December 5, 2017 Atlanta: Voters headed to the polls at Henry W. Grady High School in Atlanta on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017 to elect one of the two Atlanta mayoral runoff candidates, Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Bill to shorten Atlanta voting hours and curtail Sunday voting passes committee

A bill advancing in the Georgia Legislature would reduce voting hours in the city of Atlanta and limit early voting on Sundays.

The legislation would force Atlanta’s polls to close at 7 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. and allow voting in advance of Election Day on only one Saturday or Sunday.

The House Governmental Affairs Committee approved the legislation, Senate Bill 363, on Wednesday. The committee’s five Democrats opposed the bill, while the committee’s majority Republicans all supported it, though a hand count of “yes” votes wasn’t taken.

The bill was filed by Republican Sen. Matt Brass after Democratic Sen. Jen Jordan won a special election in December to represent a district that covers parts of Atlanta and Cobb County.  Voting in Cobb County ended at 7 p.m., an hour earlier than in Atlanta.

“One person should not be allowed to vote one hour longer than another person,” said Brass, R-Newnan.

Democratic legislators opposing the bill said it’s designed to suppress voter turnout.

“The impact of this bill is to eliminate the extra hour of voting opportunity that’s been granted to city of Atlanta voters,” said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur. “So this is anti-voting rights for Atlanta.”

State Rep. Ed Rynders, the chairman of the House Governmental Affairs Committee, calls for a vote Wednesday on Senate Bill 403. The committee endorsed the legislation, which would replace Georgia’s voting machines. The bill would allow for paper ballots to be used for auditing election results. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Allowing different voting hours in elections for the same candidates creates confusion and inequities, said Richard Barron, the Fulton County director of registration and elections, which covers Atlanta. A state law passed in the 1970s allows Atlanta to keep its precincts open until 8 p.m. for municipal elections.

“Atlanta voters had an advantage,” Barron said. “That’s not fair to anyone because it gives Atlanta a leg up on everyone.”

Democrats on the committee suggested that everyone statewide could be allowed to vote until 8 p.m., but that idea was rejected.

The bill also curtails Sunday voting after Republicans complained that it gave an advantage to Democratic areas, where African-American churches could help drive turnout. The limitation on Sunday voting was added by the House Governmental Affairs Committee and wasn’t part of the bill when it passed the Senate last month.

The legislation permits one day of Saturday or Sunday voting, but not both. Under current state law, early voting must take place on a Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for any election with state or federal candidates.

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