From The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal, math-challenged reporters have repeated the completely upside-down fable of a “record turnout” in the Georgia Senate runoff.

Record turnout? My ass! The official count, tucked away in the Georgia Secretary of State’s files, shows the turnout fell by a breathtaking 1 million votes.

Facts matter. The faux “record turnout” is used by Republican pols to discredit the grossly partisan and racially poisonous effects of SB202, the law signed last year by Georgia’s Gov. Brian Kemp that the NAACP dubs “Jim Crow 2.0.” It has become the model for vote suppression legislation already marching into legislatures from Texas to Wisconsin.

But here are the cold, hard facts:

  • Mail-in ballots fell off a cliff. Absentee ballots — which Warnock won two years ago by a stunning two-to-one margin — plummeted by a breathtaking 83%, from over a million (1,084,021) in the 2021 runoff to just 191,286 last week.

Where did the repeaters get this “record turnout” canard?

It all comes from Brian Kemp and his Jim Crow 2.0 enforcer, GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s press releases like “RECORD BREAKING TURNOUT IN GEORGIA’S RUNOFF ELECTION” and “RECORD SHATTERING TURNOUT CONTINUES TUESDAY.”

That propaganda was quoted as gospel in the headlines of virtually every news outlet in America. However, at the very bottom of the Georgia Secretary of State’s self-congratulating press releases is a little link called “Data Hub.”  And the data in the hub files tell a very, very different story, a tale of a record falloff in voting.

Whose vote was lost and why

Two years ago, a 400,000-vote plurality of mail-in ballots delivered the victory margin for Warnock and his running mate, Jon Ossoff, now Georgia’s other senator. These “absentee” ballots also won the presidential contest for Joe Biden over Donald Trump for Georgia’s electoral votes.

A stunned Kemp and his GOP-controlled legislature took note and within mere weeks passed SB202, 98 pages of restrictions that made absentee balloting all but illegal, especially in case of another runoff.

Here are some of SB202’s greatest vote suppression hits.

First, in Atlanta’s four counties the number of drop boxes for mail-in votes was slashed from 107 to just 25 — while at the same time the law ordered an increase in the number of drop boxes in rural, Republican counties. The result: white voters had 315% greater access to drop boxes than Black voters in Atlanta, according to the state’s own breakdown of voters by race.

This is a big deal because Kemp’s SB202 also cut the period for the runoff from 60 days to just 28, leaving almost no time for counties to print, send and receive the mail-in votes. (Unlike other states, Georgia requires the ballot be received, not simply postmarked by Election Day, making drop box access all the more important.)  

While SB202 made it illegal to hand anyone food or water while in line to vote, voting rights groups improvised, putting free food and ice cream trucks across the street from early voting locations around Fulton County. Photo: Zach D. Roberts

No, SB202 does not say, “Remove Black voter drop boxes and give them to white voters.” Rather, this new law cutely limits the number of drop boxes to no more than one per 100,000 active voters — a limit that affects only Atlanta.

It gets worse. SB202 crushed the number of early voting days from 17 to just seven. Squeezing early voting opportunities principally hit the Black community, hurting in-person early voting. It also cut deeply into the mail-in vote because of another ugly codicil in SB202: Drop boxes were removed from outside government buildings and locked inside, only available on those seven early voting days instead of the full 60 days in the last runoff, and worse, only available business hours instead of 24/7 as in the prior runoff.

A cruel twist: All boxes were removed on Election Day itself, so this reporter watched Atlanta voters wait two hours in line just to hand in their ballots.

And if you needed an absentee ballot, you had to, for the first time, include identification in your request for the ballot, though state officials admitted they found not a single fraudulent mail-in ballot in the prior election.

Want more? SB202 bans the traditional Black churchgoers “Souls to the Polls” voting on the Sunday before the election.

Fun fact: SB202 originally limited early voting to just 16 days to avoid something officially called, “State Holiday.” This mysterious “holiday” was known for decades as “Robert E. Lee Day.” Blocking Black voters in honor of the Confederacy was just one Jim Crow jump too far for the courts.

No Jim Crow?

Because not one major news outlet dissented from the myth of the record high turnout, Kemp and his boosters were able to claim that SB202 did not suppress the vote. The Wall Street Journal boasted, “‘Jim Crow 2.0’ Dies Again in Georgia.” 

The New York Times went further. Its story “Ruing Senate Loss, Georgia G.O.P. Asks if Runoff Rule Changes Backfired,” promoted, without fact checking, a Republican claim that SB202 actually increased Democratic (i.e. Black) turnout.  

