During his first news conference, President Biden became especially passionate when discussing a law being pressed by Republican lawmakers in Georgia that he said was intended to make it harder for people to vote. He reiterated those concerns the next day in a written statement after Gov. Brian Kemp (R) signed the bill into law.
The law has come under fire for restricting the distribution of food and water to people standing in line, making it harder to cast absentee ballots, reducing drop boxes for mail ballots, barring mobile voting places and for making significant procedural changes that potentially give more power to the GOP-controlled legislature in the election process.
Biden has echoed many of those concerns. But there was one line in both his news conference and his statement that has kept us puzzling until our puzzler was sore. It also puzzled experts who have studied the new law.
On Election Day in Georgia, polling places are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and if you are in line by 7 p.m., you are allowed to cast your ballot. Nothing in the new law changes those rules.
However, the law did make some changes to early voting. But experts say the net effect was to expand the opportunities to vote for most Georgians, not limit them.
“You can criticize the bill for many things, but I don’t think you can criticize it for reducing the hours you can vote,” said University of Georgia political scientist Charles S. Bullock III. He speculated that Biden may have been briefed on an early version of the bill — “there were 25 versions floating around” — and he did not get an update on the final version.
For instance, at one point lawmakers considered nixing all early voting on Sundays, thus eliminating “souls to the polls,” a get-out-the-vote initiative popular with predominantly Black churches. But that idea was scrapped in the end.
“One of the biggest changes in the bill would expand early voting access for most counties, adding an additional mandatory Saturday and formally codifying Sunday voting hours as optional,” Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting said in an excellent and comprehensive report on the impact of the new law. “Counties can have early voting open as long as 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at minimum. If you live in a larger metropolitan county, you might not notice a change. For most other counties, you will have an extra weekend day, and your weekday early voting hours will likely be longer.”
Charles Stewart III, an election expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said: “I had also heard this generally reported as expanding early voting, so I’m surprised by the characterization.” He studied the precise language changes at our request and said it indicated an expansion of hours, especially in rural counties.
So where would Biden get this perception that ordinary workers were getting the shaft on voting hours? We have one clue.
The law used to say early “voting shall be conducted during normal business hours.” Experts said that generally means 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The new law makes it specific — “beginning at 9:00 AM and ending at 5:00 PM.” A Georgia election official said the change was made in part because some rural county election offices only worked part time during the week, not a full eight-hour day, so the shift to more specific times makes it clear they must be open every weekday for at least eight hours.
But, as noted, the law also allows individual counties to set the hours anywhere between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. So the practical effect of the 5 p.m. reference in the law is minimal.
During the 2020 election, for instance, vote-rich Fulton County, with a substantial Black population, set early-voting hours at 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on most weekdays and two Saturdays, though the last weekdays had 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. voting hours. Voting was allowed on two Sundays between 12 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Under the new law, Fulton County could set the exact same hours for in-person early voting — or expand them from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day.
Bullock noted that one change in the law may impact early voting in runoff elections. The law reduced the period between the initial election and the runoff election, from nine to four weeks, potentially shortening the period for early voting.
We were curious what the early-voting rules were in Delaware, Biden’s home state. It turns out Delaware did not allow any in-person early voting in 2020. A law signed in 2019 will permit early voting starting in 2022. (Voting hours are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day.)
We sought an explanation from the White House for the reason for Biden’s remarks but did not receive an on-the-record response.
The Pinocchio Test
Biden framed his complaint in terms of a slap at working people. The law would “end voting at five o’clock when working people are just getting off work” or “ends voting hours early so working people can’t cast their vote after their shift is over.”
Many listeners might assume he was talking about voting on Election Day, not early voting. But Election Day hours were not changed.
As for early voting, the law made a modest change, replacing a vague “normal business hours” — presumed to be 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. — to a more specific 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. time period. But that’s the minimum. Under the new law, counties have the option to extend the voting hours so voters can start casting ballots as early as 7 a.m. and as late as 7 p.m. — the same as Election Day in Georgia. Moreover, an additional mandatory day of early voting on Saturday was added and two days of early voting on Sunday were codified as an option for counties.
One could understand a flub in a news conference. But then this same claim popped up in an official presidential statement. Not a single expert we consulted who has studied the law understood why Biden made this claim, as this was the section of law that expanded early voting for many Georgians.
Somehow Biden managed to turn that expansion into a restriction aimed at working people, calling it “among the outrageous parts” of the law. There’s no evidence that is the case. The president earns Four Pinocchios.
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