Ga. senators advance bills to end at-will absentee voting, require ID

Georgia Republican Sens. Bo Hatchett and Dean Burke raise their hands in support of a bill requiring ID to request an absentee ballot during a Senate subcommittee vote Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. Democratic Sen. Gloria Butler, left, opposed the measure, and the subcommittee chairman, Sen. Randy Robertson, center, didn't vote. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM
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Georgia Republican Sens. Bo Hatchett and Dean Burke raise their hands in support of a bill requiring ID to request an absentee ballot during a Senate subcommittee vote Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. Democratic Sen. Gloria Butler, left, opposed the measure, and the subcommittee chairman, Sen. Randy Robertson, center, didn't vote. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

Bills requiring an excuse and an ID number for absentee voting in Georgia cleared their first committee Wednesday, creating new restrictions after last year’s presidential election.

A Senate subcommittee voted 3-2 along party lines to approve the bills, which now advance to the full Ethics Committee.

Georgia law has allowed any registered voter to cast an absentee ballot since 2005, but Senate Bill 71 would limit absentee voting to people who are over 75, have a physical disability or are out of town.

Democrats said the bill would stop people from voting from home if they’re worried about their health, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

“COVID isn’t choosy,” said state Sen. Sally Harrell, a Democrat from Atlanta. “We are all vulnerable. We don’t know which person this virus is going to kill.”

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga, said voters should have to provide a reason to vote outside a polling place, as they had to before the Republican-controlled General Assembly’s made it available to everyone 16 years ago.

“I wouldn’t call it going backward. I would call it going back to a more manageable, more respectable form of voting absentee,” Mullis said.

Thirty-four states, including Georgia, allow any qualified voter to vote absentee without having to provide an excuse, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The second bill passed by the subcommittee would require voters to submit a photocopy of their ID, a driver’s license number or other state ID number when requesting an absentee ballot.

Voters are already required to submit a driver’s license number when requesting an absentee ballot online, but there’s no ID requirement for paper absentee ballot application forms. In-person voters must show photo ID.

“The purpose of this proposal is not to make it hard to cast a legal ballot, but to make it harder to cast an illegal ballot,” said state Sen. Larry Walker, a Republican from Perry. “The public can have confidence and trust in the integrity of our election results.”

Opposition to Senate Bill 67 came from Democratic Party senators who said mailing personal ID documents would create opportunities for identity theft.

Chris Bruce, political director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, testified that both bills would create obstacles to voting after record numbers of people cast absentee ballots in the November election. Of 5 million people who voted, 1.3 million returned absentee ballots.

“In a democracy, we should be focusing on ways of making voting easier for our citizens,” Bruce said. “This bill builds more barriers and has the potential to disenfranchise a significant number of voters.”

In addition, two more bills also passed a separate Senate subcommittee Wednesday morning.

One of those measures, Senate Bill 89, would create a “chief elections assistance officer” within the secretary of state’s office who would be responsible for intervening in low-performing county election offices.

Another proposal, Senate Bill 93, would limit the use of mobile voting buses to emergencies. The bill came after Fulton County deployed mobile voting buses across the county during the early voting period, allowing people to cast ballots inside the buses on the state’s voting machines.

All four bills now advance to the full Senate Ethics Committee and could be considered as soon as Thursday.

Election bills advancing in the Georgia General Assembly

SB 67: Requires ID when requesting an absentee ballot

SB 71: Ends no-excuse absentee voting

SB 89: Creates a chief elections assistance officer

SB 93: Limits mobile voting buses

HB 270: Sets a deadline to request absentee ballots 10 days before election day