Columbia University law professor Barbara Arnwine, founder of the Transformative Justice Coalition and former executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told Truthdig she was frustrated by, “this irresponsible media narrative.”

Typical of this irresponsibility was the ABC News report “Georgia Senate Runoff Race Sees Record Turnout.”  

The source? These stories universally relied on the Republican Secretary of State’s press releases, not the official returns.n The ABC story and other stories are simply repetitions of Secretary of State Raffensperger’s propaganda, such as this release headlined, “Record-Breaking Turnout in Georgia’s Runoff Election.”

The Republican pol’s press releases are careful to avoid out-and-out lies, carefully selecting stats that he knows number-phobic reporters will never check. In the “Record-Breaking Turnout” release, for example, he boasts of “Three single-day, all-time voting records during early voting.”  

De’Asia, who only gave her first name, with her toddler, waited in line for two hours to vote on the last day of early voting in Georgia for the Senatorial runoff on December 2, 2022. Photo: Zach D. Roberts

True enough, but that’s an artifact of cutting voting days by more than half. If a bank closes two of three teller booths, the line at the remaining booth will set a “record.”  

Raffensperger also seduced reporters with a claim of “record-breaking midterm early voting.” But this refers only to in-person voting. This minor bump in in-person voting was the result of suppressing the mail-in vote by more than 80% since the last election. Those no longer allowed to vote by mail in 2020 were forced to stand in line, artificially boosting in-person numbers.  

While many former mail-in voters reluctantly stood in those hours-long lines, the truth is, as the cold data shows, most simply did not vote.

Nowhere does the state’s mouthpiece reveal, nor does a single major media outlet report on, the horrific 1-million vote drop in total turnout.

Raffensperger’s statistical legerdemain led to the dangerously false narrative that SB202 did not suppress the Black and urban vote.  

Take the state’s official release:

 “LARGEST EARLY VOTING DAY IN HISTORY DISPROVES VOTER SUPPRESSION CLAIMS.  The largest Early Voting Day in Georgia history shows that claims of voter suppression in Georgia are conspiracy theories no more valid than Bigfoot,” said Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Monday’s total is well above previous records of 233,252 voters processed on the final day of Early Voting in the 2018 General Election, and 252,715 voting on the highest day of Early Voting in 2016.”

Crushing 17 days of voting into seven will create longer lines. On that day Raffensperger cites, every single Atlanta polling station reported lines longer than two hours while white-majority counties reported lines of 10 to 30 minutes long.  

The danger is that swallowing the politically-infected numbers in the press release leads to the conclusion that, as Kemp said last week in his victory speech over Stacey Abrams:

“Senate Bill 202 — Georgia’s Election Integrity Act, you remember; they called it Jim Crow 2.0 and Jim Crow with a suit and tie, according to the media, President Biden and their far-left allies. If you support photo ID on absentee ballots, you’re a racist, if you wanted access to secure ballot drop boxes and more opportunities to vote early on the weekend they brought in the Department of Justice.”

Rep. Jasmine Crockett of Dallas, a new member of the Congressional Black Caucus, was in Atlanta to personally help hundreds of voters whose ballots were wrongly rejected. The Congresswoman told Truthdig that if the GOP can sell the media and the public on the fraudulent claim it did not impede Black and urban voters, then it’s smooth sailing into Texas — and from there into GOP legislatures hungering for ways to cut the Black vote.

President Kemp?

Kemp has the media’s love in his pocket, in part based on the apocryphal story of him refusing Trump’s entreaties to overturn the election. (Even Kemp does not make that claim.)

But, with his eye on the White House, he had to be cleansed of the stench of Jim Crow. And so the “record turnout” canard. He bathes in the praise of The New York Times (“The Man Who Neutered Trump”) and already has been endorsed for president by The Wall Street Journal editorial board. 

And there is the USA Today trial balloon. USA Today’s headline: “Brian Kemp 2024? The GOP Georgia governor who stood up to Donald Trump is having a moment.”

CNN commentator Scott Jennings said, “My suspicion is if you dropped someone like that off in Iowa, they’d be quite effective in a retail setting.”

And on Fox News, which is desperately hunting for an alternative to Trump, Kemp played coy. Asked whether he might seek the presidency in 2024, Kemp said he had not “ruled in or out anything.”  

He most certainly hasn’t.

Al Jazeera received the Global Editors award for data journalism for Palast’s reporting on vote suppression.  Palast’s latest film, Vigilante: Georgia’s Voter Suppression Hitman, narrated by Rosario Dawson, is produced by Martin Sheehan, George DiCaprio and Stephen Nemeth.

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