Absentee and Sunday voting targeted in broad Georgia elections bill

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Georgia voters pleaded with representatives Friday to back off a sweeping bill that would impose absentee voting ID requirements, limit drop boxes and ban early voting on Sundays.

The daylong hearing was the first opportunity for lawmakers to hear from the public about the far-reaching voting legislation that was introduced Thursday and could get a vote in the Georgia House of Representatives next week.

Many witnesses who testified Friday opposed the 48-page bill, saying it would create burdens for voters and prevent them from casting ballots. Voting rights advocates called the legislation “devastating” and a “horror show.”

But the bill appeared to have the support of the committee’s Republican majority, making it likely to advance in some form. Legislators plan to amend it Monday.

The proposal to end in-person early voting on Sundays would be a blow to Black churches that host “Souls to the Polls” get-out-the-vote events. Early voting would only be allowed on weekdays and on one Saturday.

“By seeking to eliminate Sunday voting, you are targeting people of faith whose jobs and economic circumstances make it hard for them to get to a polling place,” said Nancy Flake Johnson, president of the Urban League of Greater Atlanta, a civil rights and economic justice organization. “Many of these are people of color and low-income citizens who have transportation issues or have long work hours.”

Republican legislators said the proposals would boost voter confidence through new voting laws after November’s presidential election raised doubts among their constituents.

While election officials again told lawmakers Friday there’s no evidence of widespread fraud, state Rep. Bonnie Rich said legislators need to prevent the possibility of wrongdoing.

“If there is a certain amount of voter fraud, that means that someone who voted in the election who was not a legal voter basically disenfranchised me when they voted,” said Rich, a Republican from Suwanee.

The legislation, House Bill 531, is the most extensive elections bill introduced in the General Assembly this year, though several other measures have advanced through their first committees.

It incorporates initiatives such as requiring a voter to submit either a driver’s license number, state ID number or copy of photo ID when requesting an absentee ballot. The bill also would set an absentee ballot request deadline 11 days before election day.

After absentee ballot drop boxes gained popularity amid the coronavirus pandemic, HB 531 would allow them only inside in-person early voting sites, and they’d close after normal business hours.

“I’m trying to secure the vote that goes in there. When a voter puts a vote in that drop box we want it to matter and be meaningful,” said state Rep. Chuck Martin, a Republican from Alpharetta.

The bill also would make it illegal for anyone to give food and drinks to voters waiting in line, and provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct would be disqualified. Currently, votes for all eligible candidates are counted.

Proposals to change Georgia’s election rules come after a record turnout in the presidential election, resulting in Republican Donald Trump’s defeat, a string of unsubstantiated lawsuits and false allegations of fraud.

“The motivations behind this bill are suspect because it was introduced immediately after Georgia voters generally, and especially Georgia voters of color, tremendously increased their absentee voting in the 2020 general election and January 2021 runoff,” said Poy Winichakul, a voting rights attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

State Rep. Barry Fleming, the chairman of the Election Integrity Committee, said the bill would address the perception among voters that Georgia’s election wasn’t trustworthy.

Republican claims of election insecurity started with a misinformation campaign waged by Trump following his defeat. The same GOP legislators have not questioned the results of state legislative races that allowed them to maintain control of the General Assembly.

Recounts and audits of election results repeatedly verified the results of the close presidential election, which Democrat Joe Biden won by fewer than 12,000 votes. State election officials said it’s false to suggest there were many ineligible voters. In addition, an investigation of voter signatures on absentee ballot envelopes in Cobb County didn’t find a single fraudulent vote.

Democrats on the committee said the vast bill would replace voting laws that they believe worked well, leading to an embrace of absentee voting and few lines on Election Day.

Besides the bill debated Friday, six other election bills have passed Senate and House election committees. Five more have cleared subcommittees.

None is as encompassing as the bill under consideration in the Election Integrity Committee, potentially affecting every absentee voter and tens of thousands of in-person voters.

Over 1.3 million people voted absentee in the November presidential election, and a combined 71,000 people voted at early voting locations on two Sundays in October.

The House Election Integrity Committee could vote on the bill after another hearing planned for Monday.

The story so far

  • Republican legislators have proposed dozens of bills to increase election security and restrict absentee voting after the November presidential election.
  • A vast measure introduced Thursday would eliminate Sunday voting, institute ID requirements for absentee voting, curtail drop boxes and set an absentee ballot request deadline 11 days before election day.
  • After a daylong hearing Friday, a committee could vote on the bill Monday and send it to the full House of Representatives.