WASHINGTON -- An extra day of voting access at some Georgia polls in 2014 may have inadvertently backfired, as Republican state legislators push a bill to reduce the number of early voting days from 21 to 12.
When, for the first time, the state's most populous counties decided to open some polling places on the Sunday ahead of the November midterms, GOP lawmakers argued that the early voting sites were chosen to maximize votes for Democratic candidates.
Fears that Sunday voting would lead to Democratic victories were unfounded in the highest-profile races, however, as U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn and gubernatorial challenger Jason Carter lost their races by about 8 percentage points each.
And yet, the bill's supporters say the legislation is a necessary patch to create consistency and balance among urban and rural counties regarding election administration costs, as well as "equal opportunity" among voters in those counties, since the measure would ensure that all counties have at least one Saturday for early voting. It would give counties the option of opening polls a second Saturday or Sunday as well.
“There were complaints of some voters having more opportunities than others,” Republican state Rep. Ed Rynders told the Albany Herald last week. “For instance, in Fulton County last year, early voting was conducted for 19 straight days, including two Saturdays and two Sundays. This legislation offers equal access statewide."
To that argument, Rynders said that "there’s nothing that prevents [larger cities and counties] from opening more precincts" to address longer lines that may result from the measure.
Opponents of the bill also say it is intended to depress turnout among voting groups that disproportionately take advantage of early voting -- namely, African-Americans and other minorities.
"My question is, what is driving this? Is it truly the expense of providing early voting? If it’s not cost, then what is the real reason?" asked Democratic Rep. Debbie Buckner in an interview with The Huffington Post. "I am not clear why we would want to cut the length of time. It seems to me that we need to figure out a way to allow as many people as possible the right to vote."
The bill is likely to pass, given that Republicans hold the governorship and have majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. It awaits action in the House Rules Committee after passing out of the House Governmental Affairs Committee along party lines last week.
The move to cut the early voting period has a precedent, as the Georgia legislature voted to slash early voting from 45 to 21 days in 2011. Then, the Justice Department had to approve those changes. However, the Supreme Court's 2013 decision struck down the Voting Rights Act formula that determined which jurisdictions had to clear voting law changes with the federal government. So now states such as North Carolina have been able to cut their early voting periods without federal permission.
Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia offer some form of early voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The average for those jurisdictions is 19 days.