MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Ballot drop boxes became a ubiquitous symbol of voting during the pandemic, particularly in Georgia. But months after the 2020 election, Georgia Republicans passed new election laws that restrict drop boxes. An examination by NPR, WABE and Georgia Public Broadcasting has found those limitations are making it more difficult for the urban and suburban communities that rely on drop boxes the most. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler and WABE's Sam Gringlas explain.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Inaudible).
SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: On a Saturday afternoon, Jessica Owens and her two toddlers are in their driveway in suburban Gwinnett County, just outside Atlanta. They've got buckets and sponges to wash the family car.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Ella (ph), look. It's bubbly.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: What? It's (inaudible).
GRINGLAS: Owens shows me something inside her trunk.
JESSICA OWENS: So whenever we go anywhere, we have to carry a little toddler potty.
GRINGLAS: Long drives require this, particularly recently, when Owens went to return her absentee ballot. She drove to the library branch 10 minutes away to deposit it in the drop box, just like she did in 2020.
OWENS: Went inside, and they said, there's no drop box here.
GRINGLAS: No one knew where to find one nearby. After more searching, Owens gave up and contacted her state representative. She learned there were no drop boxes in her city anymore. The closest was almost an hour round trip.
STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Turns out lots of drop boxes were now gone. The reason?
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Republican-majority state legislatures across the country are moving rapidly to pass new voting laws.
CECILIA VEGA: But in Texas and every other state, there has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
LISA DESJARDINS: Some 250 election law bills in 43 states, concentrated most in swing states Trump lost.
FOWLER: In Georgia, lawmakers changed almost every aspect of voting, including drop boxes. All 159 counties must have at least one box but can't offer more than 1 per 100,000 voters. In a state with a history of discriminatory voting laws and hotly contested races for Senate and governor, these changes could have national implications.
GRINGLAS: The implications are most profound in Georgia's four largest counties - Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb and Gwinnett - where the new drop box limits cut the total number from 107 to 25.
OWENS: There's no other industry that would make something less accessible for the people using it than politics.
GRINGLAS: Owens is one of about 1.9 million Georgians, or a quarter of all voters who saw their travel time to a drop box increase under the new law. More than 90% of those voters live in cities or suburbs, home to most of the state's voters of color. The counties also vote heavily Democratic.
BENJAMIN GONZALEZ O'BRIEN: In any state that is going to have tight elections - and Georgia, you know, had some nail biters - then even those marginal changes could have significant effects.
FOWLER: That's Benjamin Gonzalez O'Brien, a professor at San Diego State University. He's studied voting access, including drop boxes. In 2020, Joe Biden won Georgia by less than 12,000 votes. Even if Georgia's tighter voting rules don't tip the scales for one candidate or the other, Gonzalez O'Brien says that's missing the point.
GONZALEZ O'BRIEN: Could it only have, you know, effects on the margins for certain voters? Sure. Even if those effects are only marginal, what is the justification for it?
GRINGLAS: Forty-three states used drop boxes in 2020, but they quickly became a stand-in for broader disputes about voting. People spreading false claims about election fraud fixated on drop boxes. But during debates in the legislature, Republicans argued the new law simply ensured uniform voting rules across the state. Here's Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican.
BRAD RAFFENSPERGER: The General Assembly made it population-based, which, you know, shows that it's a - has a fairness element to it. It's equitable.
FOWLER: But many rural election officials say they didn't gain much.
TONNIE ADAMS: We live in a county called Heard County that only has one traffic light in the entire county. And if the traffic light was a roundabout, we could probably get by without the traffic light.
FOWLER: Tonnie Adams is the election supervisor for Heard County near the Alabama border. It has about 7,500 voters. His county didn't have a drop box in 2020, but when he put one in his office this year, it became about as useless as the town's traffic light.
ADAMS: May 2, 2022 - zero ballots. May 3, 2022 - zero ballots. May 4, 2022 - zero ballots.
FOWLER: Adams says most people in his county vote in person, and those who don't use the mail. While the new law requires a box in every county, rural officials like Adams say they don't need it.
GRINGLAS: It's a different story in cities and suburbs, where voters relied on drop boxes in 2020, and the new law has slashed the number of boxes allowed. At the C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center in Atlanta, a line of voters coil around the lobby on the last day of in-person early voting before the May primary. Seventy-one-year-old Edward Grimes arrives with a yellow ballot envelope and heads for the drop box.
EDWARD GRIMES: You don't have to stand in line. You just go in, you put it in the box, and you out. I don't think you can beat that.
GRINGLAS: Fulton County offered 38 drop boxes in 2020. The new law reduced it to seven.
NADINE WILLIAMS: There's no way we could possibly cover everything 100%.
GRINGLAS: That's interim Fulton County elections director Nadine Williams. She says many voters who used a drop box in 2020 didn't use one again this year, herself included. Williams says it's not only because the drop boxes are spread out under the new law, they're also only allowed inside early voting sites and only when those sites are open, unlike 24/7 access to outdoor boxes in 2020.
WILLIAMS: You're going to have to get out the car, go inside. You might as well go in and vote.
FOWLER: About 6% of Fulton County voters used the drop box in the 2020 primary. Less than 1% did this year. Democratic State Representative Bee Nguyen, who is running for secretary of state, says GOP lawmakers' calls for uniformity masked another goal - making voting harder in Democratic strongholds.
BEE NGUYEN: I remember in committee, at one point, a Republican lawmaker said the guise of voter fraud is actually more important than whether or not voter fraud is occurring itself.
GRINGLAS: That has tangible consequences for voters like Monica Poole in Atlanta.
MONICA POOLE: And I feel like a lot of people put their lives at risk for us to be able to vote. So I just feel like that's my civic duty.
GRINGLAS: In the May primary, a broken ankle sidelined her plans to vote. So Poole, who's Black, applied for an absentee ballot and hoped to return it by drop box. But the closest one was a 20-minute drive.
POOLE: It was not very convenient.
GRINGLAS: Instead, she put her ballot in the mail. In the end, it arrived too late to count.
POOLE: And then to find out I did all of that and still didn't get my vote in.
GRINGLAS: The sponsors of Georgia's 98-page voting law said they wanted to balance access and security. For Monica Poole, it fell short. She says she's lost her confidence in Georgia's voting system. And when runoff elections came around in June, she ended up not voting. For NPR News, I'm Sam Gringlas in Atlanta.
FOWLER: And I'm Stephen Fowler in Franklin, Ga.
KELLY: That story was a collaboration between member station WABE in Atlanta and Georgia Public Broadcasting.
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