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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Young: Hyperbole? Some. Sympathy? No.

Demonstrators protest Joe Biden's presidential win at a

Demonstrators protest Joe Biden's presidential win at a "Stop the Steal" rally in Atlanta on Nov. 14, 2020. Credit: Bloomberg/Dustin Chambers

Georgia’s election reform bill, like many news stories in recent years, seems to exist in alternate realities for Democrats and Republicans. In one reality, it’s "Jim Crow in the 21st century," in the words of President Biden — a Republican "atrocity" intended to suppress the Black vote and fix elections. In the other, it’s a law to keep elections "secure, accessible and fair," in the words of Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, and the backlash is left-wing hysteria intended to smear Republicans as racists.

Which reality is it? Some of the Democratic reaction is hyperbole; but there are well-founded concerns, and if the Republicans are getting a bum rap on some points, they were asking for it.

Part of the dispute is over voter identification, which Georgia already requires for in-person voting and will now require for absentee voting. The perennial Republican vs. Democrat wrangling over this issue is a pointless sideshow. There is no evidence of significant fraud without ID; it also makes no sense to treat ID requirements (supported by about 80% of Americans in a 2016 Gallup Poll) as an intolerable burden. While some disadvantaged people may lack identification, helping them get it would do far more good than challenging the requirement.

But where the GOP lost the public relations war is with the clause banning volunteers from handing out water bottles to people waiting to vote (lines are an enduring problem, especially in poorer, mostly minority precincts). The rationale is to prevent bribery via "gifts" including food and drinks. The law’s defenders cite an incident in which volunteers in Planned Parenthood T-shirts gave water bottles and iTunes gift cards to voters in line, but why not just ban "message" T-shirts and gift cards near the polls?

While some conservative pundits argue similar laws exist in other states, none are as restrictive: Some bar only candidates or their volunteers from giving out food and drinks, others exempt items costing less than a dollar. Whatever this bill’s intent, the effect is to make it look anti-voter.

Yes, some clauses expand access (more weekend voting), though the original draft made those rules more restrictive and severely curbed absentee voting. The final version still makes ballot dropboxes far less accessible. It also lets individual citizens issue unlimited challenges to voters’ eligibility. Other worrisome provisions shift election management from county organizations to a state board controlled by the Republican-dominated General Assembly.

Are some of these concerns paranoid? Let’s be honest: Republicans have not exactly earned the benefit of the doubt after so many of them supported President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the election — and toss hundreds of thousands of valid votes — based on fictitious fraud allegations. Most Republican legislators and officials in Georgia, to their credit, opposed this attempt; Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, was widely praised for standing up to the former president. (Raffensperger defends the new law, which removes his role as chair and voting member of Georgia’s board of elections.) However, the task force that recommended the reforms was chaired by a GOP state official who insists the election was stolen from Trump.

Biden’s "Jim Crow" analogy was over the top and needlessly inflammatory, especially given his pledge to reduce polarization. But Republicans don’t deserve much sympathy when their election reform efforts are based on a toxic lie.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.