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Since 2020, Georgia has restored old voting restrictions and added new ones

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start today in Georgia for several reasons. It has two of the most competitive statewide races taking place in the country right now for governor and for the U.S. Senate. That contest had its one and only debate last night, and we'll have more on that in a minute. Also, Georgia was one of the most consequential states in the 2020 election when both U.S. Senate seats flipped from Republican to Democrat and President Biden became the first Democrat to win Georgia in nearly 30 years. And you might remember that former President Trump was so desperate to claim victory there that he made the now-infamous call demanding that Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger find thousands of votes to overturn Biden's victory.

Now, those victories, those Democratic victories in 2020, came with record turnout, and measures passed during the pandemic to allow more access to voting by mail or drop box may have played some role in that. But since 2020, officials in Georgia, led by the Republican majority in the statehouse, have moved in the other direction, enacting a wide range of state voting laws that restored old restrictions and even added new ones. So we're asking what effect these changes might have on the midterms, as well as the next presidential election in 2024. For this, this is the second part in our series on changing election laws around the country.

We're joined by Georgia Public Broadcasting political reporter Stephen Fowler for his expertise, and he's with us now. Stephen Fowler, thanks so much for joining us.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Always a pleasure.

MARTIN: So before we talk about what rules voters are dealing with in this election, would you mind walking us through how voting changed in the state in 2020 compared to previous elections?

FOWLER: Absolutely. So in Georgia, what we saw was steps taken by Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and local election officials to help people feel safe casting their ballot during the early days of this pandemic. And the secretary of state's office sent out absentee ballot applications to all active registered voters, making it easier for them to vote by mail, get a mail-in ballot sent to their house. They could return it through the mail. And also, the main other thing we did was implement drop boxes. These were secure boxes that had to be placed on government property and under 24-hour surveillance that would allow voters to be able to take that ballot and put it in a box and not have to worry about standing in a long line of people or really interacting with people in the early days of COVID.

MARTIN: So in the two years since that election, officials in Georgia have scaled back some Election Day and early voting infrastructure that you were just telling us about. What are some of the changes you've tracked for people who still want to vote by mail or drop off their ballots in a drop box?

FOWLER: Well, there are big changes to virtually every aspect of voting in Georgia. There was a 98-page election law called Senate Bill 202 that was passed. And basically, anything to do with voting changed to some degree after 2020. And the main thing people should know about voting by mail is there's a little bit more requirements to get that ballot. Previously, there were the absentee applications where you had to put your signature, you had to put your name, your birth date and other things for them to verify. But now voters have to add a ID requirement. Now, voting rights groups and Democrats say that's an extra onerous step for something that should be relatively easy for people to do. The other change is the window in which you can request an absentee ballot. It's much narrower.

And you mentioned drop boxes. Drop boxes are a key part of this bill, because before, there wasn't really a limit on where or how many these counties could put out to help voters. So some counties put zero drop boxes. Others had, you know, several dozen spread out throughout the counties for hundreds of thousands of people. And this law standardizes how many drop boxes counties can put. Every Georgia county - and we have 159 of them - has to have at least one drop box. But they can have no more than one per 100,000 voters. So what that means is in these metropolitan areas where there are a lot of people of color and people that tend to vote Democrat, they have a cap of no more than usually five, six, seven or eight, as opposed to the 20 or 30 that were there before.

MARTIN: So more convenient, perhaps, for people in rural counties, where there may not have been any drop box, but less convenient for people in metropolitan areas, where they might have had many more.

FOWLER: Absolutely. And actually, earlier this summer, we did an investigation at Georgia Public Broadcasting, WABE in Atlanta and NPR looking at who voted in drop boxes and where and how. And we did find that overwhelmingly, the places that now have fewer drop boxes are the areas that use them the most in 2020. Go figure. And they were also in the areas, like I mentioned, where there's a lot of people that vote Democrat and a lot of people of color and a lot of just densely packed voters. So there is a disproportionate impact on this law, even though, technically speaking, there is increased access to drop boxes in some corners of the state.

MARTIN: Well, this came up last night in the Georgia Senate debate between Senator Raphael Warnock, the incumbent and a Democrat, and his Republican challenger, the former football star Herschel Walker. Senator Warnock starts off talking here about the law you just mentioned, SB 202.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAPHAEL WARNOCK: There is no question that SB 202 makes voting harder, and that is the intent. And the fact that many of our voters are overcoming this hardship doesn't undermine that reality.

MARTIN: Here's Republican candidate Herschel Walker with his response, talking about the same law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HERSCHEL WALKER: SB 202, really, it made it easier to vote and harder to cheat.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense, Stephen, of how this new law is, in fact, affecting voting access right now? Do we have any sense of that?

FOWLER: It's a little more nuanced and complicated than a lot of people would like to talk about. I mean, voting is a very complex issue. There are aspects of Georgia's voting law that makes it harder for people to do the same amount of voting that they did before, like with drop boxes and with the changes to the absentee ID requirement. But there are also things in this law that do make it easier. You know, there's more standardized early voting hours and expanded early voting hours for some counties, and there's more things behind the scenes that will make it easier for elections officials to recruit poll workers, to count the votes faster and get results quicker for people. So really, if you look at it, it's a mixed bag, which is like a lot of things with voting. But Georgia has a long history of discriminatory voting laws, so there's a lot of voters, particularly Black voters in Georgia, that are skeptical of these changes and the impact they have.

MARTIN: That was Georgia Public Broadcasting political reporter Stephen Fowler on how Georgia's newest voting laws could come into play in the 2022 midterms. Next week, we'll be looking at new voting laws in the important swing state of Nevada. Stephen Fowler, thanks so much for talking with us.

FOWLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephen Fowler is the Producer/Back-Up Host for All Things Considered and a creative storyteller hailing from McDonough, Georgia. He graduated from Emory University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. The program combined the best parts of journalism, marketing, digital media and music into a thesis on the rise of the internet rapper via the intersectionality of social media and hip-hop. He served as the first-ever Executive Digital Editor of The Emory Wheel, where he helped lead the paper into a modern digital era.