A new Georgia voting law reduced ballot drop box access in places that used them most
Monica Poole looked forward to voting in Georgia's primary in May.
But after breaking her ankle, she couldn't drive. Even navigating the stairs from her second-floor Atlanta apartment was impossible, so waiting in line to vote wasn't an option. Poole applied for a mail-in absentee ballot, like many Georgians have in recent years, and wanted to return it using a drop box.
But the nearest one in Fulton County, where Poole lives, was a 20-minute drive and accessible only during limited hours and days, unlike 2020 when drop boxes were available all across the county and accessible seven days a week around the clock until Election Day.
The new restrictions made the drop boxes difficult to use for Poole, who had limited mobility and a rigid work schedule. So she was forced to mail in her ballot.
But Poole's ballot didn't count, because it didn't arrive at the county's elections office in time.
"To find out I did all that and still didn't get my vote in, I feel discouraged," Poole said. "I'm an African American female, and we weren't able to vote for many years, so I feel like it's my civic duty."
Poole is one of millions of Georgia voters affected by sweeping changes to state election laws enacted by lawmakers last year. The changes include restricting access to drop boxes in counties that used them the most, which also have the highest number of voters of color and Democrats, according to an analysis by NPR, WABE and Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) of drop box locations, voter registration and other data.
NPR, WABE and GPB compiled drop box usage data by reviewing thousands of forms used to document the number of ballots deposited in drop boxes daily across Georgia in 2020 and calculating travel time intervals to a drop box for more than 7.5 million voters. 2022 drop box locations are current as of Georgia's May 24 primary.
An analysis by NPR, WABE and Georgia Public Broadcasting also found:
NPR, WABE and GPB compiled drop box usage data and locations by manually reviewing more than 9,000 collection forms from drop boxes used in the 2020 presidential election. Poll workers documented the number of ballots deposited in 295 drop boxes across the state daily.
Ballot drop boxes were provided to Georgia voters in the 2020 primaries for the first time as a way to vote safely while COVID-19 ravaged communities. Even before the pandemic, they were a popular tool for voters in states such as Oregon, Washington and Colorado.
After former President Donald Trump's defeat, many of his allies in Georgia and elsewhere equated drop boxes with voter fraud. So, Republican lawmakers, particularly in Georgia, have moved to curtail access to the boxes before the November midterm election.
The new law, known as Senate Bill 202, requires all 159 Georgia counties to have at least one box — but no more than one per 100,000 voters. Instead of making them available outdoors 24 hours a day as in 2020, the drop boxes must be kept inside early voting locations with limited hours — typically 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. That can be problematic for voters with inflexible work schedules or those with other time constraints. The bill received no Democratic support.
While it's too early to measure the law's impact on turnout, experts say even small changes to voter behavior and turnout can sway election outcomes and erode trust in the voting system, especially in a politically divided state like Georgia with a history of discriminatory voting practices that disproportionately impact people of color.
"In any state that's going to have tight elections, and Georgia's had some nail biters, then even those marginal changes could have significant effects on the outcome of elections," said Benjamin Gonzalez O'Brien, who teaches political science at San Diego State University and has studied drop box access and voter turnout. "Not every election is decided by tens of thousands of votes. Some are decided by under 100 votes."
In 2020, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden won Georgia by 11,779 votes. In 2018, Republican Brian Kemp defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams by 54,723 votes — 50.2% to 48.8% — in the race for governor. Polls show similarly tight races this year that could decide control of Congress and who becomes the next governor.
Drop boxes became a political target
Forty-three states used drop boxes during the 2020 election. But in the months following, ballot drop boxes became a stand-in for more sweeping debates around voting rights and election integrity in Georgia and around the country, though they were used by voters of all political parties and in many states like Georgia they were under round-the-clock surveillance. They became a target of conspiracy theories about widespread election fraud promoted by Trump and his allies.
Even after voting to officially add drop boxes as a voting method in 2021, some Republican lawmakers who faced far-right primary challengers later tried unsuccessfully to completely eliminate them, claiming concerns about security and fraud.
"Drop boxes were introduced as an emergency measure during the pandemic, but many counties did not follow the security guidelines in place," Georgia Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller said after proposing that drop boxes be banned altogether. "Moving forward, we can return to a pre-pandemic normal of voting in person. Removing drop boxes will help rebuild the trust that has been lost."
Miller lost his primary election to be the party's lieutenant governor nominee, and the legislation banning drop boxes failed to gain traction.
NPR, WABE and GPB reached out to five Republican sponsors of the new election law, including Miller. None responded to requests for interviews.
In an interview with GPB, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger defended the election law as a balance of accessibility and security. He said the state's recent primary election was proof that Georgia has "tremendous opportunities for people to access the vote," including by drop box.
