How Georgia’s new voting law affects the Senate runoff

Georgia’s election law that took effect last year means at least one major change for voters in the Senate runoff race between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker: They’ll be heading back to the polls a lot sooner.

The law, Senate Bill 202, signed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in March 2021, cut in half the time allowed between a general election and a runoff election — drastically shortening the period during which many voters must request, receive and cast ballots. The law’s narrowed time frame also effectively cuts the early in-person voting period, from a minimum of 16 days in 2020 to a minimum of 5 in 2022, while existing rules have ensured almost no new voters will be eligible to vote in the runoff.

Proponents of the bill’s provisions on runoffs argue that cutting the period eases a long and arduous process for everyone involved. The law’s authors even wrote into the bill that “the lengthy nine-week runoffs in 2020 were exhausting for candidates, donors, and 120 electors.” Other supporters, including Gabriel Sterling, the chief operating officer in the Office of the Georgia Secretary of State, note that before 2013, the state’s runoff period was four weeks and that the elections ran without problems.

“This is not the first time we’ve had to do this,” Sterling said at a news conference last week. “This is not that unique.”

But voting rights advocates, both in Georgia and around the country, say the new law’s changes present challenges.

“It wasn’t just that the runoff date was moved up, it’s that the period to get so many steps done has been condensed,” said Danielle Lang, the senior director of the voting rights unit at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan voting watchdog group.

“The big takeaway here is that the compression of the time line for a runoff has spillover effects on access for voters,” she said.

Here are several of the ways the new law could affect voters in the runoff.

Limiting new voter registrations

Under SB 202, Georgia runoff elections now take place 28 days after the general election — less than half the original nine-week period that existed before the law. This year’s runoff will take place on Dec. 6, following the Nov. 8 midterms.

The law, however, does not change an existing rule that voters must register at least 30 days before an election.

As a result, new voters who weren’t registered for the general election will not be able to register in time to vote in the runoff because the deadline will have already passed.

That’s a stark difference from the landscape in the state in 2020 — that year both of the state’s US Senate races advanced to a runoff that would determine control of the chamber — when candidates and outside groups rushed to register droves of new voters.

“The bottom line is that nobody can vote in this runoff who didn’t register as of November. 7,” Lang said. She added there’s likely still a narrow new pool of voters who registered too late to vote in the general election but could make the 30-day deadline for the runoff.

Less time to request, receive and cast absentee ballots

Domestic, absentee mail-in ballot voters will now have a much shorter window in which to do everything required of them to cast their ballots on time.

Prior to SB 202, these voters would have had nine weeks to request an absentee ballot, receive that ballot and mail it in or drop it off. Now they will have to do all that in half the time.

Under existing runoff procedures, most Georgians who want to cast an absentee mail-in ballot (voters 65 and older and disabled voters will be sent an absentee mail-in ballot automatically if registered to vote) must first request such a ballot, in compliance with the law’s new voter ID requirement. The deadline for local election officials to receive those absentee ballot applications is Nov. 25, the day after Thanksgiving.

If most voters don’t mail their applications well before the Nov. 25 deadline, local election officials could be dealing with a backlog upon returning from the Thanksgiving weekend on Monday Nov. 28 — the same day early in-person voting will begin in most counties.

The law mandates that the ballots must be mailed to voters within three days of receipt of the application — a tight time frame that advocates warn may not be met, given that the deadline overlaps with a holiday and comes just days before the start of early in -person voting.

Once voters receive their absentee ballots, they must choose their candidates and mail those ballots back, again in compliance with the voter ID requirement. Absentee mail-in ballots received before 7 pm on the day of the election — Dec. 6 — will be counted, per Georgia’s law. Voters may also deposit their absentee ballots in drop boxes.

Voting rights activists, who have worked to bolster awareness of the new rules through voter education initiatives, expressed concern that the deadlines would sneak up on voters, especially with the holidays.

