Recent local news coverage in Georgia focused on legislation that will restrict access to the voting process largely failed to mention that these bills would heavily impact minority and low-income voters in the state. In addition, some segments even pushed the false idea that the 2020 election was contested or in some way fraudulent.
Over the past month, Republicans in Georgia’s legislature have been working on a group of bills that would limit voting in the state under the false pretense that restrictions would restore confidence that elections are free of fraud. On March 1, the state's House of Representatives passed House Bill 531, an omnibus bill, which would:
- Require an ID number for absentee voting requests.
- Limit the number of absentee ballot drop-off boxes and require that the boxes be kept inside (and inaccessible to the public if the building is closed).
- Restrict weekend early voting by forcing counties to choose a weekend day to close polls.
- Shorten the absentee voting period.
- Outlaw giving food or water to voters waiting in line.
Voting rights advocacy groups like Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight called HB 531 “one of the strictest and most anti-democratic pieces of voter suppression legislation in the country.” It will now go to Georgia’s Senate, where another strict voting restrictions bill is working through committees. Senate Bill 241 would not only require ID for absentee voter registration, but also:
- Eliminate no-excuse absentee voting altogether. Only voters who are 65 or over, have a physical disability, or are not in their precinct during the election could vote by mail.
- Require a witness signature and copy of photo ID on an absentee vote for it to be counted.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, policies like those under consideration in Georgia have a long history of targeting people of color:
False claims of voter fraud, and the measures that purport to counter it, are fundamentally intertwined with racist attempts to cast doubt on the legitimacy of voters of color. Recent calls to overturn results in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Detroit — cities with large Black and brown populations — were less dog whistle than bull horn. And while the use of arbitrary Jim Crow-era “tests,” like demands that voters count jelly beans in a jar, are now illegal, policies like voter ID requirements and voting bans applied to people with past criminal convictions continue to disproportionately keep voters of color from the ballot box.
The Rev. James Woodall, president of Georgia’s NAACP chapter, also called these attempts to limit voting “a second coming of Jim Crow.”
Yet, based on a Media Matters review of Georgia local news broadcasts, most local stations treated this attempt at voter suppression as a matter of opinion rather than of fact. Claims from Democratic or civil rights group that these bills were suppressive or targeted were almost always paired with a right-wing or Republican claim that the bills were protecting the right to vote. One sound bite that played in multiple news pieces from Augusta’s WJBF and Savannah’s WSAV included a claim that the bill would actually help those in low-income areas, rather than suppress turnout. Reporters did not push back on this demonstrably false claim.
This type of framing treats the idea that these bills suppress votes as something debatable when we know that it is not. Restricting voting on weekends targets “souls to the polls” voting drives run by majority Black churches in Georgia.
ID requirements inherently create a monetary barrier to voting, which makes participating in democracy harder for those living under the poverty line. For instance, a driver’s license costs $32, but a passport or birth certificate, which are among the documents needed to obtain a license, cost $110 and over $30, respectively. Up to 25% of voting-age Black people in the U.S. lack a government-issued voter ID compared to 8% of white people.
Expanding ID laws to absentee voting widens the net of voter suppression in a state that already requires ID at the polls and whose signature match system for absentee voting is already discriminatory. In Georgia, the signature on absentee ballots has to exactly match the signature on that voter’s registration. In 2018, about 80% of ballots rejected based on mismatching signatures were from people of color.
Research from the University of Chicago shows that minority turnout in states that have strict voter ID is significantly lower than in those that do not have these laws. Additionally, election outcomes have shifted rightward in states where these laws were implemented, strengthening GOP power.
Media Matters found 75 mentions of one or more of Georgia's voter suppression bills on local affiliates of NBC, ABC, CBS, or Fox in the state that aired between February 17 and February 23. While the majority of coverage reviewed referred to these proposed laws as restrictive or suppressive, only 14, or less than 20%, of these local pieces mentioned that the bills were targeted at low-income or minority voters. Meanwhile, over a third of coverage reviewed involved local stations broadcasting misinformation that the 2020 election was somehow contested or that voter suppression proposals were meant to restore or boost confidence in elections.
Of the three Georgia TV stations owned or operated by Sinclair Broadcast Group -- WTGS in Savannah, WFXL in Albany, and WGXA in Macon -- only WGXA covered the legislation during this time period. WGXA’s sole news report about the voter suppression bills failed to mention that no fraud was found during the audits and recount following the 2020 election, failed to mention that the measures are targeted toward minority voters, and failed to even frame the legislation as restrictive to voting.
Voting rights lawyer Marc Elias was correct when he stated that the media are “unequipped to cover … in clear moral terms” the GOP wave of voter suppression bills.
Incomplete, surface-level news pieces like those rampant on Georgia’s airwaves fail to inform the people who will be most impacted by such measures. Both sides or Democrat-said, Republican-said coverage makes the impact of these laws look subjective, when it is an objective fact that laws like this in other states have already made voting harder for minority and low-income voters.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Kinetiq video database for all original programming on local ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC affiliates in the Albany, GA; Atlanta; Augusta-Aiken; Chattanooga; Columbus, GA; Dothan; Greenville-Spartanburg-Asheville-Anderson; Jacksonville; Macon; Savannah; and Tallahassee-Thomasville television markets for any of the terms “Georgia Stand-Up, “Senate Bill 67,” Senate Bill 69," “Senate Bill 71,” or “Senate Bill 72” or the term “Georgia” within 20 words of any of the terms “voter suppression," “voter registration,” “early voting,” “voter legislation,” “voting legislation,” ” mail in,” “ballots,” “absentee,” “voter ID,” or “voter identification” from February 17 through February 23, 2021.
We then reviewed news segments about voter legislation in Georgia for whether any speaker or clip in the segment acknowledged that the bills targeted minority and low-income voters; acknowledged that vote recounts in Georgia found no 2020 election fraud; either pushed unfounded claims of election fraud or framed the legislation as restoring confidence or election integrity or called the bills an attempt to suppress, restrict, or otherwise limit votes.