Few people mention Donald Trump in hearings on Georgia’s latest elections bill, but complaints about his loss in the 2020 election are motivating Republican efforts to again rewrite the rules.
Trump’s supporters repeat his allegations of “fraud,” a need for a “forensic audit” and criticism of “Zuckerbucks” donations from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to county election offices during the coronavirus pandemic.
Georgia’s elections bill aims to appease them by expanding police investigations, allowing public inspections of paper ballots and restricting nonprofit contributions.
The proposals focus on perceived flaws in the presidential election, long after recounts and investigations countered politically driven beliefs that Democrat Joe Biden’s victory was illegitimate. Bipartisan election officials have repeatedly upheld the results.
“The Republican Party has lost, and now they’re changing the rules,” the Rev. Paul Little II, pastor at Bibb Mount Zion Baptist Church in Macon, said during a press conference by Black clergy. “It’s absolutely despicable, but it’s not final. It’s not fatal. We will not drop out of the game just because the rules have changed.”
Republican defenders of the measure, House Bill 1464, said the 2020 election exposed weaknesses in Georgia’s voting laws that need to be corrected, even after the General Assembly passed a sweeping measure last year that put more regulations on absentee voting.
The law limited ballot drop boxes, added absentee voter ID requirements and allowed state takeovers of county election offices.
“This isn’t a rehash of what happened. This is to focus on what needs to happen,” said Senate Ethics Chairman Max Burns, a Republican from Sylvania who will oversee hearings on the bill. “We want to learn from the past, but this is focused on making sure that elections in 2022 and beyond are secure, valid, and that people have confidence in elections.”
Most of the bill’s proposals spring from complaints by Trump voters who have told their legislators they believe the 2020 election was poorly run and vulnerable to illegal ballots.
After last year’s law largely dealt with the voting process, this year’s legislation is directed at how the government conducts elections.
Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A proposal to increase police powers over elections has drawn the most concern from voting rights advocates, who say greater law enforcement involvement could threaten voters and discourage them from casting a ballot.
The legislation would empower the GBI to independently launch fraud inquiries, skipping the step in the process where the secretary of state’s office investigates allegations of irregularities.
“I’m just concerned that with these kinds of tactics, it borders on intimidation of voters,” said Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Democrat from Stone Mountain.
Supporters of greater GBI authority over election investigations, including House Speaker David Ralston, have said the statewide law enforcement agency would help head off questions about the validity of the election. Next year’s proposed budget includes nearly $580,000 for four GBI positions to investigate election complaints.
After the 2020 election, the GBI assisted the secretary of state’s office in several cases that didn’t find any wrongdoing, investigating allegations of counterfeit ballots, ballot collection practices and signature mismatches.
Georgia’s bill doesn’t go as far as a measure in Florida that created a police force dedicated to pursuing election crimes.
Pamela Reardon, a Republican voter from Cobb County, said the legislation would ease concerns that arose from the presidential election.
“I can make sure that when people are all crazy, I can say, ‘No, we’ve done everything we can do to make this a secure election,’ ” Reardon said after a committee meeting on the bill.
The bill would also make original paper ballots a matter of public record, permitting members of the public to review them for irregularities or to conduct their own recounts. The proposal follows an effort by a group of election skeptics who sought to conduct their own ballot inspection, similar to one done in Maricopa County, Arizona. A judge dismissed their case in the fall.
In addition, the bill would limit outside money for local election offices that had supplemented their taxpayer-funded budgets.
The proposal follows criticisms that $43 million donated for the 2020 election cycle by the Center for Tech and Civic Life, an organization backed by Zuckerberg, disproportionately assisted election operations in large counties that tend to support Democrats. Several Republican-leaning counties also received funding from the Center for Tech and Civic Life.
“We’re creating more red tape and further hamstringing counties and our election workers, when all they’ve asked from us is our help and our support,” state Rep. Mariam Paris, a Democrat from Macon, said during a House debate on the bill. “The wants of conspiracy theories are also not a valid motivation to change the rules.”
Any nongovernment funding would have to be reviewed by the State Election Board and then distributed in a “fair and equitable” manner across Georgia, even if the donor wanted the money spent in a specific county or for a designated purpose, such as COVID-19 preparedness.
The bill also would require more paperwork to track ballots, a response to complaints about haphazard ballot handling by county election officials. Trump has accused county election officials in Georgia of violating chain-of-custody procedures.
Other parts of the measure would grant poll watchers “meaningful” access to vote counting, make it a felony to threaten violence against poll workers, reduce the number of required voting machines at election day polling places to account for people who voted early, and require employers to give workers time off to vote on election day or during early voting.
The legislation is pending in the state Senate after it passed the state House last week.
“All of the unfunded mandates and new restrictions added by this bill stem from bad actors pushing the false narrative of the ‘big lie’ and a refusal to accept the certified results of the 2020 elections,” Cianti Stewart-Reid, executive director for Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams. said in referring to Trump’s allegations of election fraud.
Georgia omnibus election bill
House Bill 1464 would:
- Allow the GBI to launch election investigations
- Open original paper ballots to public inspection
- Restrict nongovernmental funding to county election offices
- Require forms and seals after handling ballots
- Mandate “meaningful access” for poll watchers in polling places and tabulation centers
- Make it a felony to threaten violence against poll workers and election officials
- Give workers time off to vote either during early voting or election day
- Reduce the required number of voting machines on election day to account for people who voted early
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