It was a cold December morning outside the Georgia State Capitol and a man named Jerry was rattling off numbers like they were fantasy football statistics.
“They had 150,000 absentee ballots that went to neighborhoods all over New York City. People in New York, a lot of them, filled ‘em out and sent ’em back to Georgia,” Jerry explained. (He didn’t want to give his real last name — “I’m going to give ‘Trump’ instead,” he told me.) “10,500 felons voted in Georgia illegally. There was about 2,500 dead people that voted — “
A woman lingering nearby broke in: “ — 18,000 people that voted that weren’t 18 yet.”
Jerry nodded sagely. “And then you get about 160,000 ballots in those four briefcases that they voted late that night when they ran everybody out of the Georgia Convention Center… ”
There is no evidence for any of these claims — multiple investigations discredited them as fictions promoted by Donald Trump and his allies in the wake of the November election — but Jerry, one of about 30 demonstrators who were milling around outside the state capitol’s barricades on a Sunday morning, cited them as articles of faith. (“You can look on the computer at the numbers,” he told me.)
Besides him, there was an 88-year-old grandmother leaning on her walker, an Uncle Sam teetering on a Segway, and several armed men, including one outfitted head-to-toe in tactical gear, with a long gun dangling from his shoulder and a handgun fastened to his hip.
The night before, almost everyone had made the pilgrimage to a regional airport in Valdosta, where Trump railed against the injustices visited upon him in Georgia for more than 100 minutes, telling the crowd, “They cheated and rigged our presidential election… When the numbers come out of ceilings and come out of leather bags you start to say ‘What’s going on?’ ”
“Your governor could stop it very easily if he knew what the hell he was doing,” Trump added, as the crowd chanted back: “Stop the Steal!”
Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, a voter registration and engagement group, remembers being unnerved when armed militia members started showing up outside the [Georgia] capitol. “People were like, ‘You’re being hysterical, the guns are just like a show of force.’ And then they burst into the [U.S.] Capitol and killed people,” Ufot says. “And it’s all based on the same lie: the lie that there’s widespread voter fraud.”
In the immediate aftermath of the November election, Georgia was cited as proof that the system still worked. Yes, the president pressed the secretary of state to “find” more votes for him and, yes, he tried to enlist the governor in an effort to overturn the results and, fine, he sort of threatened both with the prospect of jail. But in the end, they did refuse — and that’s something, right? The guardrails held. Kind of.
But as time has worn on, it’s become clearer just how corrosive Trump’s insistence on that alternative reality was and continues to be. On January 6th, it drew thousands of die-hard supporters to D.C., where five people died in the riot at the Capitol. Now, it’s fueling a furious effort to limit voting rights around the country. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, legislators have introduced more than 250 bills that would make it harder to vote in 43 states — more than seven times the number of bills compared to the same point in 2020.
And Georgia — the most closely contested state in the country — is at the white-hot center of that fight. In November, Trump’s lie split the Georgia Republican Party in two, pitting the officials in charge of administering the state’s elections — like Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger and Gov. Brian Kemp — against Republicans in the state legislature and their constituents protesting outside.
It is still dividing Republicans in the state today. Most have spent the past few months lining up behind a raft of new voting restrictions that respond specifically to the fictions Trump promoted — efforts that include a crack-down on mail-in voting. But there are others in the GOP who worry the changes could end up backfiring by making it harder for their own party members to vote Historically, Republicans in Georgia “were very intentional about making vote-by-mail easier because it was largely the province of older white voters,” Stacey Abrams told Rolling Stone in November. “For years, Republicans beat us at vote-by-mail. They had a practice history of it. They took advantage of it.”
In the last few weeks, as Republicans debated the new restrictions — several of which explicitly target the Black voters who helped secure Democrats’ victories in November and January — a handful of GOP members walked out of the debate in protest. Among them was Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the state senate, though he doesn’t vote on legislation.
“Republicans have lost a lot of credibility when we walk into the room to try to talk about electoral reform because of the misinformation campaign that was spread for nearly 10 weeks,” Duncan tells Rolling Stone.
He’s remained adamant that no widespread fraud took place in November, but he hedges when asked if his colleagues subscribe to the same belief. “I think there’s some out there that have a deep-felt conviction that there were some election anomalies,” Duncan says. “I think that there’s a number of folks that are reacting to their district — or their district genuinely wants them to take steps forward — and I understand that. There’s those out there that would rather see small incremental steps taken around election reform, and that’s really where the camp I sit in is.”
Duncan is not alone in that camp, but it is a small minority within his party. Despite the controversy and attention paid to the bills in the House and the Senate, both measures passed this month with the support of the majority of Republicans without much suspense.
The Georgia House bill would require a photo ID for absentee voting, limit the amount of time voters have to request an absentee ballot, impose new restrictions on ballot drop boxes, and limit early voting hours on weekends. The Senate bill that would end automatic voter registration, ban drop boxes for mail ballots outright, while seriously restricting absentee voting and early voting.
Abrams has denounced the effort in Georgia — and similar efforts underway in Arizona and New Hampshire — as “the largest push to restrict voting rights since Jim Crow.”
The separate pieces of legislation went through a conference process to reconcile their differences. The Georgia House of Representatives passed the bill on Thursday. It will need to be passed by the Senate before being sent to Gov. Kemp for his signature.
Some of the most odious provisions — like banning no-excuse absentee voting and ending the Sunday voting favored by black churches — were stripped out in conference. But Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO of Fair Fight, a group co-founded with Abrams to stop voter suppression, is raising alarms about language that was inserted without any previous debate in the House or Senate. If the new provisions had been law this past November, she says, the outcome in Georgia could have been very different.
