by Robin Kemp
U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff says he is introducing the “Voters’ Access to Water Act” in direct response to SB 202. The legislation would counter Georgia’s recent criminalization of giving bottled water to voters waiting in line.
The act would amend the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to prohibit states from banning food and water donations to voters in line.
Volunteers handing out food and water would not be allowed to engage in any political activity, and they would have to offer food or water to everyone in line.
“This is a direct response to SB 202, the legislation passed by Georgia’s Republican legislature and signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, which, among its many provisions, criminalized the act of a volunteer or Good Samaritan providing a bottle of water to a voter waiting in line outside of a polling place in Georgia, and made, for example, the provision of water to a voter waiting in line punishable by up to one year in jail,” Ossoff announced in an online news conference Monday morning.
Section 33 of the new Georgia law forbids that “any person give, offer to give, or participate in the giving of any money or gifts, including, but not limited to, food and drink, to an elector, nor shall any person solicit signatures for any petition, nor shall any person, other than election officials discharging their duties, establish or set up any tables or booths on any day in which ballots are being cast” in three specific areas:
- Within 150 feet of the outer edge of any building within which a polling place is established
- Within any polling place
- Within 25 feet of any voter standing in line to vote at any polling place
The “including, but not limited to, food and drink” wording was inserted this past legislative session after volunteers showed up where people were waiting in line to vote and handed out free bottled water and snacks. Under the new law, it would appear that nonpartisan volunteers could give out free food and drink as long as they stood outside the 150-foot zone, offered food and water to all voters, and didn’t try to sway anyone’s vote–for example, by wearing partisan t-shirts or hats.
Ossoff: Georgia water ban “extreme”
Ossoff said Georgia’s water ban is the most extreme in the country.
“As far as we know, no other state in the country has adopted legislation as extreme as Georgia’s in criminalizing the provision of water to voters. And the extremity of this provision in the Georgia law is one of the reasons it’s so vital that Congress step in and protect voters’ access to water while they’re waiting in line to vote.”
65 polling places were open in Clayton County for the November 2020 election. COVID-19 social distancing concerns and long lines at some of Clayton County’s seven advance voting locations prompted additional ballot drop boxes. SB 202 also cuts the number of absentee ballot drop boxes per county.
“In 2018 and in 2020, thousands of voters in Georgia were made to wait in lines that lasted as long as six or eight or ten hours, just to participate in our democracy,” Ossoff said. “To criminalize a Good Samaritan, non-partisan volunteer providing a bottle of water to a voter, who may be elderly, who may be disabled, who may have mobility challenges, who is being made to wait for hours in line outside of a polling place is wrong, and that’s why this legislation that I’m introducing today will protect that act, to ensure that Georgia voters, if they are made to wait in line to vote, will be able to receive, for example, a bottle of water from a non-partisan Good Samaritan volunteer at a polling place in Georgia.”
Seniors, disabled impacted
The law especially impacts senior citizens and people with disabilities, Ossoff said.
“I remember very well a conversation I had with a caregiver for seniors,” Ossoff said, “mid-last year, just after the primaries in Georgia. And this caregiver looked after an 87-year-old woman who had voted in virtually every election throughout her adult life. She was committed to participating in our democracy. She had not received her absentee ballot timely, but she was going to go and vote because she was determined to make her voice heard. So this 87-year-old woman, determinedly, accompanied by her caregiver, went out to her polling place, with a couple of oxygen tanks and a wheelchair, and wound up having to wait eight hours in line, including in intermittent rain, just to vote. And so for the Georgia state legislature to make it a crime punishable by up to a year in jail for a Good Samaritan to hand a bottle of water to a voter, an elderly voter, who is being made to wait eight hours to vote is just wrong.
“That’s why this bill will protect Georgia voters’ right to bottled water and other vital sustenance while they are waiting…in these lines which often stretch their physical tolerance and require them to get water or a snack while they wait.”
