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After a relatively slow start, it’s open season for voting law changes in the Georgia state legislature. Lawmakers have been holding near-daily hearings on voting proposals over the past week, as Republicans follow up on months of promises to change election law based on some of their constituents’ belief in unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. Democrats have been fighting them at every turn, but as they remain in the minority, it’s likely Republicans will be able to pass some of these proposals into law.
Comprehensive voting bills from the Republican leadership are currently making their way through both chambers of the General Assembly, and lawmakers from both parties have filed more than 75 separate pieces of voting-related legislation.
The bills fall along common themes for the parties – Republicans are pushing for more voting restrictions, especially on absentee voting, they say to tighten security and restore confidence in the process. Republicans were the party to first implement no-excuse absentee voting, but a record number of voters used the method in 2020 and most of them voted Democratic. However Republican leaders are not in agreement about which of the plethora of proposals are best.
The bills from Democrats seek to create more options for absentee and early voting, but given most of the voting bills so far are progressing along party lines, it’s unlikely many Democratic proposals will become law.
The Omnibus Bills
An omnibus bill on the House side, HB 531 was introduced by Rep. Barry Fleming (R-Harlem) last week. After hours of testimony from advocates and members of the public spread out over multiple days, on Wednesday the committee decided, along party lines, to move the bill to the full House chamber for a vote.
Fleming’s bill contains a lot of the priorities that have received support from top Republicans, including requiring a driver’s license to vote absentee, placing limitations on ballot drop boxes, and banning private grant funding for election administration. The package would also limit early voting hours, prohibit mobile polling locations except in an emergency, and shorten the period to apply for an absentee ballot.
Fleming argued the problems the bill attempts to address predate the most recent election cycle, mentioning the 2018 general election when Democrats were unsatisfied with the outcome.
He said its goal is “to the extent that we can begin to try to remedy some of those problems and try to bring the left and the right back to a position where they have confidence overall in our election system.” Democrats have said that the measures introduced in this bill and others are politically motivated and amount to voter suppression.
House Minority Leader James Beverly (D-Macon) in a town hall Tuesday called the bill “atrocious.”
“The only irregularity that we recognize is the fact that what isn’t regular is that we showed up and showed out, and for all intents and purposes we moved Georgia more into the blue column than it’s been seen for many, many years,” he said. “Right now the Republicans are absolutely hell-bent on turning back all of the gains we’ve made over the past 40-50 years.”
Another comprehensive voting bill recently introduced in the state Senate, authored by Senate Majority leader Mike Dugan (R-Carrollton), SB 241, takes some of those proposals even further, including the elimination of the no-excuse absentee ballot system. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has expressed support for doing away with no-excuse absentee voting but has not come out in support of either omnibus bill.
“We are reviewing bills. Once we see something that prioritizes the security and accessibility of elections, we’ll throw in support,” Raffensperger wrote on Twitter. “At the end of the day, many of these bills are reactionary to a three-month disinformation campaign that could have been prevented.”
Under this proposal, voting by mail would be restricted to those 65 years and older, voters with a disability, those observing a religious holiday and those out of town or required to work on Election Day. Absentee voters would need to submit a photocopy of their identification, along with the signature from a witness with their ballot.
But Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who leads the Senate, has not supported the plan. “The Lt. Gov. has been crystal clear that he does not support the roll-back of absentee voting, and instead believes that modernizing and updating the system is more appropriate as we do after every election year,” said Duncan’s spokeswoman Macy McFall. “He looks forward to working with the Chamber to perfect this bill and get it right.”
Each chamber’s Republican omnibus bills would also place additional requirements on county election departments to report election results more quickly.
Many of the provisions outlined in the comprehensive bills have been simultaneously proposed by standalone pieces of legislation, some of which have been incorporated into the broader bills.
The state Senate passed a swath of individual voting bills this week with Duncan’s support, including proposals requiring counties to report their total number of ballots cast before posting election results, and reducing the time counties have to update voter histories. Duncan’s spokeswoman characterized the package as “building bipartisan consensus for common sense adjustments.”
While one Democratic bill that would have counties start processing absentee ballots early passed in that package, Democrats resoundingly rejected the other Republican proposals.
There have also been multiple Republican-led bills that require voters to submit a driver’s license, state ID number, or a copy of a photo ID with an absentee ballot, including one that passed in the package of Senate bills. Similar language made it into both omnibus bills.
This idea has received broad support from Georgia’s top Republicans, including Duncan, Raffensperger, House Speaker David Ralston and Gov. Brian Kemp.
Democrats and voting rights groups have opposed any added identification requirements, particularly those that require the use of technology. Opponents of these bills argue that not every Georgian has access to the necessary resources, and it disadvantages those without a driver’s license.
“Today, Republicans passed a set of election bills in the Georgia Senate that would unnecessarily complicate our elections system at best, and make it harder for Georgians to cast their ballot at worst,” Georgia Democrats wrote in a statement following the passage of these Senate bills.
Supporters of an ID requirement counter that any resident can obtain a free voter registration card from their county election department.
The House election committee voted in favor of a bill that would move back the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot, a move that received support from county election directors despite opposition from Democrats. This measure was also incorporated into the House omnibus bill. The Senate is also set to vote on individual bills that would eliminate mobile polling locations except in an emergency, and require counties to start counting votes as soon as polls close and not to stop until they finish.
As the bills move through the legislature, outside groups, including the ACLU of Georgia, have come out in full force against them. Chris Bruce, the ACLU’s political director, has testified in opposition to many of the voting bills.
“Instead of celebrating the historic turnout we saw during the November election cycle, some legislators want to require Georgia citizens to obtain a government permission slip in order to vote an absentee ballot,” Bruce said in a press release. “We encourage the Georgia General Assembly to stop these efforts that make voting burdensome. Instead, we encourage legislators to focus on protecting and expanding every Georgia citizen’s sacred, fundamental right to vote.”
Another group, Fair Fight Action founded by Stacey Abrams, has embarked on a large-scale advertising campaign against the bills and has held its own “hearings” on them in recent days. Fair Fight has joined with other voting rights groups, including All Voting is Local, in forming the Election Protection Coalition to continue to organize support against the Republican-backed bills. Aklima Khondoker, the Georgia state director for All Voting is Local, said there has been no evidence of the fraud these bills are purported to address.
“The most concerning part is that these bills appear to all be politically motivated, as opposed to being motivated by making the process of voting easier for voters and more beneficial for election workers. What these bills will do is suppress voter access and depress turnout,” Khondoker said.