Earlier this year, Lincoln County, Georgia, made national headlines for attempting to shutter six polling locations, leaving its 7,000 residents just one place to cast ballots. What hasn’t gotten enough attention are the election administrators in Georgia’s other 158 counties. They have also cut back—such as eliminating Sunday voting in Spaulding County and not funding a new precinct in a Black neighborhood in Hogansville, Troup County. Those decisions will become more wrenching and more frequent as election officials navigate new, onerous requirements from Georgia’s anti-voter law and ever-shrinking budgets.
These burdens have generated sympathy for local election officials and have spurred efforts to provide them with increased protection and support. But supporting and protecting nonpartisan county officials in Georgia and across the country isn’t enough when misinformation-spreading politicians target election administrators, scapegoating them for anything that goes wrong.
Last year, state legislators in Atlanta cut back election funding and saddled county election administrators with requirements like printing ballots on expensive security paper and “count ’til you drop” provisions that deny bone-tired election officials a chance to pause counting to eat or rest. On top of that, Georgia’s new law brings the hammer down on election officials struggling to comply with these onerous requirements. State legislators and county commissions are sanctioned not only to investigate election officials but also to assume their duties.
It isn’t just election officials in Georgia who are under siege. Florida and Arizona have passed similar restrictions on private donations for elections, often an essential source of financing for administering elections. Texas’s sweeping anti-voter law creates a torrent of unnecessary paperwork for those assisting voters with disabilities. The Republican-passed law also establishes a disciplinary mechanism for local election administrators, fining a county $1,000 per day if it fails to comply with the results of an expensive audit.
Walking this compliance tightrope is difficult—perhaps impossible—because it’s designed to be. The restrictions are designed to impede election administrators from running ballot access programs that would help populations—people of color, students, limited English proficiency voters, and people with disabilities—to vote with greater ease. The odious requirements create confusion and chaos that can only be called voter suppression.
There are three takeaways from these burdens placed on election officials.
First, county election officials will never get the resources or protection they need until we address the barriers facing all voters, especially voters of color.
Second, we must recognize that it’s voter suppression when local election officials are hamstrung or even replaced to hinder voters in diverse communities. Advocates should sound the alarm about efforts to limit voting. Local elected officials should support their election administrators.
No one understands this better than election officials themselves, and they’re fighting back. In the 2022 Georgia legislative session, county officials stood united against still another election bill that would have reduced the number of voting machines per precinct, cut funding streams to county election officials, and created obstacles for administrators counting and handling ballots. Due largely to the advocacy of election officials, the bill was pared to just one provision granting the Georgia Bureau of Investigation additional authority to investigate election-related crimes.
Lawmakers in Washington must understand this, too. We need federal legislation that addresses the shape-shifting voter suppression tactics of 2022. Right now, our election infrastructure rides and dies on unheralded election administrators across the country.
Third, these anti-voter tactics should invite scrutiny, not deference, from courts.
Repeatedly, politicians have passed barriers to voting based on misinformation manufactured to undermine confidence in the 2022 election. One would be hard-pressed to find a relationship between the provisions of these bills and their purported goals. Georgia’s law eliminates weeks of election official prep time for runoff elections and establishes a cruel mandate that election administrators “shall not cease such count and tabulation until all such ballots are counted and tabulated.” This one-two punch leaves election officials sleep deprived and deters potential poll workers from accepting the job.
These provisions do nothing to improve the administration of elections; they only create barriers to voting that harm communities of color and other frequently disenfranchised voters.
Yet the federal courts defer to states administering elections based on hollow promises. Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board in 2008, which relaxed judicial scrutiny of states’ motives when passing voting restrictions, federal courts have been slipping into states’ submission.
Take, for instance, the 11th Circuit’s rejection of a challenge to Alabama’s voter ID law last spring. The ruling did not analyze whether voter IDs ensure that correct ballots are cast for correct voters. Instead, it fell back on a few cases of absentee ballots that were cast incorrectly more than two decades ago. Less than a year ago, the Supreme Court followed suit, rubber-stamping Arizona’s rationale of “deter[ring] potential fraud and improv[ing] voter confidence” as “compelling interest[s]” while giving short shrift to whether the provision at issue deterred it at all.
The judiciary needs to see these new election laws as attacks on the right to vote. It must examine the facts and application of these laws and discern the constitutionally protected right to vote from unlawful manipulation of the franchise. Voting rights organizations must call out barriers and misinformation wherever they appear.
The assault on county election administrators is part of a scheme that weakens the franchise. Once barriers to voting are exposed, we must not only dismantle them but also anticipate the ever-morphing ways states can attack the right to vote. The key to protecting the franchise is the judiciary refusing to validate election law requirements that make it harder to vote.