In the summer of 2021, Georgia governor Brian Kemp signed into law a series of voting restrictions destined to impact citizen turnout in all upcoming state and federal elections. This legislation clearly exercises undue influence on historically disenfranchised populations, making participation in voting—perhaps one of the most fundamental pillars of democracy—increasingly inaccessible to minority and low-income communities.
Georgia’s New Law
The new voting policy in this emerging battleground state targets three major components of the electoral process: drop boxes, absentee ballots, and the State Election Board.
In accordance with the law, counties are only granted one drop box for every 100,000 active voters or one drop box for every early voting location, whichever is smaller. This means a sharp decline in the number of drop boxes available statewide, especially in the most populous counties. Moreover, drop boxes will no longer be made available in outdoor locales and or stay open through the end of Election Day. Instead, they will be placed exclusively inside early voting sites and election offices and will close at the end of early voting hours.
Still, before voters may even observe these changes to their drop boxes, they must abide by new rules governing their absentee ballots. Gone are the days when citizens had six months to request an absentee ballot. Now, voters are left with a mere 67 days. Furthermore, if individuals want an absentee ballot, they must go through the formal process of requesting it and must be able to offer proof of identity in doing so.
Finally, the state legislature was granted new authority to appoint the chair of the State Election Board. This governing body also assumed the ability to suspend county election officials at their discretion.
Still Sounds Like Democracy to Me
Many may hear of this new law and wonder what the big deal is. The politicians behind the legislation insist it will reduce fraud and promote election integrity. Minimizing corruption, reducing error, and bolstering public faith in election legitimacy would all support a healthy democracy. However, even if we assume these policies were crafted with the best of intentions, they generate consequences that unambiguously threaten our democratic ideals.
Let’s begin by considering alterations to absentee ballot policies. In the state of Georgia, over 272,000, or roughly 3.5%, of all registered voters do not have a driver’s license or state ID to certify their identity to election officials. In general, people of color are less likely to have IDs than their white counterparts, and even when they do, their ID numbers may not match their voter registrations. Hence, Black voters often living in Democratic-leaning counties are being shut out of the electoral process by the Republican leadership governing the state.
Even if individuals in these communities are able to overcome the hurdles involved in the absentee ballot process, they must also overcome the new challenges presented by the decline in drop boxes. Often more economically disadvantaged, Black voters frequently lack consistent and desirable access to transportation. Decreasing the number of drop boxes available statewide inevitably means that many voters will have to travel farther distances to submit their ballots.
Given that Election Day is not a national holiday in the United States, communities of color as well as younger voters often rely on absentee voting to make their voices heard without risking their livelihoods to spend a Tuesday at the polls. Making it more difficult for these individuals to acquire and submit their absentee ballots is unmistakably a form of voter suppression.
Furthermore, the new system of appointing the State Election Board chair invites additional partisan influence into the electoral process. In an era of rising polarization throughout the state and the nation, allowing such ambiguous discretion raises more questions about election integrity than it solves.
Ok, it’s bad. But is it democratic erosion?
Democratic erosion doesn’t look the same as it used to. Instead of coup d’états or blatant acts of electoral fraud, executive aggrandizement and strategic voter harassment and manipulation are now the telltale signs of backsliding.
Efforts to hamper voter participation by complicating the process of requesting an absentee ballot and mailing it off in certain neighborhoods reflects a clear intention to disenfranchise populations expected to oppose incumbent leadership. Republican party politics remain strong in the state of Georgia, and this law seeks to suppress the voices of Black voters, the most loyal constituency of the Democratic Party.
In fact, electoral laws are often weaponized in “stealth authoritarianism,” or subtle methods of tyrannical rule executed through policies common in healthy democratic regimes. Democratic processes are structured through law; but, laws are written and enacted by self-interested politicians, leaving them vulnerable to manipulation.
For example, voter registration laws often place undue burden on citizens in rural areas, forcing them to commute great distances to the city center simply to engage in frivolous bureaucratic activities Meanwhile, voter identification laws are also prone to abuse with unwavering requirements of specific documentation not easily accessible to all citizens.
Georgia’s new law subjects voters to some version of both of these burdens. After undertaking the labor of registering to vote and requesting an absentee ballot with precisely the same identifying information, it forces poor individuals with unreliable means of transit to travel to more distant, unfamiliar areas simply to access a drop box for their ballots.
By creating conflict over who belong as a member of the political community, this law undermines the very foundation of American democracy. In a nation created “of the people, by the people, for the people,” everybody has an inherent right to vote, and this right ought to be equally attainable for all.
Any policy that promotes racial hierarches or the exclusion of other minoritized communities fundamentally compromises democratic values. If democracy exists on a continuum, the passage of laws like this one move the nation further away from the democratic ideal, actively perpetuating democratic erosion.