"We have record registrations, we have record turnout," he said. "And we have the appropriate guardrails of making sure that the drop boxes are on government property, that they're now inside an office under the physical surveillance of election workers."
State Rep. Bee Nguyen disagreed. The Atlanta Democrat voted against the 98-page election law and said her colleagues approved the changes to placate voters who agreed with Trump's election lies. She said the law intentionally makes voting by drop box harder for Democrats and nonwhite voters in cities and suburbs.
"The attacks were not backed up by any kind of facts," said Nguyen, who is the Democratic nominee for secretary of state. "All of this was wrapped up in the greater scheme of the 'Big Lie.'"
The Georgia State Board of Elections recently dismissed a handful of complaints about drop boxes, where voters were alleged to each have deposited multiple ballots in a drop box. Investigators determined in each case that voters were legally dropping off ballots for their family members.
Concerns over drop boxes are not limited to Georgia. In Wisconsin, for example, the Supreme Court recently ruled that ballot drop boxes were not allowed under state law. The court suggested that votes cast that way "weaken the people's faith that the election produced an outcome reflective of their will," despite no evidence of fraud.
The provision had a disparate impact
Rep. Jan Jones, Georgia's Republican House speaker pro tem, said during a 2021 floor debate on the law that the drop box provision would provide parity for all Georgia voters.
"The vast majority of counties that offered one drop box will continue to do so," Jones said at the time. "And the very few that had multiple drop boxes will have them according to their population."
But NPR, WABE and GPB found that the uniformity of drop boxes across the state came at the expense of urban and suburban voters, who make up most of the electorate.
The drop boxes in cities and suburbs are now so widely spread out that they have become complicated to access in places already dealing with traffic gridlock or unreliable public transportation.
When Jessica Owens arrived at the library branch a 10-minute drive from her suburban Atlanta home to deposit her ballot in the May primary, the drop box she used in 2020 was gone.
After several hours driving around Gwinnett County with her two toddlers in the backseat, poring over maps and scouring the internet to try and find one, Owens was almost ready to give up. She finally contacted her state representative, who told her that the closest one was now nearly an hour drive roundtrip.
"Now, I have to plan my day around dropping off the ballot," Owens said. "An hour doesn't feel like a long time, but when you have two small kids, it is."
Twenty-three drop boxes were spread across Gwinnett County in 2020. Under the new law, only six remain in Georgia's second-largest county — one of its most diverse.
In 2020, more than 70% of urban and suburban voters lived within 10 minutes' travel of a drop box, the analysis by NPR, WABE and GPB found. That number dropped to less than 50% for this year's midterms.
The percentage of rural voters who can access a drop box within 10 minutes of their home this year is 22%, about the same as it was two years ago, the analysis found.
In one urban county, drop box use plummeted
Edward Grimes, 71, showed up at the C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center in Atlanta. It was the last day of early, in-person voting before the May primary, and Grimes wanted to deliver his ballot in the drop box.
"You don't have to stand in line, you just go in, put it in the box and you're out," Grimes said, noting the line of mostly Black voters that coiled around the lobby. "I don't think you can beat that."
Grimes is in the minority. Less than 1% of Fulton County voters used a drop box this year, compared to 6.3% in the 2020 primary, according to county election officials.
Interim Fulton County Elections Director Nadine Williams said many voters who took advantage of a drop box in 2020 did not use it again in 2022, mostly because the new laws have made them inconvenient.
"If you're going to have to get out of the car to go inside, you might as well go ahead and vote," Williams said.
Fulton County, like other mostly urban and suburban counties, invested heavily in drop boxes in 2020 as a way to remove voting barriers. But when state lawmakers imposed new limits on the boxes a year later, election officials were forced to slash the county's drop box offerings from 38 to seven.
"There was no way we could possibly cover everything 100%," Williams said. "We did the best we could."
Limiting access to drop boxes could also worsen existing voting problems in these mostly communities of color, which already have more voters assigned to polling places and longer lines on Election Day.
An NPR/ProPublica analysis in 2020 found about two-thirds of Georgia's polling places that had to stay open late because of long lines in the state's primary were in majority-Black neighborhoods, despite those neighborhoods comprising about a third of the state's polls.
Some election experts also worry that restricting drop boxes not only makes it harder for voters to cast their ballots but may discourage them from voting at all.
"When we look at it in terms of the data, it may be a two-minute increase (each way)," Gonzalez O'Brien said. "That may be something that for some voters will lead to them not casting a ballot."
The actual burden on voters is difficult to measure, since the data analysis doesn't take into account other factors such as rush-hour traffic, he said.
