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Georgia Secretary Of State Responds To New Voting Law

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Backlash to the new voting law in Georgia keeps on growing. Major League Baseball has announced it will move this summer's All-Star Game away from Atlanta to Denver because of this new law. The CEOs of Delta and Coca-Cola, both headquartered in Atlanta, put out statements criticizing the legislation. Republicans, including Georgia's governor Brian Kemp, are defending their work, saying the new law helps ensure election integrity. But Democrats point out that the new law adds restrictions to voting and creates a path for more partisan control of elections. I'm joined now by one of the supporters of this new law - Georgia's secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger.

Welcome.

BRAD RAFFENSPERGER: Thank you.

CHANG: So now, Republicans in Georgia say this bill is all about election integrity. And I want to ask you about that because you personally made great efforts to make sure the last two elections were secure, were smooth, even as the former president, Donald Trump, criticized you, pressured you to find votes for him. Why do you think this legislation was necessary even after you insisted personally that the two last elections were fair and secure?

RAFFENSPERGER: Well, the number one improvement I see coming out of this bill is that we're moving away from signature match. We've actually been sued by both parties, Democrat and Republican, about signature match. Neither one of them like that process because it is subjective. So we're now moving to the driver's license number and your birthday - day, month, year. Very similar to what they're using in Minnesota, so we're following that model. We think it's a very objective way of moving forward.

CHANG: But let me ask you, I mean, it is impossible to ignore the timing of this legislation. It followed an election where two Democrats were elected to the U.S. Senate in Georgia. I mean, how do you address that?

RAFFENSPERGER: We have session in Georgia that starts the second week in January. It's a 40-day session. That's it. They're done for the year. So that's really why it followed the election. It just - because this is the year that it was going to happen, then you'd have to wait for another year, another January. And that's why the work was done very - it seems quickly, but when the 40-day session - any bills that you have, including the budget, are done in that 40-day session.

CHANG: There are many critics of this law who are comparing it to voting laws from the Jim Crow era, which were on their face not targeted at any specific group of people, but ultimately did disenfranchise Black voters, even some white voters who didn't support the party in power. What is your response to that - that this law conjures up the Jim Crow era for many people out there?

RAFFENSPERGER: It's extremely unfortunate and distasteful that people would do that. If you look at our early voting period, it's expanded now to 17 days mandatory for every county, you know, in our state, and then optional two days of Sunday voting during the early voting phase. So we could have up to 19 days for any country that wants to do Sunday voting. That's more than we've had before. It used to be 16 days of mandatory voting.

We've also worked on making sure we have short lines, so a maximum of one hour maximum wait time. In the November election, the wait time averaged - in the afternoon - was about two minutes. And so we've already made great improvement. Now, we want to put that into law. That's a good thing.

And for the first time ever, we've gone to ranked-choice voting for runoffs. We had an eight-week runoff, and now we'll be able to shorten that to a four-week runoff for federal elections. And that's another good measure. So all four of those measures that I've talked about are positive, you know, solid, measured election reforms.

CHANG: What I don't understand is that you do support this law despite the fact that it does place a number of limits on your office specifically. For example, it removes you as the head of the state election board. It replaces you with an independent chair appointed by the Republican legislature. Also, the secretary of state, under this law, can no longer send out absentee ballot applications to all voters, which you did last summer. I mean, do any of these constraints on your powers as secretary of state concern you?

RAFFENSPERGER: Well, I don't agree with the policy that would remove me as being chairman of the state election board, and I've been very clear on that matter. I'm an elected official, so whatever decisions I make as state election board chairman, I will be held accountable to the voter. Now you have an unelected board, and that unelected board is not really accountable to anyone but the General Assembly. So the accountability is very diffused. You'll never be able to hold someone accountable. Everyone's going to be pointing fingers at each other. So I didn't support that. It's shortsighted. I said that much. And it's petulant, and I feel it's a dumb move. But other than that...

CHANG: Well, is there any part of you that has a sense that that particular provision - the one that removes you as the head of the state election board - that that was in part retaliation for you speaking out against the former president?

RAFFENSPERGER: Well, that's what our speaker has so stated, and he's quoted in the press as saying. But you have to look in total. I think that when you have a verifiable driver's license, that's a good thing. When you have early voting that's expanded, that's a good thing - one hour maximum wait time. Also for the first time in state law, we have now allowed absentee ballot drop boxes. So that's another good measure.

CHANG: But many of the provisions in this bill will disproportionately affect urban areas. Obviously, these are areas that are largely democratic. Why is that a good thing?

RAFFENSPERGER: I don't believe that's the case at all. I believe that it's really working and striving to make sure that there's uniformity as much as you can have in a state with 159 counties, with the smallest county having 2,500 people and the largest county having, you know, basically a million people. So it's really something that is very broad-based, uniform process and is going to, I think, ensure that we have faster runoffs and making sure we have very objective measures for absentee ballots, for identification of those voters so that it restores confidence.

CHANG: I want to talk specifically about Fulton County. That's home to the city of Atlanta. They had 38 drop boxes last November, but under this new law, the county says they will only have eight drop boxes. You say there won't be a disproportionate impact on urban areas, but how do you explain that?

RAFFENSPERGER: It's because it's based on one drop box for every hundred thousand registered voters. So every county is being treated equally the same.

CHANG: Fulton County would disagree.

RAFFENSPERGER: Well, I understand that. And some of the other even smaller counties would like to have seen an absentee ballot drop box at every one of the early voting locations. And that's perhaps something that the General Assembly would consider in the next year's session.

CHANG: Secretary of State of Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, thank you very much for joining us today.

RAFFENSPERGER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.