In the days after two Georgia Senate races went to a runoff, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman went on CNN and seemingly encouraged people to move to the state to vote in the races.
“I hope everybody moves to Georgia, you know, in the next month or two, registers to vote, and votes for these two Democratic senators,” Friedman said, referring to Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, running against Georgia Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.
Friedman’s comment — in addition to a tweet from former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang that he and his wife were moving to Georgia to help organize for Ossoff and Warnock — had people on social media talking about traveling to the state ahead of the election. Most wanted to know how they could volunteer, but a smaller number of people replying to Yang’s tweet floated the possibility of voting in the state.
There’s one major problem: It’s illegal to move to Georgia temporarily just to vote in an election and then leave. Georgia state officials are strongly urging prospective out-of-state voters to stay home, warning them they’ll face steep penalties if they vote fraudulently.
“Make no mistake about it, I will seek to prosecute those who try to undermine our elections to the fullest extent of the law,” Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said in a recent statement. “Outside groups who seek to interfere with democracy in Georgia should be forewarned that the consequences will be severe.”
The Georgia Senate elections on January 5 are indeed consequential. They will determine whether Republicans or Democrats hold the Senate chamber — and the makeup of the Senate will have a massive impact on President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda.
But ultimately, voters in Georgia are the ones who will decide that election.
What does Georgia law say about who can vote there?
The deadline to register as a voter ahead of the runoffs is December 7, and in Georgia, state law allows anyone with a legal primary residence in the state to register. However, the secretary of state’s office has been very clear that moving to the state with the sole purpose of voting and then moving away is considered fraudulent — and could carry a felony sentence.
Georgia state law requires that those who register be “a resident of this state and of the county or municipality in which he or she seeks to vote.” The law adds that “the residence of any person shall be held to be in that place in which such person’s habitation is fixed, without any present intention of removing therefrom.”
In a recent press release, the Georgia secretary of state’s office confirmed that “this would include individuals who move to Georgia solely for the sake of casting a ballot in an election with no intention of remaining in the state.”
False registration — or someone registering to vote knowing they don’t qualify in Georgia — is a state felony and carries a pretty stiff punishment: between one and 10 years in prison, and/or up to a $100,000 fine.
What is legal is registering to vote if you were already planning to move to Georgia for a longer time and establish residency there. In other words, if you’re moving to Georgia for a new job or to be closer to family, say, and intend to stay there for a longer time, it’s well within your rights to register to vote in an election in your new state.
It’s also legal to move to Georgia temporarily to volunteer on a campaign, or to help other Georgia residents register to vote. A lot of Democrat and Republican operatives and activists in other states are looking for ways to help out their candidates, but some are actively discouraging volunteers from traveling to the state, in large part because Covid-19 cases are spiking around the country.
“We are overwhelmed by the outpouring of support, but please do not — I repeat, do not — book plane tickets or gas up your car and make plans to travel to Georgia,” Stacey Abrams’s spokesperson Seth Bringman recently told the HuffPost’s Amanda Terkel, citing the coronavirus pandemic.
For legal voters in Georgia, absentee ballots started to be mailed to those who requested them beginning on November 18, while in-person early voting starts on December 14 and continues until Election Day on January 5.
How did this notion about voting in another state start?
It’s tough to tell exactly how this idea of moving to Georgia just to vote started spreading on social media. One high-profile case is a CNN interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
Here’s what Friedman said in full in his interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, in the context of talking about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell potentially obstructing Biden’s agenda if he keeps the Senate majority:
I hope everybody moves to Georgia, you know, in the next month or two, registers to vote, and votes for these two Democratic senators, running against incidentally two Georgia senators, both of whom were investigated for what? For getting a briefing on the coronavirus and then selling stocks before the public was aware of that information, both of them were investigated for that.
There are a few things wrong with what Friedman said. First of all, there aren’t two Democratic senators — both of the senators up for reelection in Georgia are Republican incumbent Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.
Second, even though a Snopes fact-check pointed out that Friedman “did not, however, specifically urge Democrats to move to Georgia temporarily just long enough to vote there, or to commit voter fraud by faking their residency status,” what he said was vague enough and suggestive enough to possibly be interpreted that way.
Yang’s tweet, on the other hand, said nothing explicit about voting in Georgia. Yang said he and his wife planned to move to Georgia in order to volunteer, and encouraged others to do the same.
Still, Democrats in Georgia are hoping that out-of-state volunteers keep their efforts out of the state for now, as Covid-19 cases enter their worst peak thus far.