Georgia legislature braces for a battle over voting laws
ATLANTA (AP) — After record-breaking turnout that helped propel Democrats to victory in Georgia’s presidential contest and two U.S. Senate runoffs, Republicans in the state legislature are proposing limits and additional requirements on voting.
The plans largely seek to limit absentee voting by mail, which President Donald Trump has relentlessly and falsely attacked as a source of systemic fraud in his loss to Democrat Joe Biden.
Democrats and voting rights groups are gearing up for a fight, saying the changes aren’t needed and will disenfranchise lawful voters. Georgia’s 2021 legislative session begins Monday.
The Republican caucus in the state Senate was among the first to call for big changes. It wants to end no-excuse absentee voting, which was introduced by a Republican-controlled legislature in 2005. Members also want to ban ballot drop boxes and implement a photo ID requirement for voters that have a specific excuse to vote absentee.
“As soon as we may constitutionally convene, we will reform our election laws to secure our electoral process by eliminating at-will absentee voting,” the caucus said in a statement in December. “We will require photo identification for absentee voting for cause, and we will crack down on ballot harvesting by outlawing drop boxes.”
Georgia’s chief election officer, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, has endorsed the idea of ending no-excuse absentee voting, which was utilized by about 1.3 million voters in the November election — spurred by voters trying to avoid in-person polls amid the coronavirus pandemic. He has also said he wants a photo ID requirement for absentee voting, despite repeatedly saying that there was no evidence of systemic fraud.
Gabriel Sterling, a top official in the secretary of state’s office, said Wednesday that the increase in absentee voting created logistical challenges for counties, which had to process large numbers of absentee ballots while also conducting early voting and preparing for election day. “Essentially there’s a three-week period where they have to run three elections at a time,” Sterling said.
But the push to end no-excuse absentee voting could encounter some resistance from House Republicans.
House Speaker David Ralston said Thursday that he wants election reforms and is forming a special committee on election integrity to propose legislation. But he added that “somebody is going to have to make a real strong case to convince me” of the need to end no-excuse absentee voting.
The state House and Senate have already been holding hearings on election security, several of which became hourslong platforms for the Trump campaign to air misinformation and disproven conspiracy theories about the November election.
Civil rights groups stand ready to push back on the proposals, with many arguing that any changes will disenfranchise lawful voters.
Christopher Bruce, political director for the ACLU of Georgia, said in an interview that after record-breaking turnout and a series of recounts and audits that confirmed the results of the November election, “trying to limit anyone from being able to vote is preposterous. And I believe it is an assault on our democracy altogether.”
Democrats in the state legislature agree.
Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Democrat from Columbus who is the longest-serving member of the Georgia House said that “any rollback or any kind of retrenchment of the voting process, I think, would be sending the state in the wrong direction.”
Rep. Bee Nguyen, a Democrat from Atlanta who serves on the House Governmental Affairs Committee, said that Republicans are only proposing changes because of recent Democratic wins in the state. Biden in November became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since 1992, and Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff swept a pair of U.S. Senate runoff elections held Tuesday.
“Republicans know that if we make voting more accessible, they will continue to lose elections,” Nguyen said. “They have absolutely no evidence of any kind of fraud, but they believe this is the only way they can win elections.”
Associated Press writer Russ Bynum contributed to this report from Savannah, Georgia.