Bills to change Georgia election laws pass committee, await final votes

Democratic senators raised their hands to vote against a bill changing Georgia's election law during a vote in the Senate Ethics Committee on Tuesday. The committee passed House Bill 531, advancing it to a vote in the full Senate. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

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Democratic senators raised their hands to vote against a bill changing Georgia's election law during a vote in the Senate Ethics Committee on Tuesday. The committee passed House Bill 531, advancing it to a vote in the full Senate. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

The Georgia General Assembly will soon make final decisions on new election rules after a Senate committee voted Tuesday for ID requirements, drop box limits and mandatory weekend voting hours.

The vote sets up a debate between Democrats who say the proposals would make it harder to vote and Republicans who say they’re protecting election integrity after the 2020 elections.

The Senate Ethics Committee voted along party lines to advance House Bill 531, which could soon receive a vote in the full Senate. A House committee passed a different election overhaul bill on Monday, and lawmakers will have to negotiate final versions of bills before this year’s legislative session ends March 31.

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State Sen. Sally Harrell, a Democrat from Atlanta, objected to absentee ballot ID requirements that will rely on driver’s license numbers, state ID numbers or other documentation to verify voters. Under existing law, election workers review voter signatures on absentee ballot envelopes to confirm identities.

“Requiring a photo ID for voters who don’t have a driver’s license is akin, to me, to a poll test for many,” Harrell said. “I don’t believe the legislation is ready to become law without consequences that will make Georgia’s election process ... harder for both election workers and voters.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, a Republican from Carrollton, asked opponents of the bill to tone down rhetoric on proposals he said would improve elections. He objected to the characterization of the legislation as being similar to Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised Black voters.

“It’s demeaning to all the people who came before that actually had to work their tails off to get those laws repealed,” Dugan said. “The hyperbole is unfortunate.”

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The bill would also limit ballot drop boxes, an innovation in the 2020 election cycle that allowed voters to deliver their absentee ballots rather than have to rely on the U.S. Postal Service to return them by election day. Drop boxes would only be allowed inside advance polling places during the hours that they’re opening.

In addition, the bill would expand early voting by requiring polling on two Saturdays during the three-week early voting period. Legislators also voted to allow county election offices to have the option of opening for early voting on two Sundays, a decision that came after protests over reducing voting opportunities especially for Black voters who go to the polls after church.

The legislation also would create a hotline to report voting allegations to the attorney general’s office, allow the State Election Board to take over county election boards it deems problematic, and require disclaimers on absentee ballot application forms mailed by nonprofit groups.

The Senate bill is narrower than the House elections measure that cleared its committee Monday.

The House version, Senate Bill 202, also would set a deadline to request absentee ballots 11 days before election day, disqualify provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct, ban free food given to voters waiting in line, and require runoffs four weeks after election day instead of nine weeks.

Both the Senate and House election bills will next reach votes in their full legislative chambers. Then lawmakers will attempt to resolve differences in the bills and cast final votes.

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