The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Georgia’s primary went smoothly. Voting advocates worry about November.

The primary was the first big test of the state’s new voting law. No major problems were reported, but the general election could be different.

A polling place in Atlanta, at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, on May 24. (Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg)

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — Turnout set modern records for a midterm primary. Ballot rejections plummeted. And Republican leaders were quick to pronounce that the relatively problem-free election on Tuesday in Georgia offered evidence that concerns about the state’s new voting law, passed last year, had been overblown.

“The incredible turnout we have seen demonstrates once and for all that Georgia’s Election Integrity Act struck a good balance between the guardrails of access and security,” said Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who won the Republican nomination for reelection Tuesday, in a statement to The Washington Post.

But voting rights groups and Democrats, while celebrating the high participation rates, had a different interpretation: The high turnout, they argued, was an outgrowth of years of painstaking efforts to register and mobilize voters — not a reflection of the Election Integrity Act, which is also known as Senate Bill 202. And just because the primary went smoothly, they said, doesn’t mean there won’t be trouble in November.

“Great efforts have been made by the faith community to organize, educate and prepare voters for S.B. 202. But comparing a primary to the general is like comparing apples to oranges,” said Bishop Reginald Jackson, who leads a group of more than 500 African Methodist Episcopal churches in Georgia that conducted voter registration and education efforts.

The primary was the first major test of Georgia’s voting system since Republicans enacted the new law. Proponents of the measure, passed amid false voting fraud claims from former president Donald Trump and his supporters, say it will increase election security. But voting rights advocates have criticized the law as a solution in search of a problem that needlessly restricts access to the polls.

The law imposes new identification requirements for those casting ballots by mail, curtails the use of drop boxes for absentee ballots, makes it a crime for third-party groups to hand out food and water to voters standing in line, blocks the use of mobile voting vans and prevents local governments from directly accepting grants from the private sector for election administration.

The law also requires poll workers to redirect voters to their home precinct if they arrive at the wrong location before 5 p.m. Proponents of the change argue that it ensures voters are casting ballots in the correct local elections, while critics say it can discourage people from voting once they have already arrived at a polling site.

No counties reported long lines at polling sites or widespread issues with voting systems on Tuesday. As is typical, some polling sites reported opening late or experiencing understaffing, causing several sites in the metro Atlanta area to stay open later. Voters at multiple sites observed by The Post were turned away from the polls and told to vote in a different precinct, leading to some confusion and frustration.

Rejection rates for mail-in ballots, meanwhile, were far lower than they were four years ago. An analysis by The Post shows the rates went from roughly 4.3 percent to 1 percent.

The Post analyzed data released from the office of the secretary of state as of 10 p.m. Thursday. To allow for a proper comparison, only data available two days after the primary in 2018 was used.

Voting advocates had predicted that a new requirement to provide an identification number if voting by mail — either the last four digits of a Social Security number or the number from a state ID — would disenfranchise voters.

But the requirement replaced another controversial rule that had been in effect in 2018, the previous midterm cycle. Known as “exact match,” it had required the information provided on mail ballots, including the voter’s signature, to exactly match existing driver or Social Security records.

The rejection rates in 2018 reflected a significant racial disparity. That year, around 5 percent of Black voters’ ballots were rejected, while just 3.6 percent of White voters’ were. This year, the figures were 1.2 percent and 0.9 percent, respectively, according to data on voter ethnicity from the voter file company L2.

Turnout, meanwhile, was up substantially among voters in both the Democratic and Republican primaries. Among the voting-age population, 23 percent cast ballots, compared with 14.5 percent in 2018.

On the Republican side, 1.2 million Georgians voted, more than twice the number who turned out in 2018. Even in Democrat Stacey Abrams’s uncontested bid for her party’s gubernatorial nomination, 720,000 people voted in the Democratic primary — a nearly 20 percent increase over 2018.

The surge in participation reflected how competitive the GOP races for governor and secretary of state were. Voting rights groups said it also stemmed from their hard work: Ninety-five percent of eligible people in the state are registered to vote this year, according to state data, among the highest rates in the country.

The New Georgia Project, Rock the Vote and Black Voters Matter, among other groups, spent millions on voter outreach and education efforts in the run-up to the primary.

Automatic voter registration also jumped in the weeks before the primary registration deadline after the Georgia Department of Driver Services reinstated an opt-in registration function on its website more than a year after an overhaul of the site had inadvertently erased the function. Voting advocates had noticed a sharp decline in registrations and flagged it for state officials.

“Turnout is certainly an indication that Georgia voters are very motivated and determined to cast their ballots this year. They saw the power their votes had in 2020 and 2021 and are ready to make history again,” said Xakota Espinoza, a spokesperson for Fair Fight Action, a voting rights organization. “The primary was an important test run for figuring out what additional work needs to be done to mitigate the impacts of S.B. 202.”

Espinoza said one particular area of concern is rejection rates for absentee ballot applications. While rejections of ballots went down, rejections of applications went up, from 1.4 percent to 2.3 percent, according to The Post’s analysis.

Critics of S.B. 202 accused its Republican authors of making it harder to apply for a mail ballot by moving up the deadline. Missing the deadline was the most common reason applications were rejected.

But some nonpartisan voting advocates spoke out in favor of the new deadline, which was intended to establish a cutoff so that voters would not receive ballots so close to the election that they would not be able to return them in time.

There is also a significant racial disparity in the application rejection numbers: 3.2 percent of Black voters’ applications were rejected, whereas the figure is 1.6 percent for White voters.

Every voter whose application for a mail ballot was rejected for lack of an identification number received a provisional ballot, allowing them a second opportunity to vote so long as they provided the necessary ID, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Significant parts of the new law’s impact won’t be fully known until the fall general election, and possibly even the fall of 2024, when the next presidential contest is expected to boost turnout significantly. Advocates say they are concerned about possible long lines if voters are reluctant to vote by mail because of the new ID requirement. They also point to the possible harm that could come from a new prohibition barring the provision of food and water to people standing in those lines.

Republicans vehemently deny it, but voting rights proponents say they believe such measures are racially motivated and will require a vigorous response to prevent the Black vote in Georgia from being depressed.

“Over the last 18 months, extremists have shown they will do just about anything to minimize the African American vote in Georgia,” said Jackson, the bishop. “Most of this initial data shows what the faith community is doing on the ground is working, but we are not resting. We are battling racism and marginalization not seen in decades, and we will not rest until we ensure all African Americans have the ability to vote in November.”

At least on Tuesday, many voters said they had a positive experience casting their ballots.

“It was really easy, in and out, no wait,” said Andrea Henderson, a customer service administrator in Duluth.

Henderson had helped count ballots during the 2020 election, when she and others worked overnight to process the votes amid backlogs and long lines.

Lamar Banks, a maintenance technician and Army veteran who lives in Gwinnett County, said he had been expecting a long line this year but was pleasantly surprised. He sped through the process.

“I feel it should be easy to vote. I have no problem showing my ID, I get that,” Banks said. “I’m not naive, I understand there are players in the game who are really trying to make it really tough for certain groups of people to vote.”

But Banks said he would not be deterred. “If I’ve got to stand in line for 10 hours,” he said, “I’m going to cast my vote."