The first, Groh-Wargo says, would allow people — anyone, really — to challenge any voter’s registration and ability to cast a ballot. Advocates fear the measure could be used to racially profile voters, with the goal of either intimidating them from voting or knocking them off the voter rolls completely.
That fear is rooted in recent history. In 2015, State Representative Barry Fleming, sponsor of the bill and former Hancock County attorney, defended the majority-white Hancock County Board of Elections and Registration when it was sued, accused of systematically questioning the registrations of more than 180 black citizens in the city of Sparta.
The new language could easily empower a well-funded organization to do it at a much greater scale, Groh-Wargo says: challenging and knocking hundreds of thousands of voters off the rolls. A conservative Texas-based voter-fraud watchdog called True the Vote already tried it in Georgia in November.
“They challenged 360,000 registered Georgians, many of whom were in the military, many of whom were out-of-state taking care of relatives with Covid,” Groh-Wargo says. (Fair Fight sued to stop True the Vote; that litigation is still underway.) The language as it’s written would make it easier for groups like that to prevail: it allows for an unlimited number of challenges to a person’s registration and their ability to cast a vote. And it would require the local board of elections to hold a hearing on each challenge within 10 days. If the board of elections doesn’t comply, it would be grounds for state officials to remove them and install their own people to run the elections.
“It would allow what True the Vote did to really upset the apple cart,” Groh-Wargo says. “I could stand outside a polling location and if I am racist against Asian-American women, I could look up everybody on the voter rolls that [has the name of] an Asian-American woman, or take pictures of people standing in line and then go try to figure out who they are and challenge their eligibility.”
Targeting and challenging the registration of enough Black, Asian, or Latino voters — the multiracial coalition that helped push Joe Biden over the top in Georgia in 2020 — is one way to shrink Democrats’ margins, but it’s the ability to issue those challenges at scale, combined with the newly created power to take over the local board of elections, that would make it possible to do exactly what President Trump unsuccessfully tried to pressure officials in Georgia to do in November.
The more pointed provisions of the law strips power from Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger – who rebuffed Trump’s attempts to change the election results — and puts it in the hands of the state legislature, removing him from the state election board and allowing the legislature to install more than half of the board’s members.
“In practical terms,” Groh-Wargo says, “that could have meant in big Democratic counties, the state election board could have completely interfered, taken over their county board of elections’ certification process or their audit process, and delayed, mucked around and screwed around with certification — basically play ball with the Trump team in a different kind of way.”
With the new provisions combined, she warns, “you can just see that the far right fringes can really just take over election administration… These things work together to allow these conspiracy theorists to have a lot more power than they did last year.”
With the end of the legislative session rapidly approaching, the outlook in Georgia is bleak. Democrats and advocates for voting rights are considering the options they have left: petitioning Gov. Kemp to veto the bill, or pressuring corporations with ties to Georgia to bring their influence to bear against the legislation. Several civic groups, including the New Georgia Project, are waging a pressure campaign on companies urging them to end their financial support for the Republicans supporting the bill. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Coca-Cola or Georgia Power or U.P.S. could have stopped this in its infancy,” Ufot says.
Failing that, they are looking to the federal government for action that could blunt some of the measures under consideration in Georgia. Democrats took control of the U.S. Senate in January by winning both of Georgia’s Senate seats — seats they won, ironically, with some help from Donald Trump’s lies about the election. Depending on who you ask, Trump either convinced enough Georgians their vote didn’t count that they simply didn’t show up to the polls for the January runoff, or he fired them up so much that on January 5th, some of his most devoted supporters were traveling to D.C. to storm the Capitol rather than voting in the runoff that day.
“Even though I’m a Republican, and even though I voted for him, I’m mature enough to look at the scenario and realize that he beat himself in [the 2020] election cycle,” says Duncan. “And unfortunately, that same rhetoric and that same approach beat two Republican U.S. senators here in the runoff.”
Whatever the reason, the dual victories of Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff could prove critical to passing the kind of federal voting-rights protections that would render many of the measures presently under consideration in Georgia moot. But to pass legislation like S1, the For the People Act, which would protect and expand voting rights, Democrats would still need to change the Senate rules by reforming or ending the filibuster.
Warnock addressed that issue in his first speech on the Senate floor in March. “This issue is bigger than the filibuster,” he said. “This issue — access to voting and preempting politicians’ efforts to restrict voting — is so fundamental to our democracy that it is too important to be held hostage by a Senate rule, especially one historically used to restrict the expansion of voting rights. It is a contradiction to say we must protect minority rights in the Senate while refusing to protect minority rights in the society. We must find a way to pass voting rights — whether we get rid of the filibuster or not.”
For now, legislators not just in Georgia, but in states around the country retain a broad authority to restrict voting access — although there are questions about whether it’s good politics to do it. There are already indications of a backlash brewing in Georgia: State Rep. Barry Fleming, sponsor of the legislation, was asked to resign from his other role, as Hancock County attorney, after locals there protested his role in crafting the voting restriction package. Research from 2016 suggests that attempts to suppress the vote actually had a motivating effect on Democratic turnout. And Republicans have spent so much of the legislative session avenging Trump’s loss, that they’ve failed to adequately address the needs of their constituents in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Out of all 50 states, Georgia — a state of 11 million people and an early coronavirus hotspot — currently ranks 49th in vaccinations. “They are playing with fire,” Groh-Wargo says of the Republicans. “Georgians want to get their vaccine. They want to get back to normal. They want to get the kids in school… In this legislative session, [the Republicans] did not expand Medicaid, hospitals have been closing, they did not go to the Department of Health to get more money. They’ve been focusing on all this voter suppression crap.”