Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp recently signed a law pushed by state Republicans that aims to curtail voting in the state in response to record-high turnout in 2020 and false claims of voter fraud largely spearheaded by former President Donald Trump and his media allies. The new law is clearly intended to curb voter access and gain GOP control of elections, but some in the mainstream media are still downplaying its worst aspects or suggesting that criticisms and concerns regarding the law are overblown. Some media outlets are also framing its election restrictions in partisan terms, rather than as an attack on voting rights, and boosting partisan GOP spin in their headlines.
Georgia is one of many states where Republicans have recently introduced legislation based on false accusations of voter fraud -- an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice found that lawmakers in 47 states have already introduced 361 bills with restrictions on voting.
According to a New York Times analysis of Georgia’s new law, there are “16 key provisions that will limit ballot access, potentially confuse voters and give more power to Republican lawmakers,” including restricting the use of drop boxes, banning mobile voting centers except for emergencies, and shortening the time voters have to request an absentee ballot.
Republicans passed and signed the 98-page voting law last week following the first Democratic victories in presidential and Senate elections in Georgia in a generation. President Biden won the state by just 11,779 votes out of nearly five million cast. The new law will, in particular, curtail ballot access for voters in booming urban and suburban counties, home to many Democrats. Another provision makes it a crime to offer water to voters waiting in lines, which tend to be longer in densely populated communities.
The law also gives more power to the Republican-controlled state legislature to take over local voting operations and potentially inject partisanship into the voting process, as Reuters recently reported:
The legislation authorizes the Republican-majority legislature to appoint the state election board’s majority while demoting the elected secretary of state, Georgia’s top election official, to a non-voting position.
It also allows the state board to remove local supervisors it deems derelict and replace them with individuals of its choosing.
That power has alarmed Democrats and civil rights organizations in light of Trump’s unprecedented pressure campaign to overturn the results in key Democratic counties.
But even some election officials from Republican-leaning counties said they opposed allowing the state board to take over local elections, a Reuters survey of the state’s 159 counties found.
While there are some aspects of the law that could expand voter access, these will largely affect smaller, rural counties, as opposed to larger urban areas where many Democratic voters reside. For example, the law mandates the number of drop boxes per county, potentially increasing access in rural areas that previously did not have them while drastically cutting the number available in cities, as The New York Times explained:
For the 2020 election, there were 94 drop boxes across the four counties that make up the core of metropolitan Atlanta: Fulton, Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett. The new law limits the same four counties to a total of, at most, 23 drop boxes, based on the latest voter registration data. The number could be lower depending on how many early-voting sites the counties provide.
Yet some mainstream media figures are downplaying the most problematic aspects or intent behind the new Georgia law, instead focusing on individual aspects to suggest that concerns and criticisms about its impact on voters are overblown. Some outlets have also continued to cover the GOP’s nationwide attempt to suppress votes on partisan terms rather than as an attack on voting rights, framing restrictive aspects of the law as criticisms lobbed by Democrats. Some headlines are also boosting GOP talking points and spin, as Republicans and their right-wing media allies work to change the narrative on the law in the face of widespread backlash.
Downplaying the worst aspects and intent behind the Georgia law to suggest that concerns and criticisms are overblown
Some coverage of the law has sought to downplay both the partisan intent behind the legislation and its potential impact. Instead, media figures have suggested to their audiences that Democratic concerns are overblown.
- On the April 5 episode of CNN’s New Day, co-anchor Alisyn Camerota asked, “Is there some potential upside to some of these laws that it will assuage the anxiety of Republicans” concerned about false claims of voter fraud.
- National Review’s Rich Lowry was given the last word on the April 4 edition of NBC’s Meet the Press to claim that “no one is going to be disenfranchised because of this law” and argue that attacks on the law are “an outrageous smear.”
- A USA Today opinion piece on April 6 was titled “No, Georgia's new election law is not Jim Crow on steroids: 3 reasons it isn't a big deal.” The sub-headline claimed: “One reason is that liberal reforms to encourage voting by making it easier don't increase turnout very much, so getting rid of them doesn't matter much either.”
- Writing in The New York Times on April 3, Nate Cohn argued that the law was unlikely to have an impact on voter turnout in Georgia, suggesting that Democratic fears about voter suppression are potentially unfounded. Some questioned the analysis behind his conclusion and the fact that Cohn spent little time discussing the lies on which the legislation was based and its potential impact on local election boards.
Others have also questioned the public backlash by pointing out that some traditionally Democratic states like New York have restrictive voting laws as well.
- On the April 5 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, co-host Joe Scarborough argued that some criticism of the law has been exaggerated — including Biden’s comparison of its voting restrictions to Jim Crow. Scarborough also questioned Major League Baseball’s decision to move the All-Star Game from Atlanta given the league’s ties to New York, which has its own restrictions on early voting and absentee ballots.
- On ABC’s This Week on April 4, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Trump administration official Sarah Isgur complained about criticism of the law from Democrats. Christie suggested that the law would actually help to expand voting access, and Isgur complained that “Delaware, Joe Biden’s home state, didn’t even have early voting in 2020.” Isgur also claimed that the law “doesn’t do what the Democrats are afraid it will do,” adding, “They are condemning this Georgia bill without really understanding it.”
Framing the controversy as a partisan battle rather than an attack on voting rights, or boosting GOP talking points
Other outlets lent equal weight to Democratic and Republican messaging on the law, framing the attack on voting rights as a partisan battle in which both sides have merit to their claims. Some outlets also promoted false or misleading talking points from Georgia Republicans in headlines.
- An Associated Press article explaining the legislation on March 26 reported that “Republican supporters say the law is needed to restore confidence in Georgia’s elections. Democrats say it will restrict voting access, especially for voters of color.”
- A Washington Post piece on April 5 began by noting, “Opponents of Georgia’s new elections law call it a blatant attack on voting rights. … But Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who signed the bill into law last month, insists the opposite.”
- NPR published an April 3 article titled: “Georgia Governor Criticizes MLB For Buying Into Liberal 'Lies' About New Election Law.”
- That same day, Talking Points Memo published an article with the headline: “Kemp Goes To Bat For Voting Limits: Accuses MLB Of Caving To ‘Fear And Lies.’”
- On April 5, CNN shared an article on Twitter referring to Georgia’s restrictive voting laws as “voter integrity laws.”
- A Washington Post article from April 5 framed the GOP’s attack on voting rights entirely in partisan terms, writing: “Democrats contend it is an attempt by state Republicans to suppress the vote in minority communities and mount a partisan takeover of election administration. ... GOP leaders have pushed back against the charges, arguing that the legislation will make it easier to cast a ballot by expanding voting hours, and they have accused Democrats, including Biden, of partisan-driven hyperbole.”