Saturday, April 17, 2021

Fact Check

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FactChecking Claims About the Georgia Voting Law

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Voters wait in line on Dec. 14 in Atlanta on the first day of early voting for the Senate runoff election. Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images.

Among the major changes, the law clearly reduces the time for absentee voting: The state used to allow voters to request an absentee ballot up to 180 days before an election; the new law cuts that to 78 days and no later than 11 days before an election. It prohibits officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters unless the voter specifically requested one, and it adds a requirement for absentee voters to include their driver’s license number or other state ID number. The law also makes it harder to cast a provisional ballot on Election Day if a voter shows up at the wrong precinct: Poll officials are directed to tell voters to travel to their correct precincts, unless it’s after 5 p.m., in which case a provisional ballot would be accepted.

Here, we’ll fact-check claims on three other provisions: early voting hours, drop boxes and providing water to voters standing in line.

Biden Wrong on Early Voting Hours

As our fact-checking colleagues at the Washington Post have written, the president has repeatedly made the false claim that the new Georgia law would “close a polling place at 5 o’clock when working people just get off.” The new law sets the minimum hours for early voting on weekdays at 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the old law said early voting “shall be conducted during normal business hours.”

County officials can keep early voting locations open for longer, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

On March 26, in a statement on the Georgia law, Biden said: “Among the outrageous parts of this new state law, it ends voting hours early so working people can’t cast their vote after their shift is over.” And in an interview on ESPN on March 31, the president repeated the claim, saying: “You’re going to close a polling place at 5 o’clock when working people just get off. This is all about keeping working folks and ordinary folks that I grew up with from being able to vote.”

To be clear, Biden is talking about hours for early voting, though he doesn’t say that. The voting hours on Election Day  — 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the state — haven’t been changed.

For early, or advance, voting, the old law said it “shall be conducted during normal business hours on weekdays.” The new law specifies that the time period shall be “beginning at 9:00 A.M. and ending at 5:00 P.M. on weekdays.” The new law also adds a mandatory weekend day for early voting, requiring two Saturdays of early voting. The old law required one.

The law makes Sunday early voting optional for up to two Sundays before elections.

The language goes on to say: “Except as otherwise provided in this paragraph, the registrars may extend the hours for voting to permit advance voting from 7:00 A.M. until 7:00 P.M.” The old law said “counties and municipalities” could extend such voting “beyond regular business hours.”

So, the new law gives specific requirements on early voting times, while the old law gave county elections officials more leeway to make these decisions. In fact, while the law now mandates two Saturdays instead of one, it also says counties and municipalities can’t hold early voting on any days besides those outlined in the law.

But the law doesn’t “close a polling place at 5 o’clock” for early voting, as Biden claimed. Counties can keep early voting going until 7 p.m. In an April 1 press briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged that the law provided “options to expand” the hours but said the law “standardized it at five.”

Some experts told CNN that the language in the law could cause confusion on what hours are permitted on weekdays. Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, and author of “The Voting Wars,” similarly told us in an email: “I think the language in the statute is somewhat ambiguous on the 5 pm closing time, but Georgia officials have said that they are interpreting it to allow staying open until 7, which is a better thing from the point of view of voters’ opportunities to vote.”

The language about permitting advanced voting from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. comes after a description of weekend voting and a stipulation that the optional Sunday voting hours should be “no longer than 7:00 A.M. through 7:00 P.M.” But Kemp’s press secretary told CNN weekday voting is allowed in that 7-to-7 time frame.

Kemp Misleads on Drop Boxes

In an April 3 press conference, Kemp misleadingly suggested the new law wouldn’t reduce the number of drop boxes available for absentee voters to drop off their ballots. It would limit the number of drop boxes compared with what elections officials provided in the 2020 election.

Kemp, April 3: First of all, on the drop boxes, there’s a very simple formula that is now going to be used on the drop boxes for all counties. There are counties … people are saying we are taking something away with drop boxes. There’s counties that did not have a drop box last election. … Now every county will be required to have one drop box.

The governor said that the availability of drop boxes was “now for the first time ever codified in the law,” and it’s true drop boxes for absentee ballots weren’t part of the old law. But the new statute would limit the number of drop boxes and their availability to voters.

It requires a county “board of registrars or absentee ballot clerk” to “establish at least one drop box,” but then limits additional drop boxes based on the number of active registered voters or early voting locations. The drop boxes also must be kept inside and only accessible during the hours of early voting.

The New York Times estimated that the law’s provisions would give the four counties in metropolitan Atlanta 23 drop boxes, while those counties had 94 available in the 2020 election.

Hasen told us the law’s impact would vary by county. “[A]llowing at least one box per county helps in smaller counties with no drop boxes before,” he said, “but the law also causes a drastic cutback in the number of boxes allowed in larger counties, for no good reason.”

