While voter turnout remained strong, absentee voting in Georgia dropped off drastically in this year's midterm election, the first major test of an expansive 2021 voting law that added restrictions for casting ballots by mail.
Data released by the Georgia secretary of state showed that mail voting in the state's November general election plunged by 81% from the level of the 2020 contest. While a drop was expected after the height of the pandemic, Georgia had a far greater decrease than any other state with competitive statewide races, according to a New York Times analysis.
Turnout data suggests that a large majority of people who voted by mail in 2020 found another way to cast their ballots this year - turning to in-person voting, either early or on Election Day. Turnout in the state was 56% of all active voters, shy of the 2018 high-water mark for a midterm election.
The numbers are the first sign of how the 2021 law may have affected the election in Georgia, which has recently established itself as a battleground state. The law was signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, and backed by GOP state lawmakers who said that the changes would make it "easier to vote, harder to cheat." It significantly limited drop boxes, added voter identification requirements and prevented election officials from proactively mailing out absentee ballot applications.
But civil rights groups, voting rights advocates and Democrats noted that there was no evidence of widespread fraud in elections. They viewed the law, known as SB 202, as an attempt to suppress Democratic-leaning voters, especially people of color, who had just helped flip Georgia blue in a presidential election for the first time in decades.
President Joe Biden called the law "Jim Crow in the 21st century." MLB moved its All-Star game out of suburban Atlanta in protest.
This year, after a mostly smooth and high-turnout general election under the new rules, both sides saw validation in their arguments. Republicans pointed to the strong overall turnout as evidence that the law had not suppressed votes. Democrats and civil rights groups argued that their sprawling voter education and mobilization efforts had helped people overcome the new hurdles.
But most election experts say the law's true impact on voting is much murkier and requires more data and research. Turnout alone does not capture whether voters faced additional burdens - in time, effort and cost - or whether those burdens were shared equally by voters of different races, ages and geographic regions. In most cases, election rules are less likely to affect overall turnout than other factors, like the competitiveness and the stakes of an election, the amount of advertising and organizing, and how strong or weak candidates are.
"Turnout is impacted by so many factors at once," said Sean Morales-Doyle, the director of the voting rights program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which opposed the Georgia election law.
Morales-Doyle noted a dip in Black voter turnout in Georgia this year as an example. The Black share of the overall vote in 2022 was 26.1%, compared with 28.9% in 2018. But Morales-Doyle said that it would be a leap to assume that the drop was a result of the new election rules.
"It is absolutely fair to be concerned - and we are concerned - about the fact that there is a growing racial turnout gap in Georgia," Morales-Doyle said. "We just don't know yet which of those trends can be tied to SB 202 and which cannot."
The law did have a clear impact on other parts of the election system in Georgia. It required local election officials to hold a hearing every time a voter challenges another voter's eligibility. That ate up local election officials' time and resources, as some voters challenged thousands of voters.
The law also shortened the period between the general election and a runoff from nine weeks to four. That has left Herschel Walker, the Republican nominee for Senate, and Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, with less time to campaign in their Dec. 6 runoff election.
In addition, the law gave voters fewer days to request a mail ballot. There have been reports of long lines during early voting in the runoff, with waits of more than two hours to vote at some locations in Atlanta.
Jason Snead, the director of the Honest Elections Project, a conservative group that has filed legal briefs in support of the law, said the legislation had had a "positive impact" on this year's midterm elections.
"We got a very quick results. There were no reports of significant failures, exorbitant lines. No one was reporting any systemwide problems, and I think that's a testament to the improvements in the Georgia law," Snead said.
During the final weeks of the campaign, Kemp pointed to high turnout and few reports of long lines as evidence that the law was working.
"Under this new legislation, we just had the third-largest voter turnout for early voting in our state's history," Kemp said on Fox News two days before the election. "So it truly is easy to vote and hard to cheat here."
There is anecdotal evidence that voters ran into new logistical challenges this year.
Isaiah Thompson, a student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, voted absentee in 2020, casting his ballot in a drop box that was open around the clock during the presidential election.
Thompson planned to do the same this year, and as a volunteer for the voting rights group Fair Fight at his university, he thought he understood the new changes. But when he went after class one day to cast his ballot at the previous drop-box location at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds, he found it shuttered.
"It just made it extremely inconvenient, because you couldn't really do it ahead of the time that was best for you," Thompson said. He added that he had woken up at 6 a.m. on Election Day because polls opened early and it was the only time he could vote before classes. The new law, he said, "just made it a lot harder than I think it should have been."
Mike Hassinger, a spokesperson for the secretary of state's office in Georgia, said that the 2022 election had gone "smoothly," noting that there was an early-voting period of more than two weeks.
"We did see a return to pre-pandemic preferences on how voters chose to vote, but we also saw an overall increase in the amount of absentee ballots cast both in raw number and as a percent of the overall vote when compared to 2018," Hassinger said. "Even experts adverse to Georgia have admitted that turnout was extremely high by historic standards."
The decrease in absentee voting in Georgia compared with 2020 was far greater than in other states with similar races. In Michigan, for example, absentee voting decreased by about 46% from the 2020 election, according to a Times analysis of data from the University of Florida's U.S. Elections Project. In Florida, the drop-off was about 45%, and in Pennsylvania, absentee voting had a roughly 54% decrease.
About 1.3 million mail ballots were cast in Georgia in the presidential election two years ago, compared with just under 250,000 last month - an 81% decrease.
Tom Bonier, the CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic data analysis firm, said that 40% of Georgians who cast a ballot by mail in 2020 voted early in person in 2022, in an apparently significant shift toward voting in person. But 29% of those who cast a mail ballot in 2020 did not vote at all in the 2022 midterms, he added.
The second group's lack of participation in the midterms does not necessarily suggest that the law prevented them from voting. To cite just one possible reason, turnout always drops in midterm elections.
"The most valid reference point is unachievable: what turnout would have been if it had not been enacted," Bonier said, referring to the law. "Yes, turnout was good in Georgia overall. It was also one of the most expensive Senate races ever and incredibly competitive. Turnout was slightly down in the bigger Democratic counties. Was that due to SB 202 or due to Democrats just naturally being less engaged without Trump in the White House? It's impossible to say at this point, at least."
© 2022 The New York Times Company