Georgia election bill would give voters more time before being purged

Event participants check out Dominion Voting Systems’ digital voting system in January. Election companies demonstrated voting systems to the public and to officials, showing how Georgia could switch to paper ballots. Georgia’s electronic voting machines were once considered state-of-the art, but they’ve always had a fatal flaw: There’s no way to check that they’re accurate. Almost every state already uses some form of paper ballots, and almost every lawmaker in Georgia wants a way to verify elections. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Event participants check out Dominion Voting Systems’ digital voting system in January. Election companies demonstrated voting systems to the public and to officials, showing how Georgia could switch to paper ballots. Georgia’s electronic voting machines were once considered state-of-the art, but they’ve always had a fatal flaw: There’s no way to check that they’re accurate. Almost every state already uses some form of paper ballots, and almost every lawmaker in Georgia wants a way to verify elections. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

A new bill to overhaul Georgia's elections would alert voters and give them more time before their registrations are canceled, proposals that could curtail large-scale removals of voters from the rolls.

The Republican-sponsored legislation would preserve regular registration cancellations when voters are inactive for several years, move out of state, die or are convicted of a felony.

Voter registration cancellations were a contentious issue during last year's election for governor, when Democrat Stacey Abrams accused Republican Brian Kemp of creating barriers to voting. Georgia election officials, dating to 2012, removed more than 1.4 million voter registrations while Kemp was secretary of state.

The bill calls for inactive voters to be notified by mail at least 30 days before they’re removed, and their registrations wouldn’t be canceled unless they fail to contact election officials for eight or nine years, which is two years longer than under current state law.

The changes to Georgia's voter registration laws are included in a bill introduced Thursday that would switch the state from its 17-year-old electronic voting system to touchscreen machines that print ballots.

While the planned $150 million replacement of Georgia's voting system will likely lead to heated debates over election accuracy and security, the legislation's provisions dealing with voter registration cancellations could also have a major impact.

In addition, House Bill 316 would enroll Georgia in a 25-state collaboration — the Electronic Registration Information Center — to share voter information for the purpose of tracking and canceling voters who move out of state.

Dwayne Broxton, right, the regional sales director for Hart InterCivic, walks state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, through the process of voting, during a demonstration in January of his company’s voting machines to lawmakers. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Dwayne Broxton, right, the regional sales director for Hart InterCivic, walks state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, through the process of voting, during a demonstration in January of his company’s voting machines to lawmakers. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

"It is critical that only eligible, registered voters are allowed to elect Georgia's leaders and make decisions for Georgia's communities," said Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who supports the bill. "Carefully maintaining voter rolls is vital to preventing injustice, and collecting accurate and updated voter information is fundamental to the mission of safe and secure elections."

The state's practice of regularly canceling voter registrations is part of a sweeping federal lawsuit that attempts to overturn state election laws that created obstacles to voting. The lawsuit was filed by a group called Fair Fight Action created by allies of Abrams after she lost November's election for governor.

“The proposed changes would still allow the type of mass voter purging orchestrated by Brian Kemp. A slightly-less-aggressive form of voter suppression is still voter suppression,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO for Fair Fight Action.

The bill's sponsor, House Judiciary Chairman Barry Fleming, said the primary goal of the bill is to update the state's voting system. He said it's also important to update the state's laws to ensure voter lists ensure that only registered voters can cast ballots. Voting fraud is rare in Georgia, but Kemp's office in 2014 investigated voter registration forms that were allegedly forged, among other isolated cases.

It makes sense to extend the period before inactive voters’ registrations are canceled so that it’s more likely to coincide with when voters renew their driver’s licenses every 10 years, he said. Georgia voters are automatically registered to vote when they get a driver’s license unless they opt out.

“In this last election, we had record registration and record turnout. That’s something to be proud of,” said Fleming, a Republican from Harlem. “We want to continue that in Georgia, making it easier for people to vote and having a voting system that’s quick and efficient and can be audited.”

Under current Georgia laws, voters can be declared “inactive” after three years in which they had no contact with the election system, failing to participate in elections, respond to election officials’ mail or update their registrations. Inactive voters retain their right to vote.

Then if they don’t vote in either of the next two general elections, their registrations can be canceled. The process can take six or seven years.

The bill introduced Thursday would change the time before voters become inactive to five years, and then their registrations could be canceled after two general elections. That process would take eight or nine years.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia opposes laws that require voters to participate or risk losing their right to vote, said Sean Young, the organization’s legal director. But the extension of time before registrations could be canceled is a step in the right direction, he said.

“These (registration) list maintenance provisions are improvements to the current system,” Young said. “We’ll be monitoring this bill’s movement very closely.”

State Rep. Scott Holcomb, a Democrat from Atlanta, said it's important that cancellations could be delayed for two years because it would protect voters who only participate in presidential elections. Those voters would be considered active voters if they cast ballots before their registrations are canceled.

“All of these are constructive steps to make it harder for the state to purge voters — and that should be one of our goals,” said Holcomb, who plans to introduce a bill seeking a voting system using hand-marked paper ballots.

HB 316 also proposes that the state pass into law provisions that federal judges ordered in preliminary rulings surrounding November's election.

Absentee ballots couldn't be rejected because of apparent signature mismatches alone, and organizations could provide an unlimited number of volunteers to help voters who need assistance casting their ballots, such as those who speak English as a second language or have disabilities.

Proposed changes to Georgia elections

  • Replace the state's electronic voting machines with touchscreens and printed ballots, called ballot-marking devices.
  • Extend the time before voters are declared inactive, which is a step toward cancellation of their registrations. Voters would become inactive after five years instead of three years.
  • Notify voters at least 30 days before their registrations are canceled after several years of inactivity.
  • Join the 25-state Electronic Registration Information Center to share voter information and cancel registrations of voters who have moved from Georgia.
  • Prevent changes in polling places 60 days before a general or primary election.
  • Prohibit absentee ballot rejections because of inconsistencies in voter signatures along. Voters must be contacted to rectify discrepancies.
  • Lift the 10-voter limit that anyone can help vote.
  • Create audit requirements before elections are certified and extend county certification deadlines by four days.
  • Lower the threshold for a losing candidate to request an automatic recount to 0.5 percent. Currently, losing candidates are entitled to a recount if they lose by 1 percentage point or less.

Source: House Bill 316