Voting Rights Aren’t Always Guaranteed in Georgia

Georgia garnered national attention this recent election cycle for its newfound status as a battleground state, but the state also cycled through election headlines for another reason— problematic voting practices.

During the June 2020 primaries, long lines and faulty machines plagued Georgia’s voting landscape. Many voters waited for hours to cast their vote and the 30,000 newly unveiled voting machines notably glitched.[1] Further, absentee ballots never arrived to many voters who requested them.[2]

The first day of in-person early voting for the general election saw similar issues. In some counties, people waited for over ten hours to cast their vote.[3] Long lines could be found in Athens with the average wait time at the Athens-Clarke County Board of Elections on the first two days of early voting ranging between two and three hours.[4]

Evidence of voter suppression in Georgia is not new. During the highly competitive 2018 gubernatorial race, thousands of ballots were lost or rejected and many others failed to see their registration status move from “pending.”[5] Georgia law also allowed ballots to be thrown out if the ballot counter deemed it mismatched the one in the system.[6] Of those who could vote, many waited in hours-long lines. Most importantly, between 2010-2018, about 1.6 million Georgians were removed from voter rolls.[7]

Not all Georgians are affected the same. The majority of those affected by the voter roll purges and long lines at precincts are people of color.[8] One study analyzed wait times for voters still in line after 7 p.m. during the June primary. It found that wait times at polling places in areas that are at least 90% or more nonwhite were 51 minutes compared to six minutes in areas that are 90% white.[9]

The limited number and inequitable distribution of polling places contribute to these long lines.

With the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision that ruled against certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act, protections aimed at defending minority voters in areas with a history of discriminatory voting practices were gutted.[10] Local governments now wield the ability to alter voting practices without federal oversight.[11] The loss of oversight now means that any decisions to change how voting operates no longer require a guarantee that minorities will be not disenfranchised.

In practice, this decision has been consequential in Georgia. In total, nearly 10% of polling locations have closed despite Georgia gaining around two million additional voters since 2012.[12] This translates to over 200 precincts being closed and a third of Georgia’s counties having fewer voting locations than in 2012.[13] The majority of the counties losing polling places have high poverty rates and large Black populations.[14]

The distribution of remaining precincts is not equitable. About 50% of Georgia’s active voters live in metro-Atlanta yet they only have access to 38% of polling places.[15]

One clear solution is to re-expand the number of polling places especially in the highly congested metro Atlanta area. Black voters are less likely to use mail-in ballots, so increasing information and trust in mail-in voting could also help shorten lines on Election Day.[16]

Although some progress has been made, continuing to increase turnout is another key facet of making Georgia elections reflect the needs of the state.

Calls to make Election Day a national holiday, in order to improve turnout, have increased. In 2014, after a historically low turnout in midterm elections, many eligible voters cited “schedule conflicts with work or school” as their reason for not voting, which renewed interest in establishing a federal holiday.[17] Critics, however, argue that many low-income workers in industries like retail and hospitality will not receive the day off and be burdened by the loss of childcare from the closing of schools.[18]

Election Day becoming a national holiday in combination with other measures would be the most effective way to improve voter turnout. Although there is debate about the magnitude, research shows that automatic voter registration increases turnout. Additionally, states with same-day registration continually rank higher in voter turnout.[19] Reversing voter ID laws and eliminating voter roll purges, which disproportionately affect people of color, also promise increased voter turnout.[20]

Overall, Georgia should expand polling places and adopt some combination of easier voter registration practices in order to make voting as smooth of a process as it should be in a well-founded democracy.