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Jonathan Bernstein

What Will Georgia’s Election Law Really Do?

It’s important to look beyond the measure’s immediate effect on turnout.

It's complicated.

It's complicated.

Photographer: Aboubacar Kante/Bloomberg

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Over the weekend, Topic One still seemed to be the recently passed, and much debated, Georgia election law. So let’s get into it.

GPB’s Stephen Fowler and Nick Corasaniti and Reid J. Epstein in the New York Times each have comprehensive examinations of what the new law would do. It’s … complicated. Some of the provisions are good-government updates of existing law. Others make it on balance harder to use absentee ballots and (perhaps) to vote early in person. Parts of the law appear to be targeted, at least symbolically, at the various things that former President Donald Trump and other Republicans falsely claimed cost them the 2020 election. And then there are provisions that appear to make it easier for the majority party in the state to simply overturn the actual election outcome.

How can we analyze such a sprawling measure — especially since it’s hard to know how much of it will eventually be implemented?

On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with discussing the likely electoral effects of the law, as Nate Cohn does with early and absentee voting. However, caution is advisable. For example: One finding is that efforts to make it harder for Black people to vote may invite a backlash; the eventual effect may be to actually increase Black turnout by a small amount. That’s important! But direct electoral outcomes aren’t the only results that can matter. Resources such as money, time and effort used to overcome voting restrictions can’t be used elsewhere.

At the same time, targeting a group by making it harder for them to vote imposes costs that can’t be easily quantified. As Alison McQueen puts it: “One might almost say that failing to treat one’s fellow citizens as democratic equals is just plain wrong, regardless of empirical effects.” And Corrine McConnaughy points out that “It is, in fact, often the case that voting rights policies don’t change *partisan* outcomes. But they may nonetheless change the constellation of actors to whom the state may be responsible, and who gets what sort of civic standing.”

So even those aspects of the new law that are unlikely to help Republicans win elections may still amount to a retreat from practical political equality.

There’s more. Some provisions empower the state legislature to act as a sort of election-administrator-of-last-resort. It’s not clear how dangerous this really is. But anyone who paid attention during the 2020 election understands that many Republicans, from Trump on down, are prepared to exercise whatever authority they have to declare themselves winners, regardless of what voters want. The last thing we need are vague new election laws that invite parties to overturn election results by fiat.

Finally, even if the law’s defenders are correct that it doesn’t open any doors to flat-out undemocratic abuse, everyone agrees that it punishes Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger by stripping his office of its authority. That alone makes the outrage over this law justified. Raffensperger was one of several Republicans who stood up to Trump’s bullying and did their job according to the law, which is partly why the 2020 elections were unusually well-administered. Republicans should be proud of Raffensperger. Instead, by punishing him, they’re sending a clear signal to party politicians: Only raw partisan warfare and constitutional hardball are welcome in today’s Republican Party.

So: Yes, it’s perfectly fine to talk about how the law might directly affect turnout and electoral outcomes. In fact, we need that sort of analysis. But anyone who limits their overall analysis of the law to the (yes, overhyped) immediate consequences of those provisions needs to step back and look at the bigger picture. As Hakeem Jefferson put it: “The right to vote is sacred. Access to the ballot should be expanded, not burdened. Be wary of those who look at attempts to disenfranchise folks & remark, ‘Oh, no big deal.’”

1. Domingo Morel at the Monkey Cage on the Georgia law and Black political power.

2. Ciara Torres-Spelliscy on corporate pushback against the law.

3. John G. Stewart on how Hubert Humphrey beat the filibuster — and how Senate Democrats might.

4. Jonathan Cohn on infrastructure.

5. Mark Blumenthal on public opinion and the relief bill.

6. Harry Enten with a (very) early preview of the midterm elections.

7. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Feldman on banning trans girls from sports.

8. And Karen Tumulty on Nancy Reagan and the Cold War.

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