Governor Brian Kemp signed the extensive SB 202 into law on Thursday, March 25, which made serious changes to how the democratic process will be conducted in the State of Georgia. This bill, dubbed the “Election Integrity Act of 2021,” passed out of legislative session with a party-line vote, with members of the Georgia Republican Party being the sole advocates for its passing.
This bill’s passing makes drastic changes to how elections are held in Georgia, which means that its passing will impact multiple facets of the voter experience. Below, we have outlined these changes.
On Absentee Voting
Senior voters aged 65 and older, voters with disabilities, and voters who live overseas will still be able to receive mail-in absentee ballots automatically after application for the duration of an election cycle.
The earliest that voters can now request absentee ballots is now 11 weeks prior to an election, as opposed to the previously allocated 180 days, which equates to a little less than 26 weeks. The deadline for competition of these applications has also been moved a week sooner, with applications now being due two Fridays prior to election day, and counties are now required to wait three weeks later than before to begin mailing out these mail-in ballots.
New identification regulations have also been introduced via this bill. Now, in order to request or return an absentee ballot you are required to provide a driver’s license or state ID number. If you do not have either of those documents, you are permitted to provide a copy of a state-issued voter identification card. Designated poll workers will then use this information, along with your date of birth and address, to verify the identity of the mail-in voter. This new identification policy is set to replace the long-opposed signature matching strategy.
Absentee ballots can now also be returned online, via the Secretary of State’s recently launched online request portal.
State and local governments have now been prohibited from sending out unsolicited absentee ballot applications, and regulations pertaining to application distribution by third-party organizations have been made much more stringent. Their correspondence must be clearly labeled “NOT an official government publication” and “NOT a ballot. They must also clearly state on this correspondence the name of the organization that sent the ballot application.
SB 202 also requires that all absentee ballots be printed on government-produced security paper, which could be cost prohibitive to some counties. It also requires that the voter’s precinct’s name and number be printed at the top of the ballot. They have also included stipulations regarding the integrity of the envelope that the ballot is to be sealed in, saying that the envelope must sufficiently conceal the enclosed information from outside view once sealed.
Georgian runoffs will now begin approximately four weeks after the general election, instead of the previous nine-week-long time gap, and will be conducted according to newly outlined ranked-choice voting guidelines. This shortened time period means that military and other overseas government personnel who receive Georgia-issued absentee ballots will now receive their runoff and general election ballots concurrently, since federal law still mandates that they receive their voting information at least 45 days prior to election day for federal elections.
Absentee drop boxes have also become more strictly regulated. All counties are now required to have at least one drop box available for use, but are prohibited from having any more than one for every early voting site or one for every 100,000 active voters in said county. The legislation states that these ballot drop boxes must also be placed inside of the early voting precincts now, instead of their outside place during the previous election cycle, and can only be accessible during the hours that the precinct is open. SB 202 has also required that the State Election Board provide more notice of proposed emergency rulings such as those that led to the emergency regulations put in place due to the pandemic. They have also limited the scope in which these rulings can be enacted.
On Early Voting
This bill provides for another mandatory Saturday of early voting, and classifies all Sunday voting hours as optional. It also states that the maximum time frame that counties can have their early voting precincts open daily is from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and that the minimum required hours are 9 a.m. to 5p.m.
The bill also contains explicit language banning counties from providing mobile polling entities in any situation other than emergencies that have been explicitly declared by the governor. This means that Fulton County’s mobile voting busses, which were purchased in 2020 as part of their efforts to curtail excessive voting lines, are no longer eligible for use outside of the indicated emergency situations.
Additionally, the law now requires that in the event that a polling location changes or is closed, a 4-by-4-foot sign must be placed at the old location detailing the change and the location of the replacement precinct.
One of the most controversial additions to SB 202 was the section that forbids anyone other than registered poll workers from distributing water to voters waiting in long lines on election days, as well making it illegal to distribute food or drink to voters within 150 feet of the polling location, inside a polling location, or within 25 feet of any voter that is standing in line to cast their ballot.
Counties are also now legally required to publicly provide daily updates on how many votes have been cast at each precinct. This includes the number of in-person votes cast and the number of absentee ballots accepted, rejected, and returned thus far.
On Vote Counting
SB 202 includes a section that allows local election officials to begin processing absentee ballots two weeks prior to election day. They are not, however, allowed to tabulate these ballots this early. This section also states that counties are required to count ballots nonstop after the polls close and must complete their counts by 5 p.m. the day after election day. Failure to do this could result in investigation.
Local elections officials must also report the total number of ballots cast – including those cast early, absentee ballots, and provisional ballots – by 10 p.m. on election day.
It is also important to note that out-of-precinct provisional ballots will no longer be eligible for consideration unless cast after 5 p.m. and accompanied by a signed statement from the voter that says that it would be impossible for them to make it to their assigned polling location prior to closing.
This bill also moves the deadline for election certification up to six days after the close of the polls, which deviates significantly from the previously established ten day window.
On County Elections Offices
SB 202 gives local election officials a lot more leeway regarding how much voting equipment they are required to provide. Previously, they were required to provide one ballot-marking device for every 250 voters, but they are now able to offer fewer devices at their discretion in all elections other than statewide general elections.
Counties are also required to provide clear and obvious public notices of the accuracy and testing of voting machines. They must post these notices on the county website, in local newspapers, and in a prominent location in the county so that citizens are well aware of the times and locations of such tests. The Secretary of State’s office must also be notified as they must keep a public master list of all such tests being conducted statewide.
This bill also prohibits county elections offices from directly accepting funding from philanthropic third-party organizations, as many urban and rural counties did during the 2020 election cycle. Legislatures said they are in the process of contriving a way for the State Election Board to receive such donations and distribute them equitably across the state.
The new law also requires that counties take direct action in response to precinct wait times that exceed one hour. Large precincts that serve more than 2,000 voters and have wait lines that exceed the aforementioned limit must be split or must have their staffing increased by the county that presides over that precinct.
Poll watchers are now required to be trained before being allowed to work, and local officials are now able to dictate where poll watchers may observe. They are also now allowed to serve in adjoining counties.
Did you know that the public can attend Board of Registration and Elections meetings?
These meetings are open to the public by Georgia law. Georgia Open Meetings Act.
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