Georgia election officials rejected absentee ballot applications in the state's municipal elections this month at a rate more than four times higher than during the 2020 election cycle, in large part as the result of new restrictions on voting passed by Republican state lawmakers.
Election officials rejected 4% of absentee ballot applications ahead of the Nov. 2 elections, up from less than 1% in 2020, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Most of the absentee ballot applications rejected last year were duplicates of applications that had already been submitted, often because voting groups or local governments sent out multiple forms to voters.
The new Georgia law, SB 202, requires absentee ballot applications to be submitted at least 11 days before the election, while the previous deadline which was the Friday before Election Day. Data shows that 52% of the rejected applications were denied because they were submitted too late under the new law. Another 15% were rejected because of missing or incorrect ID information under the new law.
Most of those people ended up not voting at all. Only about 26% of people whose ballots were rejected because of the deadline voted in person on Election Day, according to the AJC analysis.
"This is what voter suppression looks like," charged state Sen. Michelle Au, a Democrat.
Though full voter file data will not be released by the state until next year, 19% of people who requested an absentee ballot did not submit one before the polls opened on Election Day, according to the New Georgia Project Action Fund, a voting rights group. Based on 2020 trends, the group estimates that 13% of people who requested an absentee ballot ended up not voting at all this year, nearly double the 2020 rate, Aklima Khondoker, the group's chief legal officer, told Salon.
The data shows the "voter suppression law working as intended," tweeted former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Georgia Republicans passed the law after Joe Biden carried the state last November and Democrats won both U.S. Senate runoff races amid an expansion of absentee voting during the COVID pandemic. A record 1.3 million Georgia voters cast absentee ballots in the 2020 election, with two-thirds of them voting for President Joe Biden.
The law also restricts ballot drop boxes, imposes new ID requirements and includes provisions that critics say could allow Republican lawmakers to subvert elections.
Local election officials have also expressed concern that voters could be disenfranchised by the new deadline.
"The 11-day deadline is too far in advance of Election Day to adequately serve voters, particularly when there is no provision for voters with unforeseen circumstances who learn shortly before Election Day that they cannot vote in person," Tonnie Adams, who oversees elections in Georgia's Heard County, said in an affidavit supporting a challenge to the law.
More than a half-dozen lawsuits have been filed challenging the law, including a suit filed by the Justice Department. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in June that the Georgia law was enacted with the "purpose of denying or abridging" the rights of Black voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
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"In the November 2020 general election, Black voters were more likely than white voters to request absentee ballots between ten and four days before Election Day," the DOJ suit says. "In addition, of the absentee ballots requested during this period, those that were successfully cast and counted were disproportionately cast by Black voters."
Khondoker called out Republican lawmakers for rushing through the bill without a "racial impact analysis," arguing that the increased rejection rates "show just how damaging that kind of negligence can be to communities of color."
"Since we know that Black voters in Georgia were more likely to request absentee ballots than white voters in 2018, 2020, and the January 5th [U.S. Senate] Runoff, restrictions to voting by mail clearly impact those voters at disproportionate rates," Khondoker said in a statement to Salon. "In a crucial swing state that was decided by 12,000 votes, this kind of seemingly boring or technical administrative burden that the state legislature placed on voters of color could swing the entire nation's trajectory."
Some absentee voting advocates backed the law, arguing that the previous five-day deadline was too short to allow many voters to return their ballots.
"The way it was before, you almost were setting voters up to fail," Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, told AJC. "That's actually a best practice to cut it off so that voters are actually receiving the ballot with enough time to get it back."
But McReynolds wrote on Twitter that because the Georgia law also restricted drop-off options, the 11-day cutoff should be "revisited" to set an "appropriate deadline to ensure voters have enough to time receive, vote & then return their ballot."
Georgia State Election Board member Sara Tindall Ghazal, a Democrat, said the deadline should be between five to seven days before Election Day.
"Far too many voters end up being disenfranchised," she told AJC. "It leads to many voters getting their applications rejected and not able to access their ballot otherwise."
Marc Elias, a prominent Democratic lawyer who filed a lawsuit challenging the law, said that the increased rate of rejections is a "feature" of the law, "not a flaw."
"This law wasn't designed for 'election integrity' as Republicans have claimed — it was designed to make it harder for voters to reach the ballot box," Elias' voting advocacy group, Democracy Docket, said in a statement.
Kristin Clarke, the first Black woman to head the Justice Department's civil rights division, alleged at a press conference earlier this year that many of the law's provisions were "passed with a discriminatory purpose" at a time when the state's Black population and Black voters' share of ballots cast by mail continues to increase.
"The provisions we are challenging reduce access to absentee voting at every step of the process, pushing more Black voters to in-person voting, where they will be more likely than white voters to confront long lines," Clarke said. "SB 202 then imposes additional obstacles to casting an in-person ballot."
Georgia is just one of a growing number of Republican-led states that passed restrictive voting laws this year amid a torrent of baseless conspiracy theories about Donald Trump's election loss. Garland vowed to go after "laws that seek to curb voter access" in other states but acknowledged that the Justice Department has limited power unless Congress passes the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore a Voting Rights Act requirement for states with a history of racial discrimination to pre-clear any electoral changes with the DOJ. The bill has stalled in Congress after Republicans filibustered the bill and Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have resisted calls to reform the filibuster rule to pass voting rights legislation.
"If Georgia had still been covered" by the pre-clearance requirement, Garland said, it is "likely that SB 202 would never have taken effect."
More on the voting rights battles of 2021: