Georgia's election reform law isn't voter suppression, but Republicans need to ease up

Once again, Georgia found itself in the national spotlight for yet another controversial and polarizing political topic — election reform legislation. As the lieutenant governor of Georgia I had a front row seat, literally. I stood watch inside the Georgia State Senate chamber as the presiding officer for yet another partisan debate wrapped in emotion, theater and a few facts thrown in from both Democrats and Republicans, members of my party.

Last week's divisive debate on election reform directly resulted from the months-long misinformation campaign led by former President Donald J. Trump.

The particular legislation being debated was SB202 which was, believe it or not, a much-improved version of election reform compared to several earlier attempts drafted by both the state house and state senate. The most noticeable improvements in the legislation were the removal of language to limit Sunday voting and the elimination of no-excuse absentee ballot voting, which I opposed and was happy to see removed from the final version.

The final version also included several Democratic-sponsored ideas including requirements for counties to start processing absentee ballots earlier to minimize post-election confusion and better signage at polling stations.

Let Georgia's values guide us

The two-hour debate at times became hard to listen to because of the divisive tones and undertones from both sides. In the height of the debate, I happened to glance to my left in the rostrum and caught a glimpse of the Georgia state flag and was instantly reminded of the pledge we say at the beginning of every legislative day:

“I pledge allegiance to the Georgia Flag and to the principles for which it stands: Wisdom, Justice, and Moderation.”

The words "Wisdom, Justice, and Moderation" have been a part of our state seal since 1799 because of the time-tested value of each word. I began to imagine what the debate might look like if both sides of the aisle were truly looking through the lens of Wisdom, Justice, and Moderation. If both political sides applied the filter of those three words, they’d be required to think, act and communicate differently with regard to the present conversation around election reform and a growing list of other issues.

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For Republicans, using that lens would have required them to immediately and unequivocally remove any and all doubt in the public that they think the November election was rigged or stolen in any way shape or form. The phrase, “former President Donald J. Trump lost fairly” would need to be said from every channel.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan speaks on June 17, in Atlanta, proposing the hate crime bill for the state of Georgia.
Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan speaks on June 17, in Atlanta, proposing the hate crime bill for the state of Georgia.

It would have also required elected Republicans in politically safe districts to resist the temptation to superficially support knee-jerk reaction legislation, such as not allowing the distribution of water within 150 feet of a polling station or punishing and removing oversight responsibilities from the former president’s scapegoat and popularly-elected statewide official Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, just to appease the extreme right corners of their districts and to avoid potential primary challenges.

Unfortunately, Republicans fell into the trap set by the left and allowed them to make the bill into something that it’s not.

Republican ideas can win

For Democrats, viewing this debate through the lens of "Wisdom, Justice, and Moderation" would have required them to tear up the talking points that have been handed to them from national liberal organizations that are only concerned about shaping the next election outcome and not honestly evaluating proposed election reforms. It would also have also required Democrats to embrace some of the much-needed improvements and modernizations around the absentee ballot processing and verification.

Georgia secretary of state: My family voted for Trump. He threw us under the bus anyway.

Moving away from the archaic signature match system and simply asking for a voter to handwrite the year they were born and the last four digits of their social security number if they don’t have a driver’s license is not voter suppression, it’s commonsense. Seeing through that principled lens would also require Democrats to use more than someone’s party affiliation to assess the content of their heart.

I get it, Republicans have a huge hole to climb out of in the coming years because of the shrapnel created by the 2020 election and its fallout. As Republicans, we must change the tone we use in future elections; conservatism shouldn’t be confused as divisive or mean-spirited. We need genuine empathy so we can understand and reach more voters. And we need to champion conservative causes that can win broad support and restore pillars like fiscal restraint that have crumbled as the GOP has put person over party. I call this approach GOP 2.0

While candidates running on the former president's platform may be afraid of high turnout, those following this better way forward are not. We have faith in our ideas.

Republicans don’t need election reform to win back the White House, we need leadership.

Geoff Duncan is the lieutenant governor of Georgia.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Georgia election reform law isn't voter suppression, but GOP must change