Georgia General Assembly Approves Sweeping, Republican-Led Voting Bill

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Nick Nesmith / WABE

Updated at 6:40 p.m. Thursday

The Georgia General Assembly has passed a Republican-led measure to make sweeping changes to the state’s election code, with a focus on absentee and early voting regulations.

Republican state lawmakers have defended the bill as a necessary cleanup of the state’s election code after a crisis in confidence in the system during the 2020 election.

Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to limit voting access after the GOP’s presidential and Senate losses and have argued their counterparts are playing into false claims of widespread voter fraud.

Gov. Brian Kemp signed the nearly 100-page bill, SB 202, into law about an hour later, saying the legislation makes it “easy to vote and hard to cheat.” 

While in recent weeks Republicans in the Georgia state House and state Senate have backed away from the more controversial proposals, including limits on weekend early voting and an elimination of no-excuse absentee ballots, Democratic opposition has not wavered.

The bill includes a new identification requirement for absentee ballots in place of the controversial signature match policy. It adds new powers for the State Election Board to intervene in county election management. The bill would also strip the statewide-elected Georgia secretary of state of his role as chairman of the State Election Board, replacing him with someone chosen by the Georgia General Assembly.

Unlike previous proposals, the bill would expand early voting access. It adds absentee ballot drop boxes into the state’s election code with new restrictions on their hours and locations.

The measure would ban citizens from handing out food or drink to voters waiting in line at a polling place with the exception of a self-service water option. It would require Georgia’s election administrators to continue counting ballots until finished, without a break. And the bill would cut Georgia’s runoff election period in half, from nine weeks to four weeks.

“The bill greatly expands accessibility of voters in Georgia and greatly improves the process of administration of elections, while at the same time providing more accountability to ensure the integrity that the vote is properly preserved,” argued Republican state Rep. Barry Fleming, the bill’s sponsor, on the Georgia House floor.

“You are changing the rules, cutting the polling hours and making more requirements to vote,” countered Democratic state Rep. Erica Thomas. “That’s not right. That’s not fair. And that’s not just.”

Republican state Sen. Max Burns, who carried the bill in the state Senate, said Republicans’ goals are “straightforward. Our goal is to ensure that every legal vote counts. Our second objective is to make sure that every one of our 159 counties follow Georgia law consistently and completely. And finally, our goal is to ensure voters in Georgia have confidence in the election process.”

Both Republican support for voting law change proposals and Democratic opposition to them root back to the state’s 2020 election, in which Democrats won Georgia’s electoral college votes and two Senate seats. Republicans held control of the Georgia Legislature, but false claims of voter fraud pushed by former President Donald Trump and his allies have taken hold with their voters.

“Make no mistake: This is democracy in reverse. Some politicians did not approve of the choice made by voters in our hard-fought election,” said Democratic state Sen. Gloria Butler on the Senate floor. “Rather than adjusting its agenda, rather than changing their methods, they’re busy trying to change the rules.”

Butler called it an “unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we’ve seen since the Jim Crow era.”

“Our state election system was stressed in a manner unseen in modern history in 2020. It won’t improve on its own,” said Republican state Rep. Jan Jones in defense of the bill.

“Without action, [the election system] won’t address the concerns brought up in 2018 and 2020 by the supporters of the losing candidate for governor and president. Without action, concerns over elections, accessibility, transparency and integrity won’t be addressed.”

“If this bill was truly about restoring confidence for voters, we would have worked together to get this bill right, because we all want fair, accessible and secure elections,” said Democratic state Rep. Zulma Lopez. “The false narrative of election fraud, is what’s behind this bill.”

“While we might not have the votes to defeat this bill today, that won’t be for long,” she said.