New wave of Georgia election bills target ‘Zuckerbucks’ and bar codes

Proposals would also bar noncitizen election workers
Georgia Sen. Max Burns and Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer for the secretary of state's office, speak about election bills during a meeting of the Senate Ethics Committee on Thursday. MARK NIESSE / mark.niesse@ajc.com

Credit: Mark Niesse

Credit: Mark Niesse

Georgia Sen. Max Burns and Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer for the secretary of state's office, speak about election bills during a meeting of the Senate Ethics Committee on Thursday. MARK NIESSE / mark.niesse@ajc.com

Republican Georgia senators rolled out a package of bills Thursday that continue to focus on perceived flaws in the 2020 presidential election, attempting to restrict outside money, eliminate votes scanned from bar codes and ban foreigners from being hired as election workers.

The proposals come two years after lawmakers passed a far-reaching overhaul to Georgia voting laws following Democrat Joe Biden’s narrow victory against Republican Donald Trump.

The Senate Ethics Committee debated five election-related bills Thursday but didn’t decide on them. Votes could be held as soon as Monday.

Supporters said the bills would build trust among voters that elections are secure and accurate, while voting rights groups said the proposals are driven by conspiracy theorists who will never accept that Trump lost his reelection bid in 2020.

Three vote counts showed Biden won by about 12,000 votes, and multiple investigations have dispelled allegations of fraud.

One of the bills would prohibit county governments from accepting election donations from organizations, a reaction to millions of dollars contributed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s nonprofit organization, the Center for Tech and Civic Life.

Republican backers of the idea object to so-called “Zuckerbucks” funding, which they say benefited Democratic-run counties more than rural GOP-leaning areas. The organization gave a total of $43 million in 2020. While Democratic-leaning counties got more money, the organization has said it didn’t discriminate: It gave money to any county that asked.

Though the Georgia election law passed in 2021 already bars direct outside funding of election operations, DeKalb County’s government accepted a $2 million grant this year and then distributed it to the county’s election office.

“We have to ensure the funding of our elections comes from lawfully appropriated public funds,” said Senate Ethics Chairman Max Burns, a Republican from Sylvania. “The intent is to prohibit third parties’ selective funding of elections.”

Lana Goitia Paz of the voter advocacy group All Voting Is Local told senators that election workers often need outside funding as costs continue to rise beyond county governments’ budgets.

“In 2020, grant funding provided election-saving resources for counties in the midst of a global pandemic,” she said. “This bill aims to needlessly rid us of financial resources that counties might not otherwise have. It is crucial that we do not cut off lifelines to our elections officials.”

Another bill would require Georgia’s voting system to scan ballots without having to rely on QR codes, often called bar codes, which are unreadable to the human eye.

Both election integrity advocates and skeptics say voters should be able to know that the scanner is reading their choices, but state election officials say the change would cost millions of dollars without improving security.

“The issue is, what I see is what I vote. It’s a trust issue,” said state Sen. Marty Harbin, a Republican from Tyrone. “You have to trust the system.”

State Sen. Derek Mallow, a Democrat from Savannah, said he’s concerned that changes to voting technology would do more to undermine confidence in elections.

“This could potentially create more issues of distrust in elections because we can’t keep changing things that are working well,” Mallow said.

One proposal would require anyone employed in a county election office to be a U.S. citizen.

State Sen. Brandon Beach, a Republican from Alpharetta, said the bill is a reaction to a Nigerian who worked as a technician in Fulton County’s election office.

Other initiatives would make less controversial adjustments to election processes, requiring audits after primaries as well as general elections, giving local election offices more time to report the total number of ballots cast on election night, and clarifying wording on absentee ballot applications that say “THIS IS NOT A BALLOT.”

Burns said he’s not ready to move forward with other ideas, such as limiting Saturday voting before runoff elections after a holiday, which was an issue last fall in the U.S. Senate runoff. The Georgia Supreme Court ultimately allowed Saturday voting in counties that chose to offer it.

The legislation also isn’t intended to allow public inspections of original paper ballots, Burns said, but he supports an online method for voters to be able to view digital ballot images. Legislators included $250,000 in funding for a statewide ballot image repository in the state’s proposed supplemental budget.


Election bills

Senate Bill 122: Would require ballot security documentation and digital ballot images

Senate Bill 189: Would eliminate votes scanned from QR codes

Senate Bill 221: Would mandate more audits and change absentee ballot application wording

Senate Bill 222: Would ban nonprofit election funding to local governments

Senate Bill 229: Would require county election workers to be U.S. citizens