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Voting bills flood Georgia legislature as GOP seeks limits

February 27, 2021 GMT
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Workers at the Gwinnett County Georgia elections headquarters process absentee ballots for Georgia's Senate runoff election in Lawrenceville, Ga. on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Ben Gray)
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Workers at the Gwinnett County Georgia elections headquarters process absentee ballots for Georgia's Senate runoff election in Lawrenceville, Ga. on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Ben Gray)

ATLANTA (AP) — Republicans in Georgia’s state legislature have introduced a flood of bills aimed at rolling back voting access after record turnout led to Democratic wins in the presidential contest and two U.S. Senate runoffs.

And Georgia isn’t alone. The Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy group, has counted more than 250 bills under consideration in 43 states that would restrict voting access.

A major target for restrictions in Georgia has been absentee voting, after former President Donald Trump and his allies spread false claims about fraud in mail voting. Other proposals would limit early voting or add new barriers to voter registration.

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Democrats and voting rights groups say the bills are a reaction to Trump’s falsehoods and would disproportionately affect voters of color.

Two omnibus bills related to elections are advancing — one in the state House and one in the Senate.

House Bill 531 would require a photo ID when applying for an absentee ballot and limit the times ballot drop boxes can be accessed. It would also limit the amount of time people have to request an absentee ballot and ban counties from accepting private funds to help run elections, among many other changes.

A previous version of the bill would have barred counties from holding early voting on Sundays, when many Black church groups hold “souls to the polls” voter mobilization events. Critics blasted the proposal as a direct attack on Black voters. The bill was amended to allow counties to hold voting on either the first Saturday or Sunday of early voting.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Republican Rep. Barry Fleming of Harlem, has said the bill is “an attempt to restore the confidence” in elections.

Aklima Khondoker, the Georgia state director of All Voting is Local, said it was hard not to view the bill as politically motivated.

“This bill seeks to cut options because turnout did not turn up in their favor,” Khondoker said in a recent interview.

The bill was approved by the House Special Committee on Election Integrity and could come up for a floor vote as early as Monday.

Senate Bill 241 was introduced on Tuesday and is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, a Republican from Carrollton.

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The bill would limit who can vote absentee, ending broad no-excuse absentee voting adopted under a Republican-led legislature in 2005. It would also ban the secretary of state from entering into a consent agreement related to elections without the approval of the General Assembly, after Trump falsely claimed that a consent decree blocked election officials from verifying signatures.

The bill was heard in the Senate Ethics Committee on Thursday and is expected to see changes before coming back up in committee on Monday.

Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Democrat from Stone Mountain, questioned why voters should need to get permission to vote absentee.

“They have the right to vote. The method — it’s obviously part of our responsibility to lay that out,” Dugan said in response, adding that a surge in absentee ballots created difficulties for county election offices during the last election cycle.

Doing away with no-excuse absentee voting faced pushback even from some Republicans on the committee. State Sen. Brian Strickland, a Republican from McDonough, signaled that he would push to have the limits on who can vote absentee removed from the bill.

A slew of individual proposals have also been introduced and in some cases are moving forward.

The state Senate recently passed Senate Bill 67, which would mandate that voters provide their driver’s license number, other state ID number or a photocopy of an approved ID when applying for an absentee ballot. The Senate has also passed Senate Bill 89, which would create a position for a new election official that could intervene in counties where the administration of elections is deemed to be problematic. Both bills head to the state House for more debate.

On Friday, the Senate Ethics Committee approved a stand-alone proposal to limit who can vote absentee, a bill that would end automatic voter registration when a person gets their driver’s license and a bill that would expand poll watcher access to tabulation centers. Those proposals could soon move to the full Senate for a vote.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has advocated for some policies, including a photo ID requirement for absentee voting, but has yet to throw his weight behind any particular proposal.

“We are reviewing bills,” Raffensperger said in a statement Wednesday. “Once we see something that prioritizes the security and accessibility of elections, we’ll throw in support. At the end of the day, many of these bills are reactionary to a three month disinformation campaign that could have been prevented.”