Gonzalez O'Brien has co-authored two studies that examined drop box access and voter turnout in Washington state, which has conducted solely absentee voting since 2013. The studies suggest that proximity to a drop box isn't just a matter of convenience; living farther away from a drop box is associated with a lower likelihood of voting.
But little research has been done on drop boxes and turnout. Studies on other similar voting methods, like vote by mail, have had mixed results. Still, Gonzalez O'Brien said that voting methods proven to be secure should be available to voters.
"I don't believe there are any studies saying making voting easier actually leads to less voting," he said.
While some voters in urban and suburban communities find ways to overcome the new obstacles of using a drop box, doing so is even harder for marginalized populations, such as voters who are less likely to own a car.
In 2020, nearly 90% of voters in those communities were able to reach a drop box within 10 minutes. By 2022, that plummeted to 56%, NPR, WABE and GPB found. The bulk of these neighborhoods are majority Black and voted overwhelmingly for Biden.
Kristin Nabers, the Georgia state director of All Voting is Local, a voting rights nonprofit, said even with restrictions on the location and hours, drop boxes remain valuable for people with limited options.
"I think it's key that we keep those drop boxes available for people who need to send their ballot with a family member or a disabled person who needs to send it with a caretaker," she said.
Nabers said that Georgia's history with laws that discriminate against nonwhite voters also looms over the drop box changes, prompting voting rights groups to educate voters of the changes.
"I truly believe that the motivation for rolling back drop boxes is to make it harder for voters, particularly in urban communities, to vote," Nabers said. "And I really think it's a shame that our leaders listened to the conspiracy theorists and actually took action that made voting harder."
"We basically have a useless drop box"
While Georgia Republicans have touted expanding access to drop boxes in counties that did not offer them in 2020, voters in many of those communities — mostly rural — haven't used them.
In Heard County, near the Alabama border, elections director Tonnie Adams said the one drop box he's required by law to keep is pointless for his county's roughly 8,000 voters. Voters encounter three election employees before getting to the drop box, so they just drop off the ballots with them.
"We basically have a useless drop box," he said, adding that no one used the drop box in the May primary.
In most elections, especially in rural areas, an overwhelming number of Georgians vote in person — either during the three week early voting period or on Election Day.
In Putnam County, about 80 miles southeast of Atlanta, 107 of the nearly 12,000 ballots were returned via drop box in the November 2020 election. Chattahoochee County saw only 10 ballots returned in the drop box, according to election records.
Election directors are now required to follow the new law instead of making decisions that best serve their voters.
"The nice thing about having local control over elections is that we can all take care of our citizens in a way that works for our citizens," said Joseph Kirk, elections director of Bartow County, 40 miles northwest of Atlanta.
Democrats, including Biden, have slammed provisions in the new law as being akin to "Jim Crow 2.0." But Republicans have publicly insisted the law makes it "easy to vote and hard to cheat."
The reality of Georgia's drop box changes tracked through the analysis by NPR, WABE and GPB paints a more complex picture than political absolutes. Gonzalez O'Brien said that any changes to voting laws, particularly the use of drop boxes, matter.
"Could it only have effects on the margins for certain voters? Sure," he said. "But even if those effects are only marginal, what is the justification for it?"
So far, the changes have been more than marginal for some Georgia voters, including Monica Poole.
In the May primary, Poole's absentee ballot was one of about 1,200 rejected for arriving too late, records show.
She said she has lost confidence in Georgia's voting system and didn't vote in the runoff election in June.
"It just makes you feel apathetic," Poole said.
This story is a collaboration from NPR's Station Investigations Team, which supports local investigative journalism; NPR member station WABE in Atlanta; and Georgia Public Broadcasting.
How NPR estimated the amount of time different voters need to travel to a drop box
For each drop box location, NPR generated travel time maps, or areas in which a voter can travel to the drop box by driving and public transit within given time frames. NPR used TravelTime to generate transit travel time maps and here.com for driving travel time maps. NPR then overlaid the travel time maps with voter addresses to estimate the minimum time frames it would take for each voter to get to a drop box within their county. NPR used the drop box data, 2022 drop box locations provided by the state, and Georgia's voter rolls to calculate travel time intervals to drop boxes available in 2020 and 2022 for nearly every voter.
The travel time analysis excluded one drop box in Chattahoochee Hills, Ga., that was available for just over a week during the 2020 election season. You can view the analysis here.
Characteristics of each voter including race and ethnicity are from the registered voter list from the Georgia secretary of state; the census-tract-level income and ownership data comes from American Community Survey, and precinct voting data is compiled by The New York Times.
Koko Nakajima and Daniel Wood contributed to this story's data analysis. contributed to this story
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.