The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The question about Georgia’s election-law changes that has only one answer: Why?

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) listens to a question during a news conference at the State Capitol on Saturday about Major League Baseball's decision to pull the 2021 All Star Game from Atlanta over the league's objection to a new Georgia voting law. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

As Election Day approached last year, President Donald Trump had put one very specific group of people in a remarkably difficult position. Trump’s repeated insistences that the election would be riddled with fraud — at least, if he lost — made it inevitable that some officials would be stuck between the actual results in their states and the president’s claims.

For Democratic governors in blue states, this was not a problem. For Republican governors in red states, this was also not a big risk; their states would vote for Trump. It was, instead, a looming problem for governors in swing states, particularly Republican governors whose voters were more likely to listen to the sitting president. In other words, it was a potential problem for people such as Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who led purple states.

And so it was. Both Ducey and Kemp became frequent Trump targets in the weeks after the election, with the sitting president both explicitly and tacitly encouraging his supporters to attack the governors for their insistence on upholding the results in their states.

Had Trump simply conceded on Nov. 7, the day it became certain that he had no path to victory, the fallout would have been limited. There would still have been rumblings (including, one assumes, from Trump) about the legitimacy of the result, but nothing close to what actually emerged.

What emerged? Trump’s supporters, encouraged by months of falsehoods about the election results, stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington seeking to prevent the Republican’s 2020 loss. Trump’s supporters in state legislatures, often leveraging the same rhetoric, pushed ahead their own efforts to reduce the likelihood of such losses in the future.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, lawmakers in 47 states have introduced more than 360 bills including new restrictions on voting.

“The states that have seen the largest number of restrictive bills introduced are Texas (49 bills), Georgia (25 bills), and Arizona (23 bills)," the organization's analysis concludes — three states with Republican governors and increasingly purple electorates.

Georgia’s effort has apparently concluded. Last month, Kemp signed into law legislation overhauling the state’s elections process. Earlier proposals had included provisions more directly undermining possible turnout from Democratic voters, such as scaling back the “souls to the polls” traditions used by Black voters. The final legislation includes provisions making it harder to vote absentee and, critically, changing the state’s oversight process for elections. No longer will the secretary of state be a voting member of the State Election Board, for example, with the heavily Republican legislature choosing the head of that body and being able to replace county-level elections administrators.

Why? Well, the current secretary of state in Georgia is a man named Brad Raffensperger. You’ve probably heard the name: As Trump repeatedly pushed Georgia to somehow hand him a victory in the state, Raffensperger and his team were the most vocal defenders of the results. Trump literally called Raffensperger in January to try to get the secretary to somehow find enough votes for the incumbent president to win the state. Raffensperger declined.

If the new system had been in place in November, the five-person State Election Board could have been led by a “nonpartisan” official chosen by Republican lawmakers. The board could have removed elections administrators in heavily Democratic counties and replaced them with ones more amenable to Trump’s fraud claims. The change would not have guaranteed that Trump somehow won, but it gives the legislature more power to affect election results.

Unlike Raffensperger, Kemp was more cautious about rising to the defense of the results in his state. In 2018, when he narrowly won election as governor while serving as secretary of state, he assured Georgians that the state had “laws on the books that prevent elections from being stolen from anyone.” After November, though, he tried to toe the tricky middle ground so many other Republicans were forced into by Trump: pretending there was some actual question about the results that needed to be finalized. A week after the election ended, Kemp’s spokesman said that the allegations being made should be a “wake-up call” for Raffensperger to probe fraud allegations.

He did, without finding anything substantive. But Trump's assertions were never rooted in any actual evidence; he and his supporters started from the assumption that the election had been stolen and tried to cobble together evidence to that end after the fact. There was no assuaging Trump's claims with facts, because they didn't originate from any factual place. There was no turning down the temperature on Kemp because there was no redirecting Trump's rage at the immovable fact of his loss.

Kemp, unlike Arizona’s Ducey, is up for reelection next year. His unavoidable war with Trump has damaged the likelihood of his having a second term, as a poll from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found in January:

On the cusp of a tough reelection battle, Kemp’s approval rating stands at just 42% — and his disapproval is at 51%. More than one-third of Republicans — 36% — disapprove of his performance. That’s more than quadrupled from the 8% of Republicans who held a dim view of Kemp in the AJC’s January 2020 poll.

There's an obvious rationale, then, for Kemp to take a political step that at least appears to be adhering to Trump's stated, unaddressable concerns.

In an interview last week, Kemp insisted that “a lot of this bill is dealing with the mechanics of the election. It has nothing to do with potential fraud or not.” Much of the defense of the bill has similarly hinged on either the fact that the most obvious rollbacks of access ended up being stripped or that it increases early voting opportunities in some (heavily Republican) areas.

But, again, the legislation does make it more difficult to cast an absentee ballot, the specific area where so much of Trump’s false claims about fraud were centered. And it does make those changes to limit Raffensperger’s role in the process after he emerged as its most fervent defender. The legislation could certainly have done more to target the state’s shift to the left in recent years, but it does more than a little to address Trump’s unfounded “concerns” and to sideline one of his opponents in his efforts to overturn the election.

One week after it was signed into law, Georgia's Republican-led voting overhaul is facing backlash from a growing number of voting rights advocates. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post)

There’s always a reason that legislation is introduced, always some problem that lawmakers say needs to be addressed in the moment. In Georgia, there is no rational motivation for the passage of its new election law other than demonstrating fealty to the false claims elevated by Trump. Why did Raffensperger need to be replaced on the elections board now? Why did the rules governing absentee applications need to be tightened now, only a few months after an election in which repeated review and extensive scrutiny showed no improprieties had occurred?

Once you accept the obvious answer to those questions, it’s awfully difficult to assume that the changes presented in the new law were simply good faith efforts to streamline the state’s election process. All politics is political, but some politics is more political than others.

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