There’s A Formula For Media Coverage Of Georgia’s Election Bill, And We Broke It Down

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Shelby Talcott Senior White House Correspondent
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There’s a bit of a formula when it comes to how most of the media is covering the Georgia election bill.

First, state flatly the bill “restricts” voters. Then, list several new elements of the law, some of which have nothing to do with actual restrictions on voting.

The “restrictions,” according to the press, include Georgia’s new regulations regarding voter ID for absentee ballots, making drop boxes permanent and banning “line-warming” within 150 feet. Across the board, story structure appears to be formulaic:

The New York Times: “Georgia Republicans on Thursday passed a sweeping law to restrict voting access in the state, introducing more rigid voter identification requirements for absentee balloting, limiting drop boxes and expanding the Legislature’s power over elections.”

NBC News: “Georgia Republicans passed restrictive changes to the state election process Thursday after weeks of debate about how to tighten voting laws. The new law adds a host of restrictions, like requiring identification for mail voting and making it illegal to take food or water to voters in line.”

CNN: “Republicans in Georgia sped a sweeping elections bill into law Thursday, making it the first presidential battleground to impose new voting restrictions following President Joe Biden’s victory in the state.”

“The new 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 and makes it a crime to approach voters in line to give them food and water.”

Every story noted voter ID as a primary restriction; except all but about 8,000 Georgia residents have the necessary ID, according to recently released figures.

They also noted the removal of some ballot drop boxes set up temporarily under Covid-19 restrictions to prevent crowding at polling places; except Georgia’s law makes at least a few of these new drop boxes a permanent feature of post-pandemic voting in every county.

The stories all highlighted the restriction on passing out food and water within 150 feet of a polling place, often claiming it would be illegal altogether; except it would be totally legal for voters to have water and for polling officials to pass it out.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at a news conference about the state's new Election Integrity Law that passed this week at AJ’s Famous Seafood and Poboys on April 10, 2021 in Marietta, Georgia. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at a news conference about the state’s new Election Integrity Law that passed this week at AJ’s Famous Seafood and Poboys on April 10, 2021 in Marietta, Georgia. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

Finally, reporters noted the move to vest state officials with the power to take over local elections boards; but a NYT analysis that cut across the paper’s own reporting noted the change “[does] not inherently make it harder for people to vote by restricting whether and how they can vote.”

This particular provision essentially gives state officials the ability to intervene in up to four counties at a time if those counties are deemed to be underperforming. Other states recently enacted similar laws, according to The Associated Press, which decried it as a “partisan takeovers of election boards.”

But is this voter suppression? According to the NYT’s own analysis, the answer is no.

“These might prove to be very important,” the analysis piece noted. “But for the purposes of this article, we are not considering them ‘voter suppression’ provisions. They do not inherently make it harder for people to vote by restricting whether or how they can vote.”

For his part, President Joe Biden did what he could to stoke outrage, saying during his first formal press conference since taking office that it “makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle.”

Several subsequent stories picked up the hyper-racial “Jim Crow” frame in one way or another. (RELATED: ‘It Didn’t Go Well For Him’: Pollster Says Biden ‘Torched’ His Message On Unity During Press Conference)

Between “Jim Crow” comparisons and the push to label Georgia’s voting laws as “suppression,” the media missed the mark in several key areas of their reporting.

1. Almost all Georgia voters have qualifying ID and, for those who don’t, it’s not hard to get

Members of the press love to point out that Georgia’s new voting law stiffens requirements when it comes to ID. The ongoing theme is that this provision, which requires voters to provide ID for absentee ballots, will make it harder for black people to vote. The state already has voter ID laws for in-person voting.

In reality, there’s only 9,147 Georgia voters who don’t have a driver’s license, ID or social security number associated with their registration, according to data from the Georgia Secretary of State’s (SoS) office.

Publications have admitted that most of Georgia’s registered voters have an official diver’s license or state ID. For those who don’t, all that’s really necessary is a Georgia ID card. These cards are free, have no age restrictions and can be obtained by filling out forms and proving you’re a resident of the state.

Showing a birth certificate, a phone bill or utility bills are sufficient ways to prove Georgia residency. Applicants must also provide a SSN and proof of citizenship.

At least 35 states have have voting ID requirements as well with regards to either mail or in-person voting.

2. Temporary drop boxes are now permanent

Legacy outlets highlighted the fact that Georgia’s new voting laws limit the number of drop boxes per county.

Drop boxes weren’t used in Georgia before the 2020 election, BBC News noted in April – they were implemented in the state because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, due to Georgia’s new laws, drop boxes are now “a permanent feature in future elections in the state,” BBC News added.

