Georgia election board votes down proposal to limit absentee voting

Republican-led State Election Board backs no-excuse absentee voting
The State Election Board on Tuesday voted down asking state lawmakers to end no-excuse absentee voting. Clockwise from top-left: State Election Board member Rick Jeffares, member Janice Johnston, member Sara Tindall Ghazal, election investigator Michael Brumson, member Ed Lindsey, and Chairman John Fervier.

Credit: File

Credit: File

The State Election Board on Tuesday voted down asking state lawmakers to end no-excuse absentee voting. Clockwise from top-left: State Election Board member Rick Jeffares, member Janice Johnston, member Sara Tindall Ghazal, election investigator Michael Brumson, member Ed Lindsey, and Chairman John Fervier.

A divided State Election Board opposed a resolution Tuesday asking Georgia legislators to end no-excuse absentee voting, which is used by hundreds of thousands of voters in every major election.

The 3-2 vote scuttled the election-year proposal to limit voting options in Georgia, a battleground state in the 2024 presidential race.

The effort to restrict absentee voting, pushed by GOP board member Janice Johnston, was based on complaints stemming from broad adoption of remote voting during the COVID-19 pandemic in the 2020 presidential election, when Republican Donald Trump narrowly lost to Democrat Joe Biden in Georgia.

But a majority of the board — two Republicans and a Democrat — voted to uphold allowing absentee voting for anyone without having to provide a reason, which has been legal in Georgia since 2005. Two Republicans supported limiting absentee voting.

The board’s new chairman, John Fervier, cast the deciding vote against the anti-absentee voting proposal.

“For me, it comes down to the will of the people, and the will of the people has been voted on by the General Assembly,” said Fervier, who was appointed to the board by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and confirmed by the state House and Senate last month. The governor voted absentee in the 2020 election after he was exposed to the coronavirus.

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

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

Johnston said she opposed no-excuse absentee voting because she believes it is less secure than in-person voting. Election fraud is rare in Georgia, and investigations have repeatedly dismissed allegations of wrongdoing in the 2020 election among both absentee and in-person voters.

Johnston’s proposal sought to require almost all voters to cast ballots in polling places except for people who are disabled, older than 75 or out of town.

“Absentee-by-mail voting cannot and does not protect ballot secrecy, voter privacy or freedom from interference with the voting process,” Johnston said. “The idea of no-excuse absentee-by-mail voting seems easy and convenient, but the loss of control of the ballot, the loss of the right to vote by secret ballot, the risk of fraud and the occurrence of subtle or outright voter intimidation is real. Simply put, the risk outweighs the benefit.”

Absentee voting exploded in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, when a quarter of all Georgia voters in the 2020 presidential election — 1.3 million — voted outside polling places as they avoided in-person contact.

The rate of absentee voters returned to historic norms in the 2022 midterms, with about 6% of voters casting their ballots remotely, amounting to 246,000 absentee ballots. Twenty-eight states offer no-excuse absentee voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The State Election Board’s only Democrat, Sara Tindall Ghazal, said she’s immunocompromised but wouldn’t be eligible to cast an absentee ballot under Johnston’s proposal.

“There are thousands of others like me across the state of Georgia who shouldn’t have to choose between their health and their constitutional right to cast a ballot safely and securely,” Ghazal said.

Board member Ed Lindsey, a Republican, said he supports no-excuse absentee voting, keeping it “easy to vote and hard to cheat” in Georgia. He said the state’s 2021 voting law increased absentee ballot security by requiring more voter ID and a handwritten signature.

“We should not as a board, only a few months before the election in 2024 … bring confusion and start to limit the ability of people to vote, particularly people who oftentimes find it most difficult to stand in line because of certain life situations,” said Lindsey, who voted to allow no-excuse absentee voting in 2005 when he was a representative in the state House.

The board’s fifth member, Republican Rick Jeffares, a former state senator, voted for Johnston’s resolution but didn’t discuss it during Tuesday’s board meeting.

Suspicions of widespread voter fraud from absentee voting haven’t been substantiated, and state investigations have debunked allegations of illegal ballot collection through drop boxes in the 2020 election.

There have been isolated cases of voters who never received their absentee ballots in the mail, family members voting for their relatives and people voting by mail after they had moved out of Georgia.

The Georgia General Assembly is considering several changes to state election laws, but eliminating no-excuse absentee voting isn’t among them so far.

State legislators have advanced bills to increase the number of election audits, eliminate computer codes from ballots, investigate the secretary of state’s office, post ballot pictures online, add watermarks to ballots and ban ranked-choice voting.