By H. Harrison Coleman IV
If you’re a Democrat and have been paying attention to the news out of Georgia these last few months, you’d be excused for thinking that the Peach State has lost to the Republicans in the war on voting rights. With an abhorrent bill signed into law by Governor Brian Kemp (R) on March 25, the voting rights of minority and urban communities came under threat. But the total loss of the state is not necessarily the case. The lights have not gone out in Georgia––in fact, there’s ample evidence to suggest the opposite.
The law signed by Kemp would place burdensome restrictions on voting in Georgia, many of which would disproportionately affect minority communities. For one, the new law strips power from the Secretary of State, who is usually in charge of elections, and places it in the hands of the state legislature, who is also now allowed to suspend county election officials. The law makes it difficult for locales to expand voting hours, imposes strict ID requirements on mail-in voting, dramatically reduces the number and hours that mail-ballot drop boxes will be open and makes it a crime to hand out food and water to people waiting in line to vote, among other restrictions that generally make it more difficult and cumbersome to vote.
The new law was undoubtedly based on the accusations made by many on the right that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was “stolen” by the Democrats, who won the presidency, the Senate and retained control of the House of Representatives. The much-discredited conspiracy theory showed its influence in Georgia’s new bill, which included provisions banning “third party funding”, which was a major goal of the right, as many private citizens and organizations funded voting infrastructure that ultimately made voting easier to access, such as tech billionaires Mark and Priscilla Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to buying PPE for poll workers, and athlete LeBron James’ push to recruit poll workers.
The philosophy behind the bill is one that President Donald Trump has made shockingly clear last year. In a Fox News interview, he said, when asked about a bill to advance voting rights, “They had things, levels of voting that if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” This quote is a perfect encapsulation of the Republican philosophy that when less people vote, Republicans win. Just ask Paul Weyrich, a GOP strategist who, in 1980, said, “I don’t want everybody to vote…As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
It just takes a comparison of election turnouts and results to confirm this. 2010 and 2014, both of which were banner midterm elections for the Republican Party, had voter turnouts of 41% and 36%, respectively. Democratic midterms, on the other hand, featured high turnouts. In 2006 and 2018, for instance, the voter turnout was 48% and 50% of the voting age population. In the 2020 presidential election, which saw Democrat Joe Biden win, the 25 states whose electoral votes went to him had an average voting-age-population turnout of 74%, compared to the 65% of the voting age population in Trump’s 25 states, a nine-point difference. This means that it is in the Republican Party’s best political interest to minimize turnout––something they have spent years doing.
Georgia’s new law, SB 202, for all the buzz it has generated, has generated relatively few nuanced looks into the far-reaching effects of its passage. Though it initially seems to serve the Republican’s twisted strategy of reducing the number of voters, there’s actually a lot going for the other side: it seems that the Democrats have a lot to gain, not from the passage of this bill, but from the backlash against it.
One of the largest targets of SB 202 is mail-in voting. This might seem like good politics from a Republican point of view: Biden voters were much more likely to utilize their postal voting option to cast their ballot. In 2020, 58% of Biden voters voted by mail, compared to 38% of Trump voters.
The 2020 election, however, was an aberration caused by Democratic aversion to in-person polling places due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the 2016 election in Georgia, young voters were the least likely to vote by mail in the presidential election. Only 4.1% of Georgia voters under 40 cast a mail ballot in 2016, compared to the 65-and-older crowd, 11.2% of whom cast mail votes. As the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be a non-factor in 2022 and 2024, it is entirely likely that the previous paradigm of the old using mail-in ballots, while the young show up in-person will return, and the GOP’s bill will suddenly find suppressing a new demographic: the Republican Party’s most loyal voter base. Already, Florida Republicans are raising the alarm about a similar bill there that would potentially disenfranchise the older and rural voters there.
Additionally, there seems to be little thought put into the bill about the potential backlash to passing it. This voter suppression will almost certainly be used against Georgia Republicans in 2022 and 2024. Democrat Stacey Abrams, 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate and voting rights activist, whose efforts almost single-handedly won Georgia for the Democrats in 2020 and 2021, is likely to run for the position again. This time, however, she’ll not only have a seasoned army of volunteers, the unquestioned backing of the national Democratic Party and a Georgian political climate much friendlier to her than in 2018, but she’ll have the fact that her opponent, Governor Brian Kemp, tried to limit Georgian’s voting rights as an issue to compel Abrams-sympathetic voters to the polls. Nothing spikes the exercise of a right like the fear it could be lost––or even taken away.
The Republican Party of Georgia also isn’t accounting for another factor: realignment. College-educated voters are fleeing the Republican Party, meaning that every election, the Democratic base becomes a little more educated, and the Republican base a little less so. A university educated Atlantan suburbanite has far greater access to the information about what the new voting protocols are and how to overcome them, such as adding a copy of a voter ID to a mail-in ballot, than a rural, elderly voter who is not as engaged in politics.
This shows a larger problem with the philosophy behind the GOP’s bill: It corrects for the last election but doesn’t prepare for future ones. The State of Georgia is hurtling towards the left. The 2004 presidential election marked the GOP’s high-water mark in Georgia, with President George W. Bush winning the state by nearly seventeen points. Ever since then, the Democratic Party has gained an average of 4.2 points in every presidential election, until 2020, when Biden won the state by a hair-splittingly close margin of 12,000 votes––about 0.2 points.
Simple math dictates that in 2024, Georgia will be won by the Democratic presidential nominee by a margin of 4.4%. That’s somewhere between Trump’s 2020 margins of victory in Florida and Texas. If an electoral margin of victory this large were to happen, it would overcome the ugliest part of the new bill, the part wherein the legislature is empowered to micromanage and dismiss local election officials.
That exact number, of course, will likely not be true, due to an innumerable number of factors that can influence a state’s partisanship, but it provides a good ballpark estimate to gauge the effects of the new bill. Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia came from the double effect that is the growth of Atlanta’s suburbs, as well as exponential growth of the suburbs themselves. If this trend continues as is, which it likely will, Georgia Democrats have nothing to fear but fear itself.