Georgia's Election Laws Couldn't Stop Raphael Warnock

Soon after Georgia voters in November 2020 chose Joe Biden for president, then in January 2021 sent Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the Senate, panicked Republicans got to work on changing the state’s election laws, ostensibly for their political survival. The Republican chair of the Gwinnett County Board of Registrations and Elections, Alice O’Lenick, was blunt: “I will not let them end this [state legislative] session without changing some of these laws. They don’t have to change all of them, but they’ve got to change the major parts of them so that we at least have a shot at winning.”

Two months later, Georgia’s Republican state legislators obliged. The Election Integrity Act of 2021, or SB 202, added voter ID requirements to mail voting, banned organizations from returning mail ballots, constrained access to drop boxes, and prohibited mobile voting buses, among other new rules.

Democrats viewed these provisions as weapons to suppress their voters, particularly in African American communities. Federal voting rights legislation was deemed existential. When Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema refused to scrap the filibuster to pass a voting rights bill, they were excoriated. “If Manchin and Sinema enjoy being in the majority, they had better figure out a way to get around the filibuster when it comes to voting and civil rights,” said Representative Jim Clyburn. The Democratic group Emily’s List, founded to support pro-choice female candidates, withdrew its endorsement of Sinema because “she undermines the foundations of our democracy.”

The Democrats’ bill was filibustered. The Georgia law was enacted. Then Warnock won Georgia again, and Democrats claimed a 51–49 Senate majority.

African American turnout in yesterday’s runoff election appears to have been robust and decisive. While we don’t have final demographic numbers yet, we can compare early vote data from all four Georgia elections over the past two years. Black voters composed 31.9 percent of the runoff early vote, precisely one point more than the January 2021 special election runoff. (Warnock won his first runoff by two points, and according to The New York Times estimate, he will win this time by three.) The Black share of the December 2022 runoff early vote is also higher than their share in November 2022 (29.1 percent) and November 2020 (27.7 percent).

The Black share of the Georgia electorate in November 2022 was a tick lower than in the general election two years ago, dropping from 27.3 to 26.2 percent. But, according to an analysis by Nate Cohn of The New York Times, Black turnout in this midterm was lower in many Black areas, so we shouldn’t be quick to conclude that SB 202 played a direct role.

Furthermore, if the point of Republican restrictive voting laws in Georgia and elsewhere was to suppress the vote to such an extent that Democrats couldn’t win, the plan failed. In states with strict voter ID laws that don’t allow for alternatives such as signed affidavits, this year, Democrats won hard-fought governor’s races (Arizona, Wisconsin, and Kansas) and Senate races (Arizona and Georgia). Democrats also performed well in swing states with non-strict voter ID laws, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, keeping both governorships and winning key congressional races. Perhaps most importantly, Democrats needed to succeed in voter ID states to maintain control of the Senate, and they did.

Not only have Democrats won races in states with Republican-drawn voting laws, but Republicans have shown that they can do well in states with Democratic-drawn voting laws. During the administration of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, Democrats aggressively liberalized their electoral system, ending strict voter ID laws, starting automatic voter registration, creating a 45-day window for no-excuse early voting, and making Election Day a holiday. Who won the first Virginian gubernatorial election under the new laws? Republican Glenn Youngkin.

In recent years New York State has enacted various progressive election reforms, including 10 days of early voting, automatic registration for teens when they get driver’s permits, enfranchisement for paroled felons, and strengthened legal protections against racially discriminatory election policies at the local level. What happened in this year’s election? Republicans gained four House seats in New York, accounting for nearly half of their nine-seat net gain.

In short, everything both parties have told themselves about election laws—at least in regards to which parties are helped by restrictive and expansive reforms—has been proved wrong repeatedly. Voter ID laws don’t suppress voters, regardless of the intent behind them; academic research has shown that they boomerang and galvanize the voters thought to be targeted for suppression. Jim Crow 2.0 is far weaker than Jim Crow 1.0. And easier access to voting doesn’t only help young people of color vote; plenty of old, white Republicans can use snail mail or vote early in person. (And not a few are also ex-felons.) In fact, after absorbing the 2022 midterm results, Republicans appear to be increasingly aware that instead of disparaging early voting, they should be competing for early voters.

The prospects for bipartisanship in the next Congress are dim, with control of the two chambers divided. But maybe, just maybe, both parties can finally have some good-faith negotiations over voting rights laws, with the knowledge that increased voting access does not naturally advantage either party.

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