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Will Georgia voting laws reduce turnout? Maybe not, studies show

Mark Niesse, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in News & Features

“They’re essentially shifting more voters to rely on the Postal Service. If they send the ballot too late, and it doesn’t get there in time, that person is not going to be able to vote, and they’re likely not going to know it,” said Amber McReynolds, the founding CEO for the National Vote at Home Institute, an organization that advocates for voting access outside polling places.

About 1.3 million of Georgia’s 5 million voters in November’s election cast absentee ballots.

Drop boxes were the most significant change to Georgia’s elections last year, an innovation approved by the State Election Board in response to the coronavirus pandemic. State law has allowed anyone to cast an absentee ballot without having to provide a reason since 2005.

In states that switched to no-excuse absentee voting in last year’s election, turnout increased at a similar rate as in states that didn’t permit no-excuse absentee voting, according to a study by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research called “How did absentee voting affect the 2020 U.S. election?”

Other research, however, points to a correlation between usage of mail ballots and higher turnout in 2020. States with higher usage of mail ballots generally had greater voter participation in last year’s election, according to “America goes to the polls 2020,” a report by Nonprofit VOTE and the U.S. Elections Project. Georgia had the nation’s 26th-highest turnout rate, at 68% of voting-eligible population.

Turnout depends on the perceived importance of an election, with voters more determined to cast ballots in presidential races than in midterms or local elections.

 

Voting regulations might matter less when the population is highly motivated to make itself heard, as in 2020, said Max Wood, CEO of Deck, a data analytics firm for liberal campaigns. But voting laws such as Georgia’s would likely have a larger impact in elections where voters aren’t as engaged.

“I’m very concerned,” Wood said. “Some of the most important variables were proximity to drop boxes or the deadline for requesting a ballot or returning a ballot. People love returning their ballots in the last week, so really strict cut-offs increase the number of rejected ballots.”

The connection between early voting availability and turnout is also unclear, according to a 2016 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Georgia’s law reduces in-person early voting before runoffs from three weeks to one week or “as soon as possible” after the general election. The change occurred because runoffs will be held four weeks after elections instead of nine, leaving less time for election officials to print ballots and test equipment before voting can begin.

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