Changes to Georgia’s voting laws cut length of advance voting period
This past summer the Georgia state legislature passed H.B. 92, effectively shortening the length of time Georgia voters can cast early ballots from 45 days to 21 days. The law also requires polls be open at least one Saturday prior to the general or primary election where a federal office is up for grabs. However, if no federal offices are included in the election, localities are not required to maintain Saturday voting hours. Passage of this new bill raises the unique question of whether a reduction in this voting period will amount to a significant burden for Georgians attempting to exercise their franchise before election day?
The law is one of many similar bills across the country, potentially signaling a significant push back in the recent growth of advance voting and no-fault absentee voting. Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia have all passed laws reducing early voting period. Further, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, and North Carolina all recently considered similar legislation. These legislative changes have garnered the attention of the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan public policy and legal think tank at the New York University School of Law, ultimately raising concerns that such enactments may serve as a step backwards for election administration. Conversely, many state legislatures proffered economic hardship and potential savings as the rationale and necessity for such laws.
Arguments against advance voting period reductions
Limitations are dictated by a partisan pretext. As argued by the Brennan Center and national editorials, Republican controlled legislatures, including Georgia’s own House of Representatives and State Senate, may have been motivated by the Democratic Party’s success in the 2008 election. Notably, statistics highlight that early voting jumped to a staggering one-third of the ballots cast in 2008, including rising numbers of southern African American voters who utilized advance voting in the historic election of President Barack Obama. Noting such a strong electoral threat, it is arguably only natural for Republican lawmakers to curb Democratic organization in 2012 by simply making it harder to vote. In Georgia, the law was passed over the objection of several black legislators, including Democratic State Senator Donzella James who argued, “We must provide every way possible for people to vote. It’s not costing that much. The staff is already there and the facilities are available.”
Reductions make getting to polls less convenient. Perhaps the largest argument in favor of early voting is that it makes voting easier and more convenient, allowing people to vote on their own schedule. The Brennan Justice Center notes in its report entitled Voting Law Changes in 2012 that although there is not strong evidence that advance voting or absentee voting necessarily increases turnout, there is significant anecdotal evidence that these practices make election administration less problematic, reducing waiting lines and the “crunch” of voters on election day.
Arguments in favor of advance voting period reductions
Cuts are necessary to couch economic concerns and reduce administrative burdens. Argued by Republican sponsor Bill Hembree, “[w]e need to maintain early voting, which is very popular, [but] we also need to keep in mind that cities and counties are having economic problems. This bill still allows people to vote early, but saves money.” In light of recent economic crunches across the nation, including Georgia, economic arguments are compelling. Further, as highlighted by a spokesman for the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, the original advance voting period of 45 days presents a problem for smaller counties employing limited administrative staffs. The Georgia Municipal Association also supported the passage of H.B. 92 on the grounds that shortening would save money in small localities.
The reduced period is still long enough to maintain the rationale behind early voting. Those in favor of H.B. 92 also argue that even though the bill results in a reduced period for advance voting, the law still provides Georgians ample time to visit the polls prior to the election. Republican state lawmaker David Knight, in a press statement on his website, states that “[c]areful review of this time frame [former 45 day period] consistently showed that only three percent of early voting occurs in the first two weeks of the current 45 day period. However, more than 75 percent of all early voting occurs in the last three weeks of an election.” Further, proponents of the bill argue that although the bill reduces the number of days, the bill also expands access on the polling days by requiring early voting locations be open during normal business hours.
Ultimately, only time will tell if the pendulum will swing back towards reducing early voting periods across the nation or if the movement will only stretch to those states already acting on the issue. Regardless, both sides of the debate raise valid arguments in support of their point of view. As with many of the laws surrounding elections, politics never fail to play a role and the battle for advance voting is no different.
Lauren Coleman is a third-year law student at William & Mary.