Politicians in Georgia are again taking aim at the right to vote. In a reprise of last year, Republicans in the House of Representatives are considering a bill that would slash early voting – a move that will hurt all voters across the state and make it more difficult for election officials to administer the vote.
House Bill 194, which would go into effect for the 2016 presidential election, would cut the number of days for early in-person voting from 21 to 12. The bill also restricts local governments’ current options in when and how to conduct weekend early voting hours. HB 194 is not the first attempt by Georgia to cut early voting opportunities. In 2011, Georgia cut early in-person voting from 45 days to 21. Last year, a bill that would have reduced early voting in municipal elections from 21 to 6 days failed in the legislature, after a push by advocates to defeat it.
The flexibility that early voting provides, and which HB 194 seeks to restrict, is overwhelmingly popular with voters. Last year, 33 percent of Georgia voters went to the polls early to cast their votes for senator and governor. Forty-four percent of voters in the 2012 presidential election, and 46 percent in the 2008 presidential election, did the same. Many of these voters—just under 138,000 in 2014—went to the polls during the precise days that HB 194 would cut. And, contrary to claims by the bill’s sponsors that early voting is used less in and is more expensive for smaller counties, data from around Georgia shows that early voting is actually popular in less-densely populated areas. As a Brennan Center report on early voting documented, all voters benefit when they can choose to vote on a day that does not conflict with work, family care, or other obligations.
The bill is particularly troubling given the frequency with which black voters take advantage of early voting. In the 2014, 2012, and 2008 elections, black voters in Georgia cast approximately one-third of early ballots. According to one study, the rate of blacks in southern states voting early in person nearly tripled between the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. These numbers climb even higher when early in-person voting is offered on Sundays, as it was for the first time in parts of Georgia last year. More than 12,600 Georgians voted on Sunday, and The New York Times reported that 53 percent of those voters were black. The bill appears to be a partisan response to this strong black turnout. Although HB 194 originally mandated Sunday voting, the current version of the bill does not, and actually forbids counties from offering more than four hours of Sunday voting.
In addition to making elections more difficult for voters, this bill would also burden election officials. Georgia’s experience with early in-person voting has been positive: the state’s bipartisan Elections Advisory Council, which made recommendations for improving the state’s elections, recommended no changes to the state’s current system. At the national level, the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration recommended that states expand early in-person voting to limit Election Day congestion. And the Brennan Center has found that early in-person voting reduces stress on the voting system on Election Day, improves poll worker performance by providing poll workers with an extended period to gain experience before Election Day, and allows for the early identification and correction of registration errors and voting system glitches. Reducing early voting could also increase election administration costs: Officials in Georgia have stated they would have to create more polling stations and provide additional machines to offset the reduced early voting window.
Data shows that all voters like early voting, and that it makes the jobs of election administrators easier. With the 2016 presidential election approaching, politicians in Georgia would be better off working to serve their constituents instead of playing politics with the right to vote.