Georgia senate passes major voting reform bill

The Georgia Senate convened to vote on several major bills on voting and elections on March 8, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

A major overhaul of Georgia’s absentee voting system and other election changes brought by Republican lawmakers passed in the state Senate Monday by a party-line vote, sparking cries of voter suppression from Democratic leaders.

The wide-ranging bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, was one of 12 measures focused on election changes up for debate on the Senate floor Monday, marking a swell of proposals to change voting procedures after the 2020 election cycle.

Dugan’s bill contains some of the most sweeping and controversial election changes pitched so far in the legislative session, including provisions to require a driver’s license or state identification card number to request an absentee ballot and do away with Georgians’ ability to vote by mail without giving a reason.

The bill passed by a 29-20 vote along party lines after more than three hours of debate. It now heads to the state House of Representatives.

Among about two dozen proposals, the bill also calls for prohibiting the use of mobile voting units unless a regular polling place is damaged, requiring outside groups to post disclaimers when sending voters absentee-ballot request forms and giving state elections officials power to assume control of poor-performing county election boards.

The proposals in Dugan’s bill overlap with several other Republican-backed measures that were set to be voted on Monday in the Senate, including a measure by Senate Rules Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, to end no-excuse absentee voting that was ultimately shelved.

Two other controversial measures – both of which did not face votes Monday – would end the practice of automatically registering Georgians to vote when they obtain or renew their driver’s licenses and prohibit state and local elections officials from sending voters absentee-ballot application forms unless the voter requests one first.

Monday saw the Senate jam-packed on the last day for bills to cross out of one chamber and still be considered before the legislative session ends on March 31, with nearly one-fourth of the 45 bills dedicated to election changes.

Georgia Republican lawmakers argue the proposed changes are needed to shore up confidence in the state’s election system after the 2020 election cycle drew claims of voter fraud from former President Donald Trump, who lost the general election in Georgia to President Joe Biden by 11,779 votes. State election officials and federal courts have rejected those fraud claims.

Democratic leaders have blasted the GOP-brought bills, framing their opponents’ focus on election integrity as a smokescreen for wooing conservatives still loyal to Trump and to halt Democrats’ momentum after the party’s historic wins in the recent presidential and U.S. Senate contests.

Dugan, speaking from the floor on Monday, traced the intent of his bill’s more controversial proposals to the lack of confidence many Georgians have in the state’s process for verifying signatures on mail-in ballots, as well as to ease burdens for local election workers who were overwhelmed by huge numbers of absentee ballots in the 2020 elections.

He also argued many Georgians would still be eligible to vote by mail even by restricting absentee voting to physically disabled persons, voters required to be at work or those ages 65 and older.

“This is not preventing anyone from voting by mail-in absentee,” Dugan said. “All this is doing is laying the groundwork for relieving the stresses that we continue to see moving forward.”

Several Democrats shouted down Dugan’s bill from the floor, saying it would shrink opportunities for Georgians to vote by mail and at mobile polling places in predominantly Black and other minority communities in an attempt at voter suppression.

Sen. Harold Jones II, D-Augusta, noted there has been little proven voter fraud in Georgia and across the U.S., arguing far more voters would be disenfranchised by the proposals in Dugan’s bill than any instances of fraud.

“If our concern is just one vote could be lost, then doggone it, we ought to make sure we expand the franchise, not restrict it,” Jones said.

Others urged Republicans to abandon doubt in Georgia’s elections sowed by Trump allies that has battered electoral confidence among conservative voters, saying their perceptions have been fueled by the former president’s “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

“The foundation for every one of the elections bills introduced today is a lie,” said Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta. “This is weaponization of Trump’s lies and it is a willingness and embrace of damage to American democracy.”

The Senate’s Republican leadership dismissed arguments from Democrats that Dugan’s bill would suppress voters to the GOP’s advantage, sticking with the refrain that the measure’s aim is to bolster flagging confidence in Georgia’s election system among conservative voters.

“We want every person to vote,” said the Georgia Senate Republican Caucus. “We want elections to be secure. We are open to solutions, but Georgia will not be vulnerable to voter fraud.”

Several Republicans soured at the proposal to scrap no-excuse absentee voting including Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who recused himself from presiding over the Senate during Monday’s debate. Duncan has long opposed ending no-excuse absentee voting as has the House’s top lawmaker, Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

“The lieutenant governor has been clear from day one that the repeal of no-excuse absentee voting – a measure passed by Republicans in 2005 – is a non-starter,” said Duncan’s chief of staff, John Porter.

Some Republican lawmakers including Sens. John Albers, R-Roswell, Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta and Brian Strickland, R-McDonough – all Republicans in contested districts – excused themselves from the vote. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, also excused himself.

Georgia senators could next take up a separate 66-page omnibus elections bill that passed in the House late last month, which contains many of the same proposals in Dugan’s bill but nixes the ban on no-excuse absentee voting.

That measure, sponsored by Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, includes dozens of changes to add stricter absentee voter ID rules, set a deadline for voters to request an absentee ballot at 11 days before an election and forbid people from giving food or drinks to voters waiting in line outside polling places.

Senate lawmakers also passed measures to require county elections officials to get monthly reports on dead residents to clean the voter rolls; allow poll watchers access to view ballot counting; require new security paper to track ballots for auditing purposes; curb changes for voters to receive more than one absentee-ballot application; and post signs 7 days ahead of an election if a polling place has moved.

Photo: The Georgia Senate convened to vote on several major bills on voting and elections on March 8, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

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