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Georgia Republicans Move to Limit Early and Absentee Voting

State Rep. Barry Fleming (R-Harlem) is sponsoring legislation limiting early voting and requiring ID to vote by mail. Credit: House Media Services

Georgia House Republicans pushed through broad election legislation Monday that would limit early voting and require an ID to vote absentee, with Democrats and voting rights groups protesting it would disproportionately affect people of color.

The legislation passed largely along party lines with a 97-72 vote and is now headed to the state Senate, which is also considering a bill packed with new restrictions on absentee voting.

Republicans say proposed uniform statewide voting standards will help restore confidence in the system after many of them suggested earlier that widespread irregularities plagued Georgia’s 2020 presidential election. Democrats and voting rights organizations say Rep. Barry Fleming’s legislation will make voting less convenient. Changes would include options popular in November, including fewer early voting chances, limits on absentee ballot drop boxes and a new ID requirement to vote by mail.

“This bill usurps local control and dictates to counties exactly how they must run their own elections,” said Rep. Renitta Shannon, a Decatur Democrat. “Worst of all, [the bill] decimates the convenience currently built into absentee voting and early voting.

“Black and brown workers are vastly overrepresented in hourly jobs that do not allow for schedule flexibility,” Shannon added. “Vote by mail, weekend voting and extended voting hours give workers the ability to be able to work when you have to work and vote on your own when your schedule permits.”

Republican lawmakers in other states are filing similar legislation to restrict voting access, but Georgia is attracting more than its share of national attention following former President Donald Trump’s attacks on top state leaders who confirmed his election loss. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, said after recounts and an audit that he could find no evidence of election fraud, and 2020 was the most secure election in state history.

Fleming, a Harlem Republican, said his legislation will ensure state voting laws are closely aligned throughout Georgia’s 159 counties. Requiring a voter to prove their identity when voting absentee is more secure than using the state’s subjective signature verification that relies on county poll workers to make comparisons, he said.

Fleming said Democrats who say absentee voting ID requirements and limits on drop box locations are attempts to stifle turnout are engaging in partisan politics. “It’s better to use the word voter suppression over and over again because somehow that gets a big turnout,” he said. “Now that may get a big turnout in elections, but it harms the state of Georgia and the people who live here. Because if you continue to say over and over again something that’s not true, it does have a negative effect.”

Republican lawmakers said they are overwhelmed by calls and emails from constituents who ask if their vote counts. Many Georgia Republican lawmakers cast doubts about Georgia’s election system after President Joe Biden narrowly defeated Trump by about 12,000 votes. A record 1.3 million Georgians voted absentee in the general election after the State Election Board adopted an emergency rule early in the pandemic allowing counties to set up drop boxes that were always available if kept under video surveillance. 

Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Lilburn Democrat, said the restrictions will hurt legitimate voter participation. “This bill is cutting off your nose to spite your face,” she said. “Instead of reducing, restricting and limiting our elections, we should be in this chamber working to make voting more accessible.”

Rep. Shaw Blackmon, a Bonaire Republican, said it’s the legislators’ responsibility to satisfy Georgians who still question the voting system. “I’ve spoken with a number of friends and constituents, and I’ve heard repeatedly that they understand their candidate doesn’t always win,” he said. “But they do want to know that the person with the most legally and legitimately cast votes is the winner.”

Senate Bill Ends No-Excuse Voting by Mail

The state Senate is poised to consider restrictive voting legislation that would require Georgians to have a reason to vote absentee, putting an end to the no-excuse system the GOP created in 2005 and that many Georgians relied on during the pandemic.

The Senate Ethics Committee also Monday hastily passed  with a 7-5 vote a wide-ranging proposal that would overhaul the state’s election laws. Sen. Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican, cast a dissenting vote with the Democrats.

The bill was voted out of committee just hours after the House passed its contentious plan to restrict early voting hours, add new limits on absentee drop boxes and require voters to include a government ID number with their absentee ballot application. The Senate’s proposal would go much further by eliminating no-excuse absentee voting. A record 1.3 million people cast a mail-in ballot as an alternative to risking exposure to the coronavirus at a polling place.

“In an effort to contain costs, to make sure we have an elections program that is not over-tasked and to make sure that every eligible voter is sure that they have their vote recognized–those are the reasons that I’m looking at having some excuse-requirement for absentee mail-in ballots,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, who is sponsoring the measure.

Strickland tried without success to have that language scrubbed from the bill. “I have not heard consistent support for this around this building either,” he said.

Strickland noted, though, the broader support that does exist under the Gold Dome for a government ID number requirement, which Gov. Brian Kemp has said he favors and is a concept that has already cleared the Senate and now the House. Most Democrats oppose an ID requirement for absentee voting.

Under the proposal, absentee voting would be off-•limits with some exceptions, like for those 65 years and older and voters with disabilities.

The bill would also create a hotline in the attorney general’s office for voters to report allegations of voter intimidation and illegal election activities while reining in the powers of the secretary of state and the State Election Board during a public health emergency.

It also requires third-party groups that send out absentee ballot applications to include a disclaimer saying the mailer is not from the government.

The Senate panel signed off after Dugan offered a new version of his plan at the same meeting. The bill drew concerns from voting rights advocates, a labor union and others who urged lawmakers to slow down while some GOP activists said the proposal does not go far enough.

“It is a comprehensive piece of legislation that’s being forced through committee without taking the opportunity to really see what the impact is,” said Cindy Battles, policy and engagement director for Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda. “If the intent of all of these things is to actually create confidence in our elections, doing so in a rushed, non-transparent way doesn’t accomplish that.” [Jill Nolin]

These articles originally appeared in the Georgia Recorder.