On Tuesday, December 6th, Georgians went to the polls for what was the fifth statewide election in two years to determine who fills the seat previously held by the late Senator Johnny Isakson for a full six-year term. Elections in the Peach State have recently raised questions about democracy. What is it? Do we really have it? Is it under assault and by whom? Georgians hear a lot about expanding democracy lately, but what does that actually mean – in real, human terms?
In 2021, the Georgia State Legislature passed SB202, a nearly 100-page bill that overhauled almost 48 different voting laws. The time period for runoffs was shortened to just 4 weeks, and how this shakes out in a big midterm election isn’t always clear. Progress Georgia spoke with Stephanie Jackson Ali, Policy Director for New Georgia Project, a voting rights organization, about a specific example of this regarding whether counties could use weekends as early voting days.
“On the 9th, one day after the election, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (gave) a press conference and said that Saturday would be available for folks if counties choose to do it, and then two days later his office is the one suing to keep Saturday [voting] from happening,” said Stephanie Jackson Ali.
The question arose from competing interpretations of Georgia’s legal code. A law on the books before SB202’s passage stated that Early Vote Days couldn’t fall directly after state or federal holidays. Due to the shortened runoff period from SB202, Early Voting on the weekend would fall right after Thanksgiving. The next day, known to most people as Black Friday, is also a state holiday. In a perverse blend of white supremacy and capitalism, the holiday used to be known as Robert E. Lee Day after the infamous Confederate Army General until public pressure forced the state to change it in the last few years. They haven’t decided exactly what they want to do with it yet, but the day itself is still on the books. Presumably, the Secretary of State’s Office would’ve known this, but that’s what happens when you ram a massive Frankenstein bill like SB202 through the state legislature in only two days. The writers of the bill went so quickly – desperate to appease Trump’s base of jilted white voters – that they couldn’t even keep it consistent with existing law. Stephanie Jackson Ali continued,
“(The S.O.S. sued to prevent Saturday voting) Based on this completely obscure law that was not utilized in 2020 because we did have Saturday voting after Christmas in 2020, and then at the very same time (the Secretary of State’s Office) is setting up a Special Election for January 3rd following the passing of Speaker Ralston; which is itself two days after New Year’s Day – a holiday. Not even Early Voting, the actual election itself (is two days after a holiday). This is not being carried through in any kind of regular way.”
Wanting to know more, we took a field trip to another voting rights organization, the Georgia Coalition for a People’s Agenda, and they filled us in on more of the details. Georgia Coalition for a People’s Agenda is one of the state’s most storied progressive organizations; having been founded and run by the late Rev. Joseph Lowery. Long story short, Senator Raphael Warnock’s Campaign, The Democratic Party of Georgia, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sued to allow counties to use the Saturday after Thanksgiving as an Early Vote Day. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thomas A. Cox Jr. sided with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s campaign and the Democratic groups to allow early voting during the runoff election. That’s when the real work started.
Each of Georgia’s 159 counties sets its own Early Voting Dates, and there’s no central calendar. This means that organizers had to call each county and ask whether they would have Saturday voting or not, what the details were, and then quickly get that information out to the public.
New Georgia Project is one of the organizations that did just that. They’ve spent almost two weeks calling different Boards of Elections across the state and sharing what they learn with voters and community organizations across the state as possible. We caught up with Tori McFarland, an Organizing Associate for the group, to ask how it was going and what exactly their work looked like at the moment.
“As it relates to this runoff period, it is a lot of list building, list generation, because we’re trying to contact these 159 counties – hundreds, thousands of calls even. Just trying to get information, and figure out how we can notify people of this information. What counties have Saturday voting? What time are they starting early voting? Because a lot of these are in flux,“ explained McFarland.
And the structure differs from county to county, making the task more complicated. As Tori elaborated,
“Who we call really depends on the county. We might be calling a representative of the Elections Office, the Elections Director, [or] a member of the Board of Elections. It varies, so that part too takes time because we have to do some research on the front end.”
And Tori isn’t alone. While they’re figuring out what the rules are in each county, students are mobilizing to try and expand their community’s access. To understand this aspect better, we went to Georgia State University in Downtown Atlanta to talk to Hylah Daly about how SB202 impacted students and what they were doing to overcome the odds. We met up in the Student Government Association office at the Student Center just as a dozen or so students were launching a campus canvass for the day. Hylah Daly works with the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition – a relatively new network that engages students in high schools and colleges across the state around equity issues and the political process. Taylor Robinson-Howard, Digital Communications Manager at Progress Georgia and host for this episode, asked her if the reduced runoff timeline impacted students and if so, how.
“It definitely is frustrating – especially because we have exams next week. Some of us have exams this week. So, it really gets in the way of our college life, “ Daly responded. “It is frustrating, but this isn’t the only time (people) have faced voter suppression.”
“Just another day, right?” Taylor Robinson-Howard quipped. Robinson-Howard continued, “With that, would you say your preferred method of voting, or other students’, changes with these circumstances?”
Daly responded quickly.
“I would say so. I know a lot of people would prefer mailing in their ballot.”
These are all regular people fighting to expand access to the democratic process in Georgia, but they won’t actually be the ones tasked with carrying out any changes. For the whole picture, Progress Georgia sat down with Rocky Raffle. He’s the Chair of the Elections Board in Athens-Clarke County, home of the University of Georgia, and we asked him how runoffs have impacted the elections process there. His response was telling:
“The (election) workers are tired. They’ve been doing this audit. They’ve been working early voting. They’ve been working long hours. People are worn out. Certain people are trained to do certain tasks, and your pool is only so large for people who can do this task versus that task. I would say there’s not enough support from the Secretary of State on training and development of workers.”