The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Georgia Republicans’ ban on giving voters water epitomizes the GOP’s disturbing priorities

People wait in line at North Cobb Regional Library in Kennesaw, Ga., on Dec. 18 to vote in the Georgia Senate runoff elections.
People wait in line at North Cobb Regional Library in Kennesaw, Ga., on Dec. 18 to vote in the Georgia Senate runoff elections. (Kevin D. Liles/For the Washington Post)

LET’S SAY you sat down with a group to brainstorm on how best to strengthen our democracy. Let’s say someone said, “I know! Let’s make sure that people waiting to vote in long lines on hot days can’t be given water to drink!” You might reply: “Uh . . . what?”

Yet that is indeed one of the “reforms” Republicans in Georgia implemented this week.

Georgia has been a primary battleground in the voting wars, pitting Republicans who seek to restrict voting against Democrats, good-government groups and others who want casting a ballot to be easier, not harder. While state Republicans backed off their worst ideas, such as abolishing no-excuse absentee voting, the restrictionists still scored a victory on Thursday, when Gov. Brian Kemp (R) signed a bill containing plenty of noxious provisions. Among them: a ban on distributing food or water to voters waiting in long polling place lines.

This provision will do little to improve confidence in the vote, but it promises to make voting in person in Georgia — particularly in those areas that see epic voting lines — even less pleasant. Meanwhile, state lawmakers added new rules on absentee voting, which may require more people to sit out in the sun to cast a ballot.

It is clear who would be hurt most by this shift. Lines tend to be long in predominantly non-White precincts — areas that tend to vote for Democrats. State and local officials have failed to keep pace with the fast growth of ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the Atlanta area, leading to lengthy voting backups. Data on Georgia’s primary elections last June, collected by Georgia Public Broadcasting and ProPublica, revealed that the average wait after 7 p.m. in predominantly non-White neighborhoods was 51 minutes, while in predominantly White neighborhoods it was six minutes.

Georgia state law previously barred people and groups from handing out gifts, such as refreshments, to those waiting in line. But the law appeared to allow the distribution of food and water if it were available to everyone — voters, poll workers, passersby — so it did not amount to a reward for voting. Moreover, those passing out the refreshments could not do any campaigning. Now the law restricts anyone from giving out water to any voter within a certain distance of a polling place, authorizing only election officials to provide self-service water from an unattended receptacle — and only if election officials choose to do so.

Georgia lawmakers also banned mobile voting buses such as those that Atlanta’s Fulton County used to ease lines. They added voter ID requirements for absentee voting and narrowed the amount of time people have to request mail-in ballots. They placed so many limits on ballot drop boxes as to render them practically useless. So it is now a criminal offense for someone to hand a bottle of water to an elderly Black voter in Fulton County — who had to wait in line because she could not navigate the new absentee ballot requirements.

In the grand scheme of voter-suppression measures that Republicans have proposed, limiting water distribution is not the most pernicious. But it is emblematic of a party committed to devising new hardships to impose on voters, and all based on lies about voter fraud, to keep hold of political power.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: On the Georgia ‘voting law’

Greg Sargent: A scorching reply to Georgia’s vile new voting law unmasks a big GOP lie

Greg Sargent: Stop telling this stupid lie, Republicans. It’s insulting to your voters.

Greg Sargent: Why the GOP’s awful new voter suppression effort is so alarming

The Post’s View: Republicans’ war on democracy is ramping up

Tammy Joyner: We Georgians won’t accept a voting rollback without a fight