Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is defending the controversial voting reform bill recently signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp.

“There’s been a lot of misinformation, misinformation about that,” he said in a phone interview. “And so it falls to me to speak the truth to what the law does and what it doesn’t do.” 

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

The law imposes new voter identification requirements for absentee ballots; empowers state officials to take over local elections boards; limits the use of ballot drop boxes; allows for unlimited challenges to a voter’s qualifications; cuts the runoff election period from nine to four weeks shortens the time voters have to request an absentee ballot and criminalizes giving food and water to voters waiting in line at polling places.

The law also expands early voting by requiring it on two Saturdays rather than one. And it removes the Georgia Secretary of State as chair of the State Election Board, instead making that position one elected by the General Assembly.

Opponents of the law claim it is a voter suppression act and restricts voter access. The legislation drew protests, and now lawsuits, from advocates who said the changes will make it more difficult to vote, especially for minority voters, and that it followed conspiracy theories about the validity of President Trump’s loss of Georgia’s presidential election. Some corporations, including Delta Air Lines and the Coca-Cola Company, have publicly stated opposition to the law since its passage.

The voting reform law followed Trump’s narrow loss in Georgia’s presidential election. Trump complained about the results and process being unfair, while Raffensperger and his voting operations manager, Sandy Springs political figure Gabriel Sterling, said the results were accurate. Raffensperger was caught up in the election controversy as Trump called his office several times, including on one occasion speaking to him, with complaints. The former president has endorsed U.S. Rep. Jody Hice (R-10) to face Raffensperger in the 2022 Republican primary.

Raffensperger said he supports driver’s license identification, the increase in days for early voting, holding counties accountable for long voter lines, and restricting absentee ballot application requests to voters. His main opposition to the law was that the General Assembly removed his office as the head of the State Election Board was a bad decision.

The law does away with the signature match, which is a subjective measure, Raffernsperger said. Driver’s license identification is an objective measure with unique identifiers.

“In states like Minnesota, New Jersey, and Virginia, which happened to be liberal Democrat states, they use this new system of driver’s license numbers,” he said.

He called it good policy and strongly supports it.

To critics of how the law treats early voting, Raffensperger said it expanded the mandatory days from 16 to 17 days for all 159 Georgia counties. With two optional Sundays for early voting it makes 19 days possible. He’s sure larger counties will schedule early voting on Sundays.

The Republican said he doesn’t believe removing the secretary of state as chairman of the State Election Board was a wise decision. The office is an elected position and has served as the chair since 1960. Now the power of the State Election Board has increased with the ability to fire election directors of counties, but the person doing the firing will be a chairman who was appointed.

“So now you have an unelected board commission authority, who is not directly reportable to the voters,” he said.

The secretary of state has accountability to the voters, he said, while the chairman of the State Election Board will be selected by the General Assembly and isn’t accountable to the voters.

“When I was in the General Assembly, I generally didn’t like and didn’t believe in the expansion of unelected boards, commissions and authorities. And that’s what this would do,” Raffensperger said.

Fulton County’s election problems last summer led to the first time a secretary of state held them accountable, Raffensperger said. With a consent agreement in place, his office arranged an independent monitor to review the county’s processes for the fall election, which gained valuable information, he said, and improvements were made.

“I know that Fulton County does not support this change in the law. And their concern probably would be that it’s used as a cudgel against them, even though they’ve made some improvement,” Raffensperger said. “That’s what the General Assembly has decided to do. And I guess they’ll be happy to discuss that with the General Assembly and the State Election Board chairman.”

Electioneering by political campaigns led to a ban on handing out water or snacks in the 150-foot zone at the polling place, where campaigning already was banned.

“You could tell it was campaigns because of the attire that they were wearing,” he said.

Describing the new law, Raffensperger said, “What they’re saying is that if you want water handed out, we’re grateful for that. Give it to us, the poll workers. And we’ll distribute that on a random, nonpartisan, bipartisan basis.”

State Rep. Matthew Wilson, a Brookhaven Democrat whose district includes part of Sandy Springs, handed out pizzas to voters at a Brookhaven polling place in 2018. The State Election Board recently referred allegations to the Georgia Attorney General’s office that the act constituted making gifts to voters.

The average wait time in the November election was two minutes, Raffensperger said. Another provision of the new law requires counties to take action if they had lines of voters waiting one hour or longer. The county could divide the precinct into two precincts to cut down the number of voters, add additional equipment or add additional poll workers to make sure the lines were under an hour.

“There’s already a measure in there, so people aren’t in long lines. So there really won’t be any need for water or snacks,” Raffensperger said.

Only voters can make an application for an absentee ballot, a measure Raffensperger said is designed to cut down on the workload of county election offices.

“The bill right now precludes outside groups from sending absentee ballot applications. The voter would make his own application,” he said.

County officials during the last election were getting overloaded with applications. Voters would get an application sent to them, fill it out and send it in. A week later another application would arrive in the mail. The voter would submit another application just to make sure the county got their application.

“They can have up to five, even 10 applications that they’re receiving. If they all came back into the county, the county was swamped,” he said.

The counties had to look up every request to find out if an application had already been processed. The smaller counties don’t have the resources to handle that many applications, he said. The General Assembly wanted a uniform system in which one application was received per voter for an absentee ballot instead of five or six.

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.