting. Even studies looking at universal mail-in voting found that it boosts turnout about 2%, with no clear partisan advantage. President Biden saw virtually the same improvement over Hillary Clinton's 2016 performance in states that expanded mail voting as in those that did not, and turnout increased just as much in states that introduced no-excuse absentee voting as it did in those that did not. A Stanford study found that no-excuse mail voting might have only increased turnout by a minuscule 0.02% in the 2020 election. Cohn also points to Georgia's runoff elections, which saw Sens. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., defeat Republican incumbents, despite voters having fewer opportunities to vote than in the general election, as a result of high Election Day turnout.

Cohn acknowledges that long lines — such as those frequently seen in Georgia since the state shuttered more 200 polling places after the Supreme Court gutted an important section of the Voting Rights Act — can reduce turnout, his core argument is that "convenience isn't as important as often assumed."

"Almost everyone who cares enough to vote will brave the inconveniences of in-person voting to do so," he wrote, adding that "nearly every person will manage to vote if sufficiently convenient options are available, even if the most preferred option doesn't exist." The law's provision to reduce long lines might not only "mitigate the already limited effect of restricting mail voting," he writes, "but it might even outweigh it."

Some election experts disagree. Charlotte Hill, an election researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, argued that Cohn's analysis is largely limited to early and no-excuse absentee voting, which primarily affect active registered voters, while ignoring "convenience reforms" that boost turnout by making voting easier for low-propensity voters.

"The effect of election reforms on turnout is complicated," she wrote. "You have to take into account the details of the reform, the distribution of specific costs across types of people, and the context in which they're adopted. This NYT piece doesn't do that."

Voting rights groups also pushed back against Cohn's analysis.

"Any suggestion that obstacles to voting aren't that bad as long as a lot of voters overcome those obstacles plays into the hands of those working to make it harder to vote," Seth Bringman, a spokesman for Fair Fight Action, said in a statement to Salon. "Voters are not numbers on a spreadsheet; they are people with constitutional rights. Voting should not be made difficult, full stop. Turnout would be even higher if those obstacles did not exist."

Studies of the effects of individual policies may not suggest a huge effect on turnout, but the sweeping nature of the Georgia law, which touches virtually every part of the state's election process, combines provisions to make it difficult to vote in numerous ways with other provisions blatantly targeting overwhelmingly Black and Democratic areas. And while a relatively tiny shift in turnout may not be enough to affect most races or register as statistically significant in a study, the 2020 presidential race in Georgia was decided by just 0.24%. Both Senate runoffs were decided by about one percentage point, and the controversial 2018 gubernatorial race between Gov. Brian Kemp and Abrams was decided by 0.4%. As Cohn himself notes, making absentee voting harder may be worse for Democrats than eliminating it entirely, because it's likely to result in rejected ballots cast by voters who could have cast them successfully in person.

"Georgia Republicans' intent in changing our voting laws was to appease conspiracy theorists and to target communities of color and young people who turned out in record numbers in 2020 and 2021," Bringman said. "This intent cannot be set aside even for a moment. The reason why the law was written is precisely how Republicans intend to use the law, and the party that has criminalized civic participation should not be given any benefit of the doubt."

Cohn suggested that the law could also spark Democratic backlash, pointing to a study finding that the Supreme Court's Voting Rights Act decision did not reduce Black turnout because "subsequent efforts to restrict voting were swiftly countered by efforts to mobilize Black voters."

But Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver, said that wasn't evidence that restrictive policies are overblown.

"If there's a state policy to kill all firstborn males, let's say, but the population responds by hiding all its firstborn males such that the policy is unsuccessful, it is not correct to conclude that the policy was no big deal," he wrote.

"Civic groups should not have to drain their resources in order to mobilize voters under systems of voter suppression," Bringman said. "The right question is not 'Do a lot of Black folks still vote?' The right question is 'Is voting more difficult under the wave of post-Shelby voter suppression laws?' and 'Are people shut out of the democratic process who would otherwise be included?'"

Numerous voting rights groups and academics took issue with Cohn's framing, arguing that any impact of a law based on a lie was egregious.

"We're so obsessed [with] estimating causal effects of suppression efforts we have ceded [important] normative ground," argued Hakeem Jefferson, a political science professor at Stanford. "The right to vote is sacred. Access to the ballot should be expanded, not burdened. Be wary of those who look at attempts to disenfranchise folks & remark, 'Oh, no big deal.'"

While statistical experts can disagree on the impact of voter restrictions in a state where the presidential race was decided by 11,779 votes — out of about 5 million votes — the new Georgia law also includes even more alarming provisions that could make it easier for Republican state lawmakers who backed Trump's lies to subvert the results of an election.

The law replaces Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who repeatedly shot down Trump's falsehoods, as the head of the state election board with a "nonpartisan" appointee from the Republican-led state legislature, though it bars anyone who has been a political candidate, party official or campaign contributor in the previous two years. It also strips Raffensperger of his vote on the election board and allows the legislature to appoint a majority of its five members.

Cohn himself noted in another analysis that these provisions open the door to election subversion, noting that a majority of congressional Republicans and state attorneys general backed efforts that would have "invalidated millions of votes and brought about a constitutional crisis."

"With that backdrop, it seems naïve to assume that no one would try to abuse such power, whether in Georgia or elsewhere," he wrote.

Another provision in the law allows the state election board — again, a majority of its members appointed by the legislature — to suspend and replace local election officials, though it requires the board to show either three clear violations of its rules or "demonstrated nonfeasance, malfeasance, or gross negligence in the administration of the elections" in two consecutive elections.

Though the law includes some safeguards, the risk that this provision could be used to subvert election results is particularly high in Georgia, considering the context of Trump's infamous call to Raffensperger demanding that he "find" 11,780 votes to reverse his defeat and alleging widespread fraud in heavily Democratic Fulton County.

Under the new law, the state election board "could have usurped the power of Fulton County, based on the president's allegations in the general election and other allegations from the primary," Cohn wrote, and could have used Trump's "allegations as a basis to refuse to certify the result or to disqualify otherwise eligible voters." The new law also makes it easier to try to disqualify voters, allowing a single person to legally challenge the eligibility of an unlimited number of voters.

This would have been difficult to do immediately following the election because the process takes time, Cohn added, but a "nefarious board could lay the groundwork earlier, potentially putting a newly appointed superintendent in control before the elections, when he or she would have the ability to pre-emptively disqualify voters and ballots."

Marilyn Marks, executive director of the nonpartisan Coalition for Good Governance, argued it would be easy for the state election board to claim to find three rule violations from two election cycles in "any county."

"This takeover provision is egregiously undemocratic and dangerous," she wrote.

The Georgia law is one of more than 360 bills introduced across the country so far that would restrict voting access. And more than a dozen states are following Georgia's lead in trying to snatch power away from local election officials. While Democrats have responded to the restriction push by rallying behind the For The People Act, a sweeping set of voter protections and election reforms that stands little chance of passing in its current form, the bill has no provisions that would protect nonpartisan election entities from partisan power grabs. Democrats say they are still working on the specifics of the proposal, but little attention has been focused on responding to measures that Cohn — no longer separating the Georgia law from its obvious intent — describes as "grave and fundamental risks to democracy, risking political violence and secessionism."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Brian Kemp Donald Trump Politics Reporting Stacey Abrams Voter Restrictions Voter Suppression