US President Joe Biden speaks as US Vice President Kamala Harris looks on during a listening session with Georgia Asian American and Pacific Islander community leaders at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia on March 19, 2021. (ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images)

US President Joe Biden speaks as US Vice President Kamala Harris looks on during a listening session with Georgia Asian American and Pacific Islander community leaders at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia on March 19, 2021. (ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images)

While Georgia’s new laws do impose a limit on the maximum number of ballot drop boxes per county, it also now has a minimum requirement. They may come in handy for more rural communities down the line, as CS Monitor noted.

“People act like we’re taking something away – it never existed until the pandemic, it was done by emergency rule, not by legislative action,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said of the drop box regulations.

The laws also increase the number of Saturday sessions for early voting and have new requirements intended to help keep lines shorter. Republicans ended up scrapping more controversial proposals, such as eliminating Sunday early voting, BBC pointed out.

The NYT analysis piece, which pushed back on the some of the newspaper’s previous articles describing Georgia’s new voting laws, suggested the laws “might make in-person voting easier, especially in the general election,” and argued that “voting provisions are unlikely to significantly affect turnout or Democratic chances.”

3. Georgia’s food and drink provisions come amid investigation for “line warming” 

“People will be prohibited from taking food and water to voters waiting in line, which has become common in past Georgia elections, in which voters have waited extremely long hours to cast ballots in the past,” NBC News noted, adding a quote in which an elections lawyer said the “laws are all aimed at disenfranchising Black voters and also young voters.”

This narrative has also been pushed by publications like MSNBC and Reuters. Biden highlighted these new regulations as well, calling it “sick.”

“If you want any indication that it has nothing to do with fairness, nothing to do with decency, they passed a law saying you can’t provide water to people standing in line while they’re waiting to vote?” Biden said according to The Hill.

Once again, the reality is far more nuanced.

The law is aimed at cracking down on “line warming,” a practice which includes giving voters any sort of gift that may “inappropriately influence voters in the crucial final moments before they cast their ballots,” Republican Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said in December. The state recently had issues with allegations of “line warming,” and multiple officials are under investigation over the practice. (RELATED: The Real Story Behind Georgia’s New Rules On Handing Out Food And Water To Voters)

Does the law mean voters don’t have access to water? Not at all. Poll workers may still give away water, and its only an offense under the new law to give food or water within 150 feet of the polling place (unless you’re a poll worker) or within 25 feet of voters waiting in line, BBC wrote.

Voters can also still bring their own food and water and people are still allowed to give away food and water outside of the new distance restrictions.

Other states have food and drink-related restrictions, too. In fact, Republican state Sen. Mike Dugan said Georgia’s new provisions were modeled after a New York state law.

4. Biden has joined in on the media’s misinformation push

Biden received “Four Pinocchios” from The Washington Post’s fact-checking team after falsely claiming (more than once) that the law “ends voting hours early.”

The Post’s fact-checker Glenn Kessler noted that this claim could not be more incorrect: “This was the section of law that expanded early voting for many Georgians,” he wrote on March 30.

“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,” Kessler added.

Biden’s “Four Pinocchios” rating still didn’t stop some in the media from repeating the claim. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) was forced to issue a correction after falsely claiming that “the new law would limit voting hours.”

The AJC echoed Kessler’s comments for its subsequent correction. (RELATED: Georgia’s New Voting Law — Myths And Facts)

5. As the media demonizes Georgia’s new voting laws, it’s also pushing comparisons to Jim Crow laws

With Biden at the helm, some are even going so far as to compare Georgia’s voting laws to Jim Crow laws. Others have pushed back on these comparisons, arguing that it’s ignorant and misleading.

“‘Jim Crow’ was a derisive slang term for a black man. It came to mean any state law passed in the South that established different rules for blacks and whites,” the Constitutional Rights Foundation notes.

An NBC News op-ed described Georgia’s laws as “unnecessary hurdles.” This article piggy-backed off of Biden’s “Jim Crow” frame and dubbed Georgia’s voting bill the “‘Jim Crow’ voter suppression bill.”

Other publications, from The NYT to The Post, have published op-eds with similar narratives (although The Post, for one, published a contrasting piece pushing back on the comparison), and Biden even said that the MLB should pull its All-Star game from the state because the rules equate to “Jim Crow on steroids.”

Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece Alveda King suggested these kinds of narratives are akin to “race-baiting” and argued that “voter identification is not voter suppression.”

“President Biden is very adept at race-baiting. He and all of his cohorts and colleagues are,” King said on Fox News earlier in April. “If you throw skin color into a discussion and you step on the emotions of people who have fought to be considered equal in the United States, then you’re going to immediately get support and confusion for that position.”

Some would argue that those pushing these narrative’s don’t even necessarily believe it themselves, but are instead pushing it to sow more division between Americans.

“I really believe that in my heart, but I think our system is set up where our politicians, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, are designed to make us not like each other so they can keep their grasp of money and power. They divide and conquer,” NBA legend Charles Barkley aptly pointed out.