After months of debate, two Republican-backed sweeping voting law change proposals are poised for votes by the full state House and Senate. The bill before the House, SB 202, is scheduled for a vote Thursday.
The two bills have been amended over time to exclude the most controversial voting restriction measures previously proposed, including a plan to eliminate Georgia’s no-excuse absentee voting process and limits on weekend early voting. In fact, the new proposals expand early voting.
Some other similarities between the dueling proposals, SB 202 and HB 531, include a new photo identification requirement for absentee ballots to replace the signature match process, which caught national scrutiny after the 2020 election. The two bills also share a requirement for counties to continue counting votes until they are finished and a new hotline for election problems operated by the attorney general.
“The changes made in this legislation in 2021 are designed to address the lack of elector confidence in the election system on all sides of the political spectrum, to reduce the burden on election officials, and to streamline the process of conducting elections in Georgia by promoting uniformity in voting,” wrote SB 202’s Republican authors in the bill’s preamble.
But Democratic lawmakers and voting rights advocates say even the watered-down proposals limit voting because they would ban discretionary mobile polling places and limit absentee drop box locations and hours, as well as a new identification requirement for absentee voting, which has had broad Republican support. They’re also critical of the bill allowing the state to take over county elections boards,
“The proposals that were initially offered were a huge overcorrection at the expense of voters, particularly seniors and rural voters,” said Sarah Walker, executive director of Secure Democracy, a nonpartisan election integrity nonprofit.
She said there have been “significant improvements” to the bills over time, including the expansion of early voting access. Still, Walker remains concerned about other language, including the proposed partisan involvement of state lawmakers in oversight of nonpartisan county elections administration. She has also advocated for the inclusion of the last four digits of a social security number as an acceptable form of identification for an absentee ballot.
With a week left in the legislative session, there’s much that still could change before any of these bills could become law by the legislature’s final day next Wednesday.
If the two chambers do not agree on either proposal’s final details, it’s likely one will end up in a conference committee. In this closed-door process, a small group of state senators and state representatives hash out the details of a final bill.
Other ideas in the works between the bills include shortening Georgia’s runoff period from nine weeks to four weeks, requiring counties to count ballots continuously until finished, banning anyone from giving food or drink to voters within 150 feet of a polling place, and removing and replacing the Secretary of State from his role as chair of the State Election Board with someone elected by the General Assembly.
While the voting bills have brought out disagreements among the Republican caucus, they have also highlighted the partisan divides on the issue.
“I want to thank everybody on this committee, Democrats and Republicans alike, for being able to sit here and have honest conversations and put an effort into finding something that every Georgian, when they go and vote, will feel comfortable with knowing that the process is transparent, honest and fair,” said Republican State Senator Randy Robertson Tuesday as the Senate Ethics Committee approved HB 531.
His tone stood in stark contrast to that of Democratic State Senator Sally Harrell, who compared components of the bill, such as the photo identification requirement for those without drivers’ licenses casting an absentee ballot, to a “poll test.”
“The bill we have before us today, in my opinion, isn’t even close to finished yet,” Harrell said. “As it is rolled out for the November 2021 elections, I fear that it will bring with it unintended consequences and undue expenses for local governments.”
Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, who has led some of the voting law change pushes, rejected the poll test characterization, calling it “hyperbole.”
He pointed out that photo identification is only one option for voters under the proposal, alongside a driver’s license number, and argued the comparison is “demeaning to all those people that came before that actually had to work their tails off to get those laws repealed.”
After SB 202, the other big proposal scheduled for a Thursday vote, passed out of a state House committee earlier in the week, Republican Speaker David Ralston applauded its progress and said it “makes voting more accessible and improves election security.”
“By providing for expanded weekend voting and enshrining drop boxes into law for the first time, we are making it easier to vote across our state,” he said.
Democratic State Representative Calvin Smyre countered that the bill “takes me back into the times there was obstacles to people having the right to vote.”
“This bill is a tragedy for democracy, and it is built on the lie of voter fraud,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO of the Democratic-leaning Fair Fight Action of the proposal. “This is Jim Crow 2.0, and those who think that’s hyperbolic need to read this bill.”
Democratic State Representative Rhonda Burnough voted against the bill in committee on Monday: “You can say it however you want, but at the end of the day, changing this is going to make voting worse than what it has been, and it’s going to limit access. The results will speak for themselves when we have our first election.”