As the last day for early voting winds down for this year’s U.S. midterm elections, Georgia voters have continued to head to the polls for pivotal races ahead of Election Day on Nov. 8. According to Georgia Votes, over 2 million votes have already been cast in the 2022 general election, with total turnout almost 25% higher than the 2018 midterm elections.
The high volume of early voters comes a year after a controversial election bill, originally known as the Georgia Senate Bill 202, was signed into law by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.
The law made sweeping changes to statewide election procedures including imposing identification requirements on mail-in ballots, banning election officials from automatically mailing absentee ballot applications to all voters, eliminating paperless online ballot requests and allowing the Georgia General Assembly — currently controlled by Republicans — to replace the Georgia secretary of state as chair of the State Board of Elections, giving the Legislature greater control over the board.
Some Georgians in South Fulton, a predominantly Black region in metro Atlanta, say the implementation of the state’s Election Integrity Act of 2021 may have discouraged some, but their hope to see change in an unsettling political climate has motivated them to vote anyway.
“They make you go through a lot now because they don’t want Black people to vote,” Eric Fields, a Black South Fulton resident who participated in early voting on Wednesday told Yahoo News. “They’re doing whatever they can because they don’t want us to get out to vote, but we’re voting. Y’all can make us jump through hoops and we’re going to do it because nothing is stopping us from voting. We want to get Stacey Abrams in there.”
On Monday, Stacey Abrams, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate for Georgia, doubled down on her racially targeted voting rights concerns surrounding the act in a press conference, pointing to the 2018 midterms, where she lost to Republican opponent Kemp by a razor-thin margin.
“We had record turnout that shattered records for Democrats among communities of color and in that same election ... we know that 85,000 Georgians were denied their right to vote due to voter suppression tactics that shut down their precincts. … We know that thousands of people stood in lines for hours because of voter suppression tactics,” Abrams said.
Since November 2020, counties with heavy populations of Black residents like Fulton County and DeKalb County have also seen the number of ballot drop boxes around their neighborhoods limited, as a result of the law. In some counties, drop boxes were reduced to less than a third of the number of drop boxes that were in place for the presidential election.
This time around, several counties including Fulton are also making voters complete paperwork by hand. Previously, voters used a system called EasyVote, which consolidated the voter check-in process by printing out pre-filled voting applications upon arrival at the polls instead of making people complete paperwork by hand. But now fewer counties are using the system because it’s not integrated with the state’s voter registration system.
“They never made us fill out paperwork. We just had to show our ID before. When we first got the clipboard, I said, ‘Why do I have to do all this?’ Fields said, noting how the process changed since the last election. “I think it’s making more Black people say, You know we definitely have to get out and vote, even people who never voted are like, We gotta go vote because they want to stop us.”
The law also expanded early voting for primary and general elections. However, early voting was not expanded for runoffs, which is how Sen. Jon Ossoff and Sen. Raphael Warnock won their Senate seats — giving Democrats the majority in the Senate. Warnock is now locked in a tight race with former football star Herschel Walker, a Republican candidate endorsed by Donald Trump, to keep his seat. The contest could head into runoff elections if vote tabulations are too close.
“People are voting in spite of S.B. 202, not because of it,” Abrams said on Oct. 30, during her final debate with Kemp.
According to the Georgia secretary of state office’s website, as of Nov. 3, Black voters made up about 30% of early votes cast so far, up from 27% in the 2020 election.
Republicans have pointed to the record number of votes as a sign that Georgians aren’t deterred by measures that Democrats claim are attempts at voter suppression, an issue that Abrams has amplified throughout her campaign. But last week Abrams pushed back.
“Turnout does not dispel voter suppression,” Abrams told reporters last week. “Suppression is about barriers to access.”
Kemp has argued that the law contains common-sense measures to make sure elections are fair and secure.
“The integrity of our elections is the foundation of who we are as Georgians and Americans. In Georgia, we will always protect the sanctity of the ballot box and keep working to restore complete confidence in our democracy,” Kemp wrote in an article published last year by Fox News.
But some Georgians are wary of changes to the democratic process during such a crucial moment for America, in the midst of inflation, economic uncertainty and the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, among other issues.
“With what we’ve gone through over the past couple of years, even prior to the last presidential election, I think people are tired and want to see change,” Jennifer Daniels, a health care worker in South Fulton, told Yahoo News.
Daniels referenced the Roe decision this past summer that gave the authority to regulate abortion access back to the states. As a result, Kemp signed into law the so-called fetal heartbeat bill that prohibits abortions when the state says a fetal heartbeat is detected, which is typically around six weeks.
“I can only speak as an African American female, the law that was just passed, clearly that affects women, Daniels said. “If we were to get out and vote, then that’s the kind of change we would see. I do feel that more people get it now. It’s really good to hear that people are coming out because it lets you know that people are wanting to see change like you.”
About one-third of Georgia counties, including Fulton and Cobb, plan to begin counting early voting and absentee ballots on Election Day. But officials are prohibited from publicly reporting results until polls close.
Interim elections director Nadine Williams said Fulton County plans to report its first cluster of early voting results by 7:30 p.m. on election night, the first time the county will begin counting ballots before polls close, starting at 5 p.m.
“Calling results on election night usually works out pretty well, but it can add to mistrust when we have really tight races, and we may not know who wins on election night,” Joseph Kirk, elections director for Bartow County, said. “Folks get used to the idea that they should know who won before they go to bed, but that’s simply not how elections work.”
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger will certify Georgia’s results by Nov. 25.