“The shorter time frame may be a challenge to voters who don’t realize how quickly some of these deadlines are going to come up or who haven’t thought through how they are going to vote,” said Andrew Garber, an attorney at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Under a separate provision of SB 202, overseas and military absentee voters were provided a ranked choice voting ballot as their general election ballot weeks before the general election so that, in the event of a runoff, their vote would have already been mailed in.

This keeps SB 202 in compliance with a federal law requiring that overseas and military absentee voters be mailed their ballots 45 days before a federal election.

A shorter early in-person early voting period

Because of the condensed time frame between the general election and the runoff, many Georgia voters will also be looking at a shortened, five-day, weekday-only period of early in-person voting.

Plus, due to an ongoing lawsuit against the state, it remains uncertain whether one Saturday early voting day, on Nov. 26, will be allowed.

SB 202 stipulates that early in-person voting must end the Friday before the runoff. This year, that would be Friday Dec. 2.

The law, as interpreted by the Georgia secretary of state’s office, also stipulates that early in-person voting not be held on any Saturday that follows a “public or legal holiday” on the preceding Thursday or Friday. This year, that would mean there would be no early in-person voting on Nov. 26, the Saturday following Thanksgiving.

But a Fulton County judge ruled Friday that the office cannot prohibit counties from allowing voting that day, after a voting rights group, along with Warnock and his campaign, sued the state, claiming the specific language of the law suggested that the barring of Saturday voting after a holiday — in this case Thanksgiving — doesn’t actually apply to runoff elections.

Georgia’s attorney general plans to appeal, a spokesperson for the office told NBC News. As a result, whether counties can offer voting that day remains in limbo.

If voting is ultimately not allowed on that Saturday, SB 202 says Saturday voting should be held the previous weekend (in this year’s case, Saturday, Nov. 19). But under Georgia law, runoff voting may not begin until after officials have certified the general election vote, which will be on Monday, Nov. 21, per the Georgia Secretary of State’s office. That means, no Saturday voting will be allowed on Nov. 19, either.

Whether the judiciary allows voting on Nov. 26 or not, the only other days most voters will be able to vote early in person will be from Monday Nov. 28 to Friday Dec. 2. The law states that early voting “shall end on the Friday immediately prior to each primary, election, or runoff.”

That five-day period, however, represents the minimum required under the law, and county election officials have the discretion to schedule additional early-in person voting days that comply with the law’s other rules, Lang and Garber and others said.

Voting rights groups have pushed Georgia counties, for example, to open early-in person voting on Nov. 22, 23 and 27 (the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after). As of Friday, at least nine of the state’s 159 counties had opened up Nov. 27 for early voting, and a smaller handful opened it up for Nov. 22 and 23.

During the 2020 runoff election, many voters had a period of several weeks to vote early in person — and all had the possibility to do so on at least one Saturday.

Limited drop-box access

Voting rights experts warn that SB 202’s restrictions on drop boxes will also affect the ease with which many absentee voters can drop off their ballots.

The law says such drop boxes can be located only inside election offices, and early voting locations and are available only during the office or polling site’s hours of operation.

This year, these drop boxes will be available only during early in-person voting. In the counties that adhere to the minimum requirements — Monday to Friday the week before the election — those same limitations will also affect drop-box access. How the judicial rules on the Nov. 26 issues would also be a factor here.

“In 2020, if you had had an absentee ballot and were worried whether it would arrive at an election office on time, you could go drop of it off on a Saturday,” said Rahul Garabadu, a senior voting rights attorney at the Georgia American Civil Liberties Union “But now because of SB 202, you can only do that during the hours of early voting, which can often be a regular 9-to-5.”

As a result, he suggested, more people may choose to mail in their ballot instead — a fact that then brings into play any potential postal delays.

“All of these provisions interact with each other,” Garabadu said. “When they combine, you see a cumulative effect on voters, which makes it tougher to cast their ballots.”

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