Just after deciding control of the federal government, Georgia has once again taken center stage in national politics. This is a result of the passage of the Election Integrity Act of 2021, or SB 202, an electoral reform package passed along party lines by state Republicans in response to false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election. Across the country, from sports leagues to big business, the bill has been condemned as a racist, partisan power grab, representing all that’s wrong in American politics today.
In their opposition to the law, critics of SB 202 have been calling it “Jim Crow 2.0”: a re-creation of the infamous 20th century regime of structural racism that massively disenfranchised Black voters, making them second-class citizens. This characterization has defined the public understanding of the bill, as opposition to it has focused intensely on how the bill would suppress voting.
This coverage also gets the bill wrong. Simply put, a direct comparison between the voting restrictions in SB 202 and those in Jim Crow laws is hyperbolic. Jim Crow-era politicians didn’t just institute new ID requirements or shrink early voting periods. They enacted draconian laws that effectively eliminated the franchise for nearly all Black voters in the South.
In contrast, the actual direct changes introduced in SB 202 are much more mild. Most of the new rules just involve minor changes to voting periods. The most seemingly consequential changes are related to absentee voting, which heavily favored Democrats in 2020, but these changes are unlikely to be of much relevance after the pandemic is over and Democrats are comfortable voting in person again.
These changes by themselves are unlikely to make Democrats any less competitive in the state, especially as demographics in the state continue to swiftly change. It is the other, overlooked parts of the bill that are truly alarming. This is found in the real purpose of SB 202: sweeping reforms to electoral administration that have dramatically changed who runs Georgia’s elections.
While the national media has not covered these provisions as much as, say, the infamous water bottle ban, they are by far the most consequential aspects of the legislation. Unlike the other aspects of the bill, these provisions create wholesale changes to Georgia’s electoral administration, all aimed at increasing the power of Georgia's Republican Party.
This has been done through a reshaping of the State Election Board, which has been transformed overnight into one of the most powerful agencies in the state. This once-esoteric body now has nothing less than the absolute authority to suspend county elections officials and replace them with handpicked appointees. These appointees could have tremendous power over the post-election certification process, a crucial aspect of the peaceful transfer of power.
While this power can theoretically only be exercised if the State Election Board feels that local boards are engaging in “nonfeasance, malfeasance or gross negligence,” there are no standards or guidelines for this judgment, allowing it to be enforced arbitrarily. Additional "limits," such as a four-county cap on the number of county officials who can be suspended, do little to decrease the board’s power over Democrats, who rely on a small number of counties to provide them with winning margins.
On the "nonpartisan" board itself, three of its five officers will be appointed by the Republican-held state legislature. A fourth will be chosen outright by the state Republican Party. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State — previously the only member of the board actually elected by Georgians — has not only been replaced as chair of the board by a legislature-appointed official, but removed from the board entirely.
In effect, the state legislature took an obscure bureaucratic appendage, annexed it, gave it sweeping powers and made it accountable only to their own appointees. They did this because they know they can’t keep enough people from voting to truly stop the state’s leftward political trend. Rather than even try to make a case for themselves, they are consolidating power, transferring authority away from elected officials to the hyper-gerrymandered state legislature and its new pocket institutions.
This is a mockery of the federalism that "small-government" Republicans claim to champion, a prelude to authoritarian tactics of the future, and none of it is without precedent. Republicans did the same thing after they lost the gubernatorial elections in North Carolina and Wisconsin. The minute their party's candidates conceded their races, Republican-controlled state legislatures scheduled lame-duck sessions and passed bills to strip the incoming Democratic governors of their powers, handing executive authority to themselves.
What makes Georgia unique is that it is the first of these actions to be preemptive. While Democrats carried both Senate run-offs and the Presidential race, state offices are still awash with Republicans. Rather than waiting for Democrats to win state offices before usurping their authority, Republicans are taking it now — and positioning themselves to overturn results they don’t like.
Going into the future, voting rights advocates need to update their tactics and rhetoric. Calling these measures new Jim Crow laws based on the impact of their procedural restrictions is easy to debunk.
The way that SB 202 facilitates election interference is the true threat. If democracy itself is truly on the line, we all have a duty to present the danger as honestly as possible.