Water for Voters in Line

Biden has also criticized a provision in the Georgia law that bans “any person” from providing food or drink “within 25 feet of any voter standing in line” or within 150 feet of a polling place.

The only exception in the new law is for a poll worker who can make “available self-service water from an unattended receptacle to an elector waiting in line to vote.”

It’s sick,” Biden said at a press conference on March 25. “Deciding in some states that you cannot bring water to people standing in line, waiting to vote.”

It was only the first of several such remarks. In a written statement on the Georgia law on March 26, Biden said the new election law “makes it a crime to provide water to voters while they wait in line.” The president said something similar in remarks to reporters on March 26 and again in an interview with ESPN on March 30.

At his press briefing, the governor claimed that Biden is “factually wrong.” Kemp is wrong about Biden’s remarks.

Kemp, April 3: The ones that have complained about the water issue are factually wrong, including the president. A voter can bring food. They can bring water. They can order a pizza while they are standing in line, but we’re not going to let the NRA or the Sierra Club hand out pizza or water to people that are in line within the boundaries specified in the law. … If you’re one foot over that boundary, you can set up a table and hand out water, pizza, or whatever else you want.

The intention may be to prevent special interest groups from delivering food and water to people waiting in line as a means to influence voters. But, as we said, the law bans “any person” from providing food or drink “within 25 feet of any voter standing in line.”

Section 33 of the new law revised existing law, adding the bolded parts to subsections (a) and (e) of a state law that places restrictions on campaign activities:

SB 202, March 25: (a) No person shall solicit votes in any manner or by any means or method, nor shall any person distribute or display any campaign material, nor shall any person give, offer to give, or participate in the giving of any money or gifts, including, but not limited to, food and drink, to an elector, nor shall any person solicit signatures for any petition, nor shall any person, other than election officials discharging their duties, establish or set up any tables or booths on any day in which ballots are being cast:

(1) Within 150 feet of the outer edge of any building within which a polling place is established;

(2) Within any polling place; or

(3) Within 25 feet of any voter standing in line to vote at any polling place. These restrictions shall not apply to conduct occurring in private offices or areas which cannot be seen or heard by such electors.

(e) This Code section shall not be construed to prohibit a poll officer from distributing materials, as required by law, which are necessary for the purpose of instructing electors or from distributing materials prepared by the Secretary of State which are designed solely for the purpose of encouraging voter participation in the election being conducted or from making available self-service water from an unattended receptacle to an elector waiting in line to vote.

Mallory Blount, a spokeswoman for the governor, told us in an email that Biden is mistaken because “[p]oll workers are welcome to make water available to people in line.”

But, as we said, even “a poll officer” cannot hand drinks to people waiting in line — which was Biden’s point.

“The law bans anyone from giving food or drink to any person within 25 feet of any voter standing in line, period,” Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Chicago, told us in an email (emphasis is his). “Georgia law doesn’t make it a crime to bring water (yourself), but does make it a crime to bring water to someone standing in line.”

Groups and individuals bringing pizza and drinks to people waiting in long lines has become trendy in recent elections.

In 2016, the founders of a nonprofit called Pizza to the Polls said reports of long lines at early voting locations prompted them to raise $10,000 and deliver about 2,000 pizzas at more than 100 polling locations in 24 states. The group, which opposes the Georgia law, raised $400,000 in 2018 and $1.5 million in 2020, providing pizzas to voters in most states, including Georgia.

Others, too, have become involved in similar efforts — including former professional football stars in 2018 and regular Atlanta residents in 2020.

The free giveaways became an issue prior to the Jan. 5 runoff elections for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats. A week before the runoff elections, Walter Jones, a spokesperson for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, tweeted, “Be warned: you can’t give anything of value to someone voting.”

In his tweet, Jones provided a link to an Official Elections Bulletin issued by Raffensperger that said “offering food, drinks, or other items of value to voters waiting in line or those who have already voted is forbidden under Georgia law (OCGA § 21-2-570).”

“Georgia law explicitly states that ‘Any person who gives or receives, offers to give or receive, or participates in the giving or receiving of money or gifts for the purpose of registering as a voter, voting, or voting for a particular candidate in any primary or election shall be guilty of a felony,’” Raffensperger’s bulletin warned.

So why a new law? The governor’s spokeswoman said that guidance from the secretary of state “does not have the same weight or effect as statute change.”

But the new law goes further than the prior law by defining “gifts” to include food and drink to people waiting in long lines, Levitt said.

“Georgia already had prohibitions (like every state) on giving anything of value for the purpose of encouraging people to vote,” he said. “This new prohibition is extra, and prevents giving anyone in line food or drink, even if it’s demonstrably not an incentive (e.g., giving someone who had already waited two hours in line a bottle of water).”

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