The upcoming primary elections on May 24, 2022, will mark the first time that many Georgia voters will cast their ballots with a new, highly suppressive voting law in place. This law, S.B. 202, was passed by the state’s legislature in a rushed, secretive process that was a direct response to ever-growing and then historic turnout of Black and voters of color during the 2020 general elections and the January 2021 Senate runoff election.
S.B. 202 has many restrictive provisions targeted at diminishing the political power of voters of color. Some of them include: new and burdensome restrictions on absentee voting, severe limitations on ballot drop box accessibility, the criminalization of line warming (the practice of offering free food, water, and other items to voters standing in line at polling locations), and new language expressly permitting a single Georgia voter to challenge the registration status and voting qualifications of an unlimited number of voters within their same county or municipality.
Because of S.B. 202, voters could encounter a variety of new barriers and burdens as they head to the polls this election cycle, in addition to contending with problems that have long plagued voters of color. It’s important to take a closer look at some of these challenges to help Georgians prepare to navigate them as they exercise their fundamental right to vote.
Brandon Winns, a voter from Calhoun County, has already felt the impact of S.B. 202 firsthand. In 2021, Winns and nearly a hundred other voters had their voter registration statuses challenged by a single voter. “I have voted in every single election … and I have always voted in Calhoun County,” Winns tells LDF. “I’m even a former elected official in Calhoun County, [which requires me to have residency].”
Under Georgia law, an individual’s right to vote can be challenged at any point up until they cast their ballot at their polling place. If the challenged voter casts an absentee ballot, their right to vote may be challenged any time before 5 p.m. on the day before absentee ballot scanning and tabulation begins. There are many reasons an individual can cite for challenging another voter’s qualifications, including claiming that the voter has died, is imprisoned, is not a United States citizen, or has relocated to another county or state.
“I was extremely upset when I found out that someone had challenged my [right to remain on the voter registration list]. There was no valid reason to challenge me. [An invalid] rumor that I lived in Atlanta got me on the list [of challenged voters],” Winns emphasizes. “The chairwoman of the board of registrars lives three blocks up the street. These people know me. Calhoun County has one real traffic light. Everybody knows everybody. [They] knew exactly where I lived and they still removed me from the voters’ list.”
These people know me. Calhoun County has one real traffic light. Everybody knows everybody. [They] knew exactly where I lived and they still removed me from the voters’ list.
The challenge to Winns’ registration status was unsupported. Yet, he was forced to show up at a hearing to defend himself against it — and ensure he could remain on the voter registration rolls. Even after going through the hearing process, however, Winns was removed from the registration list and then re-registered on his own. He tells LDF that, unfortunately, many people who had their qualifications challenged alongside him have still not been added back to the registration list.
To defend against potential challenges, Georgia voters should be ready to present necessary documentation when requested. Some acceptable proof of residency documents include utility and phone bills, financial statements, and physical postmarked mail delivered by the United States Postal Service — all of which must be dated within the past six months and show your name and residential address. Individuals may also be able to use a current valid rental agreement and rent payment receipts, as well as mortgage receipts, for the same purpose. For proof of citizenship, voters may utilize a U.S. passport or passport card, certificate of naturalization, certificate of citizenship, or other acceptable documents. Voters should also have proof of identity documents for name and gender identity changes.
Additionally, Georgia voters should familiarize themselves with S.B. 202’s challenge provisions — and reach out to for support if they need to defend themselves against a challenge. For example, a challenger must be a registered voter in the same county or municipality as the voter being challenged; and private entities, businesses, political committees and parties and other organizations do not qualify as challengers.
LDF can serve as one source of support if voters receive a challenge — and they can contact LDF’s Prepared to Vote and Voting Rights Defender teams at email@example.com. Moreover, Winns also recommends that you consider contacting your elected officials if you have questions about the challenge process. “Always pay attention to who your representatives are and reach out to them if you’re afraid or don’t know what’s going on,” Winns emphasizes. “Reach out and ask someone to ensure that everything is going the way it should be going by law.”
“Always pay attention to who your representatives are and reach out to them if you’re afraid or don’t know what’s going on. Reach out and ask someone to ensure that everything is going the way it should be going by law.
Polling location closures or drastic consolidations can significantly impact voter turnout and serve as a source of agitation for voters attempting to cast their ballots on Election Day, especially when they are not provided with suitable alternatives. While Georgia law authorizes county superintendents or governing authorities to designate the polling places within each precinct, it also regulates their ability to make changes to those locations in the absence of unusual circumstances. For example, polling places may not be changed on Election Day, within 60 days of a general primary, general election, or runoff, or within 30 days of a special primary, special election, or runoff.
Despite these limitations, Georgia county officials can still make changes that significantly affect voters. For example, in December 2021, the Lincoln County Board of Elections announced a plan to consolidate all seven polling places in the county into a single location. In a county with limited public transportation, such a drastic change would have meant that some voters needed to travel more than 20 miles to cast their ballots.
Thankfully, state law provides a mechanism through which voters can oppose these changes. When a petition objecting to a proposed polling place change is signed by 20% of a precinct’s registered voters and presented to the county superintendent or governing authority, the changes may not go forward. In Lincoln County, voting rights groups, including LDF, along with Lincoln County voters, sprang into action to support petition drives, subsequently preserving the seven polling sites and ensuring voters’ unobstructed access to the ballot box.
Georgia voters should feel empowered to take action to preserve their polling locations if they are faced with potential closures — both in this election and future elections. To ensure accountability and keep up-to-date on any proposed changes, voters should stay informed about the activities of their local boards of election. This includes monitoring board websites and attending board meetings. Doing so will allow voters to sound the alarm if these bodies fail to comply with laws that require them to give proper notice of board meetings, make such meetings open to the public, and publicize any plans to change polling locations for two consecutive weeks in the affected locality.
On May 24, 2022, following three weeks of early voting, Georgians will convene at polling places to cast their ballots not only for the state and federal primary races, but also to elect county and municipal level officials who enact and implement laws that govern their daily lives. Now more than ever, voters must assume a proactive role in the protection and preservation of their right to vote. In fact, the Georgia legislature’s attacks on voting rights did not cease after passing S.B. 202. In March 2022, it attempted yet again to pass another omnibus anti-voter bill — an attempt that was thwarted by the diligent advocacy and strategizing of voting rights groups across the state when they succeeded in eliminating the bill’s most harmful provisions.
This attempt again demonstrates that the importance of showing up to vote and electing officials who support voting rights protections cannot be overemphasized in a democracy, especially one already blighted by rising incidents of voter intimidation, foreign interference, and a proliferation of anti-voter laws. As Winns stressed when speaking with LDF, “All voters should pay attention to what’s going on in their local races … The local county commissioners [decide] what’s going to happen in your local area. They appoint these [election] board members [who oversee implementation of voting policies and procedures].”
So, in Georgia and beyond, voters must make a plan to vote — and then cast their ballots in the upcoming primary elections, in the November general elections, and in every other local election happening in their communities.