Bill to add Georgia precincts faces unexpected opponent: voting groups

At first, a bill to fight long lines and open more voting locations seemed like it could win broad-based support. After all, who wants to be stuck in lines?

Then came the backlash.

A voting rights group called the proposal “the anti-voting rights bill of 2020.” Democrats in the state Senate said voters would still go to their old precincts, where they’d be unable to cast a ballot. They say the bill would discourage turnout instead of increasing it.

The legislation, Senate Bill 463, would require election officials to add precincts, poll workers or voting equipment if voters had to wait in line for more than an hour before checking in to vote in the previous election.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Republicans say the measure would give voters more access to the polls. At least 214 precincts closed in Georgia from 2012 to 2018, according to research by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Voting rights groups should welcome expanded access to polling locations and shorter lines, Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said.

“Now it’s clear that some are all talk, no action,” Fuchs said. “They just want a talking point.”

Some Georgia voters waited in lines for more than three hours during the 2018 election for governor, when turnout reached a state record for a midterm election and precincts lacked enough voting machines.

Critics of the bill say they want more polling places, but not in the middle of a presidential election year. They say voters would turn up at the wrong location if their precinct changed in the middle of an election cycle, between the May 19 primary and the November general election.

“They’re going to sow a lot of confusion here,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, the CEO of the voting rights group Fair Fight Action, which was founded by 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams. “This bill is creating additional barriers to voting.”

The state Senate passed the bill on a party-line vote, 35-19, earlier this month before this year's legislative session was suspended because of the coronavirus. It's unclear when the General Assembly will return to the Capitol for the state House to consider the measure.

The bill requires county election workers to keep track of wait times and make changes before the next general election if lines exceed one hour. Counties would have the option of splitting precincts, adding voting equipment or hiring more poll workers.

The legislation applies to precincts with more than 2,000 registered voters. Of the nearly 2,700 precincts in Georgia, over 1,500 of them exceed 2,000 voters.

“People are not going to know that their precinct is split” if they don’t see mailed notifications from election offices, said Aklima Khondoker, the Georgia director for All Voting is Local, an organization focused on voting access. “You have to have a clear process that identifies how precincts are going to open, and you have to have enough time to notify voters.”

State Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican from Macon, said he's baffled by the opposition to the bill following years of criticism about precinct closures.

Now that lawmakers want to open more precincts, Democrats still aren’t satisfied, Kennedy said.

“The real oddity is that the complaint we’ve heard before is that folks have to drive too far or precincts aren’t readily available,” Kennedy, the bill’s sponsor, said during a debate in the state Senate. “You’ve now made precincts closer to where people live. I don’t see how that’s not a good thing.”

The legislation also contains another controversial provision that would introduce photo ID to absentee ballots.

Voters would have the option to include a copy of their ID with their mailed-in paper ballot, according to SB 463.

There were 8,157 absentee ballots thrown out in the 2018 general election, about 3% of all ballots returned by mail, many because signatures didn't match. Ballots that included photo ID couldn't be rejected because of missing or mismatched signatures.

But allowing photo ID would make it easier to reject absentee ballots that don’t include it, Groh-Wargo said. That could result in county election workers discarding more — not fewer — absentee ballots.

Under a federal court settlement this month, Georgia election officials must contact voters whose absentee ballots were rejected within three business days, giving them time to correct problems and have their ballots counted.