Georgia House passes 95-page election overhaul bill

Sweeping legislation to overhaul voting by mail, advance voting and state oversight of Georgia elections passed the state House of Representatives Thursday, a major step for election changes Republican lawmakers are seeking this year.

The 95-page bill, which passed 100-75 along party lines, contains dozens of proposals pitched by Republicans that would require stricter voter ID rules for mail-in ballots, ban people from handing out food and drink to voters waiting in line outside polling places and halt absentee ballot applications from being accepted within 11 days of an election.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Max Burns, R-Sylvania, would also allow state officials to take over county election boards for poor performance, which Democratic leaders and voting-rights advocates argue could give Republicans a back door to influence local election operations in many counties.

Burns’ bill, which absorbs proposals from several other election-focused measures, dropped a prior effort to shrink early voting on Sundays in Georgia. It instead would require two Saturdays of early voting and give counties the option to hold poll hours on two Sundays.

Election bills that have sparked intense debate in the General Assembly come after former President Donald Trump and his allies sowed doubts over Georgia’s election system, calling it fraught with fraud despite the repeated rejection of Trump’s claims by state officials and federal courts in recent months.

Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, who has spearheaded the push for election changes in the House, framed the bill as an expansion of voter access and tighter oversight of local election officials as he presented the bill before Thursday’s vote.

“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,” said Fleming, who chairs the House Special Committee on Election Integrity.

The bill now heads to the Senate for another vote, after which it would likely face negotiations in a joint House-Senate conference committee to hammer out a final bill that satisfies Republicans in both chambers.

A different bill by Fleming is also awaiting consideration on the Senate floor. His 45-page bill was revised earlier this week to allow counties to buy their own voting machines amid distrust over new machines manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems that were first used in Georgia during last year’s elections.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, who has overseen revisions to Fleming’s bill in the Senate, earlier this week slammed opponents for characterizing the elections bills as instruments of voter suppression, which Republicans have denied.

Democrats in the General Assembly have devoted much of this year’s legislative session to condemning moves by Fleming, Burns and top Republicans in both chambers to overhaul voting by mail and limit access to the polls, calling their measures attempts at voter suppression reminiscent of the Jim Crow era of racial segregation.

Opposition from Democrats along with by some Republican leaders including Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, prompted bill drafters to scrap a controversial proposal that would have repealed no-excuse absentee voting.

Still, Democratic lawmakers view the bill overall as harmful to Georgians’ voting rights, particularly for minority communities that helped boost mail-in voting to record numbers in the 2020 election cycle amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You are changing the rules, cutting the polling hours and making more requirements to vote,” said Rep. Erica Thomas, D-Austell. “That’s not right, that’s not fair and that’s not just. … Too many people fought, bled and died for our right to vote.”

Republican leaders such as Dugan have bristled at that characterization, dismissing accusations that their bills aim to dampen Black and minority voters from casting ballots in Georgia.

“I think it’s demeaning to all those people who came before who actually had to work their tails off to get those repealed,” Dugan said earlier this week. “The hyperbole is unfortunate.”

Democratic leaders have also sought to paint the Republican-led election bills as an effort to halt momentum following the 2020 elections that saw Democrats carry Georgia in the presidential race and flip both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats for the first time in decades.

Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, the legislature’s longest-serving member, said earlier this week Democrats will continue to oppose the bills even with some concessions such as ditching the repeal on no-excuse absentee voting and more weekend poll hours.

“As state legislators, our aim is to ensure that all voters, particularly voters of color, have full, meaningful and non-burdensome access to the one fundamental right, and that is the preservation of all other rights, and that is the right to vote,” Smyre said.

Lawmakers have a week more to wrap up fine-tuning of the election bills on the one hand or fighting them on them other. The last day of the General Assembly session is next Wednesday, March 31.

Photo: Matt Bannister / Shutterstock.com

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