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Record-high early voting turnout leads to debate over voter suppression

Georgia has experienced a 149% increase in early voting so far this primary election season when compared to the same period in 2020.

Voters stand in line for early voting at Lenora Park Gym in Snellville, Ga., on October 30, 2020. It was the last day of early voting in Georgia for the November 2020 election. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

This story has been updated.

Voting rights activists are celebrating record-high turnout for early voting this primary election season and pushing back against Republican operatives who argue that the influx of ballots disproves their concerns about voter suppression.

More than 700,000 people have voted early as of Thursday, according to the Georgia secretary of state’s office — a 149% increase from early voting figures recorded at the same point in the 2020 primary election cycle. It’s also a 180% increase from the same period during the 2018 midterm election primaries, according to the state.

This year’s primary elections, which include a high-stakes race for the Georgia Republican gubernatorial nomination, will be held Tuesday, May 24, for both parties, but the state has been accepting early voting ballots since May 2. 

Black voter turnout this primary season is three times higher than it was in 2018, according to the Republican National Committee. A spokesperson for the GOP group, citing voter demographic data from the secretary of state, said more than 150,000 Black voters had submitted early or absentee ballots as of Monday, compared with just over 48,000 at the same point in 2018.

The RNC cross-referenced voter registration demographic data with early-voting records to come up with its statistics. The secretary of state’s office has declined to confirm or deny those figures.

“Our data team has been focused on voting rather than analysis,” a secretary of state spokesperson said Friday morning. “While we have the data, we haven’t crunched the numbers the way the campaigns have.”

Fenika Miller, Georgia state coordinator for Black Voters Matter, a voting rights group, affirmed the RNC’s figures on Wednesday, saying data analyzed by her organization found a similar jump in Black early-voting turnout.

An uptick in Black voter participation in 2020 helped Joe Biden defeat former President Donald Trump and become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia in nearly three decades. The election also put two Georgia Democrats in the U.S. Senate for the first time this century.

False claims of widespread voter fraud in the aftermath of the 2020 election motivated the Republican-led Georgia General Assembly to pass multiple “election integrity” bills. Those bills include SB 202, which increased election oversight, banned mobile voting units unless the governor has declared a state of emergency, and made it illegal for volunteers to give food or drinks to people waiting to vote within 150 feet of polling places.

They also include SB 441, which gave the Georgia Bureau of Investigation subpoena power and added authority to investigate allegations of voter fraud and other election-related crimes.

Voting rights advocates, including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, have argued that those bills — signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp — were designed to reduce Black voter turnout as the state’s population grows more diverse.

RNC spokesperson Garrison Douglas said Wednesday that the spike in early voting proves Democratic concerns about Black voter suppression were “lies.”

“SB 202 simply made it easier to vote and harder to cheat, plain and simple,” Douglas told Capital B. “Stacey Abrams owes every Georgian impacted by her lies an apology.”

But New Georgia Project CEO Nsé Ufot said the increased early voter turnout shows how motivated Black voters are to cast their ballots in spite of the state’s new voting laws.

“These numbers do not surprise me,” Ufot said. “I would argue that high turnout is a response to the voter suppression laws that Georgians are seeing. It’s not proof that voter suppression laws are not effective. It’s because we have a more sophisticated electorate.”

Ufot also said the uptick in turnout is the product of the work being done by voting rights organizations like hers.

“It’s because of the millions of dollars that has been spent on nonpartisan voter education,” she said. “I think that there is a clarity among Georgia voters about the power of their vote and how important it is.”

Black Voters Matter has been hosting voter education rallies across Georgia throughout April and May, an effort that Miller, the state coordinator, said also has boosted Black voter turnout.

“We’ve been checking folks’ districts, making sure they know how to check where they’re voting, making sure they know how to navigate the secretary of state’s website,” she said. “We’ve been passing out voter guides to make sure folks know what these races mean for their quality of life.”

At least 710,000 people have voted ahead of primary day, according to the secretary of state’s office. That includes more than 655,000 individuals who submitted early in-person ballots and more than 54,000 who submitted absentee ballots.

At least 406,000 people voted in the Republican primary compared with more than 299,000 individuals who voted in the Democratic primary so far this month. Roughly 5,000 voted nonpartisan, state records show. (Georgia voters do not register by party, but can only vote in one primary.)

Douglas said the RNC also has seen an increase in Black people voting in the Republican primary.

“We saw four times more Black voters casting Republican ballots in this election when compared to 2018 as well,” he said. “We’re seeing increased voter turnout across the board.”

Republican primary candidates are competing in a number of district and statewide races, including the bids for governor and U.S. senator.

Georgia football legend Herschel Walker is expected to secure the Republican Party’s nomination for senator over a field of dark horse challengers that includes Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, contractor Kelvin King, and former Navy SEAL Latham Saddler. Trump-endorsed challenger David Perdue is polling way behind incumbent GOP Gov. Kemp.

Ufot said that the greater competition in the Republican races explains why there has been more voter participation in those primaries. Abrams is running unopposed in the Democratic primary. In April, incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock was polling 79 points ahead of primary challenger Tamara Johnson-Shealey, a beauty and barber industry entrepreneur.

Miller said that important down-ballot races for judges, school boards, county commissioners and other local offices also have caused turnout to increase.

“What we have been pushing to people across the state is the power of their vote at the local level,” she said. “Folks are connecting the dots between policy and their direct quality of life.”

Even if the uproar over voter suppression turns out to be unfounded, Charles Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia, said the fear drives more people to vote.

“The data may show that there isn’t [voter suppression], but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t argue that [there] is,” he said. “It’s still a good argument.”

Turnout and law enforcement activities on primary election day next week and Election Day in November will be a better barometer for how Georgia’s new laws are affecting Black voters, Ufot said.

“I think that we are doing good work to normalize voting as a regular part of what it means to be a citizen,” she said. “Folks get it. Once we put the ball in people’s hand, they run with it.”