Minority voters disproportionately affected
The water ban also disproportionately affects minority voters, Ossoff said. In Clayton County, which is a “majority-minority” county, voters had to wait in long lines for hours. An analysis by Georgia Public Broadcasting and Pro Publica found that Clayton and other major metro Atlanta counties collectively accounted for almost half the state’s active voters, but only had 38% of Georgia’s polling places.
Ossoff told The Clayton Crescent, “The research is very clear that, in Georgia and across the country, it’s disproportionately Black and Latino voters who are made to wait in these outrageous lines. And so when the state criminalizes a volunteer handing a bottle of water to a voter who’s being forced to wait six to eight hours to vote, that disproportionately impacts Black and Latino voters. And that disparate racial impact, which violates the spirit and likely the letter of the Voting Rights Act, is why it is so vital that Congress step in, using our Constitutional authority which we have, to regulate the manner in which federal elections are conducted to ensure that state’s can’t enact these kinds of ludicrous, extreme, mean-spirited, anti-voter provisions. And I would note for anyone who’s receiving any pushback on this matter: This isn’t about campaigning. This isn’t about electioneering. It’s already against the law, as it should be, to campaign within the vicinity of a polling place. This is about a non-partisan Good Samaritan volunteer handing someone a bottle of water. It’s common sense. Voters are often made to wait far too long to vote, and they should be able to receive a bottle of water from a volunteer while they wait inline. The Voters’ Access to Water Act will ensure that they can.”
Updating the Voting Rights Act
Ossoff said he is working with Sen. Amy Klobuchar to get the amendment into SB 1. Members of Congress are trying to restore preclearance provisions “gutted by the Shelby Act,” he said.
According to the Voting Rights Act, states cannot impose a “test or device” of any kind as a prerequisite to letting people vote–such as guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar, reciting the alphabet, or taking a test. Section 4(b) specifically refers to “any State or in any political subdivision of a state which (1) the Attorney General determines maintained on November 1, 1964” where “the Director of the Census determines that less than 50 percentum of the persons of voting age residing therein were registered on November 1, 1964, or that less than 50 percentum of such persons voted in the presidential election of November 1964.”
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional because those specific tests are no longer in widespread use and punted to Congress to update the law.
Listen to the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) from Oyez.org:
Other states changing voting laws, too
Georgia is not the only state passing restrictions on voting–especially absentee voting, according to Five Thirty Eight. In March, The Brennan Center reported that legislators in 47 states had introduced 361 bills to restrict existing voter rights. Many are in Southern and Sun Belt states, where record turnout and changing demographics weakened Republicans’ hold on power. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis took a page from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s playbook, signing that state’s new voting law behind closed doors and locking out all news reporters except one from Fox News. DeSantis did so despite the fact that Florida has stronger sunshine laws than Georgia does. And in Texas, lawmakers passed voting law changes on Friday, including provision that would allow election observers to videorecord voters casting their ballots.
The Texas Observer, a nonprofit news site in Austin, reports that “Garnet Coleman, a Texas House member and Black Democrat who lives around the corner from [historically-Black Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church], called the plan the latest example of a long-term strategy by Tea Party activists to target minority voters. Coleman told the Observer that he’s seen them at precincts in his district, crowding and challenging voters at their booths, delaying or disrupting the pace of casting ballots, and sometimes even carrying guns. ‘It’s been done before and it is disruptive because you have people standing over voters as they try to exercise their right to vote,’ he said.”
“This isn’t about partisan politics,” Ossoff said. “This is about decency. Basic decency. This is about the health and well-being of a senior citizen who is being made to wait six hours in line to vote and allowing a volunteer to hand that senior citizen a bottle of water without facing up to a year in jail….This is a basic moral issue.”
The Clayton County Board of Elections and Registration holds its monthly meeting on Tuesday, May 11 at 4:30 p.m. via Zoom due to COVID-19 restrictions. You can submit a public comment in advance from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday by using the online form at https://bit.ly/3uBfkGx. To join the meeting online, register at https://bit.ly/3bfvD49