BY: QUINN SCANLAN, ABC NEWS
(ATLANTA) — Republicans in the Georgia state House have introduced a 48-page omnibus bill that, if enacted, would make sweeping changes to the state’s election processes.
Republicans on the committee argued the bill, which tackles multiple areas of election law, would help restore faith in Georgia’s elections, but Democrats and voting rights advocates blasted it as a “voter suppression bill” and questioned the motive behind the rush to bring it before the committee just hours after it was introduced.
“This bill seems to offer solutions for a lot of problems that do not exist. It’s purportedly to enhance security and integrity, but … many of these provisions do not do that,” Saira Draper, the voter protection director for the Democratic Party of Georgia, said in an interview. “It imposes restrictions on all of our forms of voting in Georgia … but the brunt of the impact is felt mostly by our Black and brown voters.”
During hearings on Thursday and Friday, Republicans defended the bill, HB 531, as critical to restoring public trust in elections and bolstering security. According to a January poll, just under 40% of Georgia voters believe there was widespread fraud in the last presidential election; among Republicans alone, it’s 75%.
“We try as best we can to make sure that our voting is secure, and that someone’s vote cannot be stolen,” Republican state Rep. Barry Fleming, the chairman of the Special Committee on Election Integrity, said Friday. “Our due diligence in this legislature [is] to constantly update our laws to try to protect the sanctity of the vote. The reason people don’t rob banks every day is because banks put in place provisions to keep that from happening.”
According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, as of early February, at least 165 bills that would restrict voting access are being considered in state legislatures nationwide. The law and policy organization asserts these bills are “an unmistakable response to the unfounded and dangerous lies about fraud that followed the 2020 election.”
Those false fraud claims were spearheaded by former President Donald Trump, and disproportionately directed at battleground states he lost, including Georgia.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has repeatedly said that while there are individual cases of fraud in every election, there is no evidence widespread or systematic fraud occurred in November.
Amber McReynolds, an election administration expert and the CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, told ABC News that Georgia’s elections are more accessible than many other states, but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect.
“There’s ways to improve on what they’ve been doing that simultaneously improve the process for the voters, reduce costs and create some efficiencies, and also enhance security — and there’s a way to do all of those things at once,” she said. “Sometimes the legislation doesn’t look at things in a comprehensive way, and this is sort of an example of that.”
McReynolds, an unaffiliated voter, has met with Republicans in the General Assembly as they’re crafting election legislation and testified Friday about HB 531.
While there are portions of the bill that election administrators lauded, the sections related to early in-person and absentee-by-mail voting are getting significant pushback from advocates.
The legislation would bar counties from holding voting on the two Sundays that fall within the early three-week period and only allow it on one Saturday. Currently, counties are required to have locations open weekdays, plus one Saturday, but they can opt to add more days if they fall within the set period, which ends the Friday before an election.
Fleming said this would bring “uniformity” to early voting.
“Uniformity is not equity,” Draper said. “There are different needs in Fulton County … than there are in small, rural counties with small numbers of voters, and originally, that’s why there was flexibility in this law.”
She noted “Souls to the Polls” events, held by Black churches in the large metro areas, have been an “effective get-out-the-vote mechanism,” but eliminating Sunday early voting would also curtail these.
During the 2020 cycle, the State Election Board passed an emergency rule allowing counties to implement drop boxes, but while this bill would be the first actively sanctioning drop boxes, it would also add limitations to their use going forward, requiring they be inside early voting locations and only accessible when those locations are open.
Richmond County Elections Director Lynn Bailey testified Friday that if the drop boxes have to be at these locations, they should at least be outside, so they’re easier to access. Cobb County Elections Director Janine Eveler concurred in her testimony.
McReynolds said that voters across the political spectrum like drop boxes, cautioning against restricting their accessibility.
“Many people prefer to hand their ballot directly to a drop box or an election judge because it gets there quicker,” she said. “There’s ways to enhance security … but just limiting access to the boxes does not actually improve security. It actually hurts it.”
Under this bill, voters would not be able to use drop boxes on Election Day, or the three days preceding it. Putting ballots in the mail during that time, though, is risky, as they must be received by 7 p.m. on Election Day. In Georgia, the largest percentage of rejected absentee ballots are the ones that arrive late.
The bill would also add a new identification requirement for absentee voting and eliminate the signature match process.
Voters are currently required to show a photo ID when voting in person, but not by mail. HB 531 would require absentee voters to provide their driver’s license or state identification number on their applications and the oath envelopes that contain the ballot. If a voter does not have this type of identification, however, they must include a photocopy of another form of accepted identification with the application.
Fleming said 97% of Georgia voters have a driver’s license or state ID, though it’s unclear where that figure is from.
But even if it is just 3% of voters lacking this, additional hurdles facing even a small amount of voters matter “if we’re truly wanting everyone to be able to vote,” said Poy Winichakul, a staff attorney testifying on behalf of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund.
“You’re proposing these requirements when it’s not necessary,” Winichakul added, speaking directly to the chairman. “There’s no evidence of widespread voter fraud.”
But Ryan Germany, the general counsel in Raffensperger’s office, said if the state doesn’t switch from a subjective to an objective way of verifying absentee ballots, election officials could become targets, as some were after November.
“They want to just be neutral arbiters,” he said.
The bottom line, according to McReynolds, is that election legislation must hit on multiple priorities, including fairness, accessibility, security, transparency and equitability.
“All those values matter equally,” she said. “It seems like we need to work on balance with all those values to get it right for this particular legislation and any subsequent bills.”
Friday’s hearing ended without a motion on the bill, and another hearing will be held Monday.
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