“States are not engaging in trying to suppress voters whatsoever,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared last year.
Facts on the ground in Georgia tell a different story. A new data analysis by Mother Jones shows that the number of voters disenfranchised by rejected mail ballot applications skyrocketed after the GOP-controlled legislature passed sweeping new restrictions on mail voting last year. The law enacted in March 2021 shortened the time people have to request and return mail ballots, prohibited election officials from sending such applications to all voters, added new ID requirements, and dramatically curtailed the use of ballot drop boxes, among other changes.
During municipal elections in November, Georgia voters were 45 times more likely to have their mail ballot applications rejected—and ultimately not vote as a result—than in 2020. If that same rejection rate were extrapolated to the 2020 race, more than 38,000 votes would not have been cast in a presidential contest decided by just over 11,000 votes.
In November 2021, Georgians who successfully obtained mail ballots were also twice as likely to have those ballots rejected once they were submitted compared to the previous year. If that were the case in 2020, about 31,000 fewer votes would have been cast in the presidential election.
This data from a key swing state suggests that voter disenfranchisement caused by GOP-backed voting restrictions could significantly increase in 2022 and 2024. People who vote in local elections are usually highly informed about how the voting process works and should be the least likely to have their ballots rejected, so the true impact of the GOP’s cutbacks to voting access will likely be felt even more in the fall, when a larger and less experienced electorate casts ballots.
“The truly troubling aspect of these numbers is that municipal voters tend to be much more experienced voters, ‘super-voters,’ if you will, who are less likely to make these sorts of errors,” such as returning their ballots late, says Sara Tindall Ghazal, a Democratic member of the Georgia State Election Board. “Extrapolating that to a much higher turnout election expected this year suggests that absent a massive voter education effort, many more eligible voters will be disenfranchised by these onerous restrictions—which seems to me to have been the point.”
The disenfranchisement that occurred in 2021, when voters cast ballots in local elections that included an Atlanta mayoral race, was a direct result of measures to limit mail voting passed by the GOP legislature.
More than half of mail ballot applications were rejected because they arrived after the state’s newly imposed deadline to request them. In 2020, Georgia voters could request a mail ballot up until the Friday before Election Day; under the new law signed by Gov. Brian Kemp in March 2021, voters must place their requests no later than 11 days before the election, which voting rights advocates say is too early and burdensome for many voters.
“Election supervisors from across the state who supported creating a hard deadline for requesting a mail ballot said having it so early would be problematic,” says Tindall Ghazal. “It’s excessive—a week before the election is exactly what you need. That’s where elections supervisors came down. That’s where I came down. The legislature just wouldn’t budge on it.”
In 2020, more than 21,000 voters requested and cast ballots inside of 11 days before the election. That included Kemp, who went into quarantine because of a Covid exposure on the Friday before Election Day and requested his ballot that same day—something that is no longer allowed because of the law he championed.
These rejections are having a disproportionate impact on Democratic-leaning constituencies. Black voters, who make up about a third of the electorate in Georgia, accounted for half of all late ballot application rejections, according to the voting rights group Fair Fight Action. Voters 18 to 29 made up just 2.76 percent of mail voters in 2021, but they constituted 15 percent of late ballot application rejections. Overall, four times as many Democratic voters requested mail ballots compared to Republicans, so an increase in rejections will particularly harm their party.
Of 34,810 voters who requested a mail ballot in 2021, 1,038 were ultimately rejected. Of those rejections, only one in four went on to cast a ballot in person. The number of people who did not vote because their applications were rejected (some tried more than once) constituted 2.19 percent of total mail voters, a relatively small figure. But that represented a dramatic increase over the 0.05 percent of Georgians in 2020 whose ballot applications were denied and did not vote—an example of how a seemingly minor change to voter access can lead to a big increase in disenfranchisement.
An analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in November 2021 found that rejected mail ballot applications had quadrupled compared to 2020. But examining rejected applications only tells part of the story. In Georgia, voters can—and many do—file multiple applications for a mail ballot. In some cases, one of those requests may be approved. So Mother Jones zeroed in how many voters never cast a ballot by mail or in person after their mail applications were denied. That yielded a more alarming number: 45 times more Georgians were denied the right to vote in 2021 than in the previous election. Even though mail voting was less crucial before the pandemic, Mother Jones also compared the 2021 election to municipal elections in 2019 and 2017. We found that mail voters last fall were more than 5 times more likely to be disenfranchised than during those previous elections.
The Mother Jones analysis shows that the restrictions on mail voting imposed by the legislature led to an increase in rejected applications and ballots. The office of Georgia’s Secretary of State did not respond to a request for a comment.
Nearly 60 percent of rejected mail ballots were tossed because they were received after the state’s Election Day deadline. Tindall Ghazal attributes that to the legislature’s decision to dramatically curb the use of mail ballot drop boxes and instead force voters to use unreliable mail service.
Kemp dropped off his mail ballot on Election Day 2020, but that is no longer allowed. Now drop boxes are available only until the Friday before Election Day, during normal business hours, and must be located inside voting locations, which largely defeats the purpose of having them. The legislature also dramatically cut the number of drop boxes to one per 100,000 active voters in a county, which forced four metro Atlanta counties to reduce the number of drop boxes from 97 in 2020 to 23 in 2021. As a result, the number of voters using drop boxes decreased by half in Cobb, DeKalb, and Fulton counties in November 2021, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, subjecting many more voters to postal delays.
That wasn’t the only reason ballots were rejected. About one-sixth of mail ballots that were thrown out were tossed because voters submitted missing or incorrect identification information after the state had imposed a new ID requirement for such ballots. About 154,000 registered voters do not have an ID on file with the state, with Black voters constituting 58 percent of them.
Georgia is not the only state where Republicans have made it more difficult to vote by mail and voters are experiencing problems as a result. In Texas, after the legislature passed a confusing new voter-ID requirement for mail voting, the number of rejected ballot applications has increased by 700 percent in large urban areas like Houston’s Harris County ahead of the March primary.
During the debate over voting rights legislation last week, GOP senators—along with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)—claimed that voters would not be disenfranchised by restrictive anti-voting laws in 2022. “We act like we’re going to obstruct people from voting,” Manchin said on January 18, a day before siding with Republicans to block the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. “That’s not going to happen.”
The evidence from Georgia and Texas suggests that it already is.
Review our methodology and reproduce this analysis using code from our GitHub page.