Georgia election rule eliminates easy online absentee application

Lawyer Bryan Sells speaks to a witness as members of the State Election Board listen during an emergency hearing held by the State Election Board at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education in Athens, Ga., on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The hearing will decide whether Athens election officials broke state laws when they switched to paper ballots filled out by hand. [Photo/Austin Steele for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

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Lawyer Bryan Sells speaks to a witness as members of the State Election Board listen during an emergency hearing held by the State Election Board at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education in Athens, Ga., on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The hearing will decide whether Athens election officials broke state laws when they switched to paper ballots filled out by hand. [Photo/Austin Steele for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Voters must sign paper absentee ballot request form

The State Election Board approved absentee voting rules Thursday that require voters to use printed-out application forms and sign them by hand, mandates resulting from Georgia’s new voting law.

A series of voters told the board they opposed the rules because they make voting from home more cumbersome, especially for those who don’t have access to printers, the poor and people with disabilities.

The new absentee ballot application process is one way Georgia’s voting law reduces the ease of absentee voting after a record 1.3 million voters, a quarter of total turnout, voted remotely in November’s presidential election. About two-thirds of absentee voters supported Democrat Joe Biden over Republican Donald Trump.

ExploreHow Georgia’s voting law works ajc.com

Sonia Collette Frix, a voter from DeKalb County, said she has a computer but no printer, and she’s unable to drive to a polling place or a store with a printer because she has epilepsy.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that the state of Georgia will take my income tax return without my hand signature, but it won’t take my request to vote without a hand signature,” Frix told the board.

Several voters echoed her sentiments, saying an electronic signature should be adequate, as it is for filing various types of legal and government documents.

“It’s just unnecessarily burdensome to require us to download and print an application and then sign it and upload it and scan it and mail it back just to be able request an absentee ballot,” said Elaine Johnson of Macon-Bibb County. “It should be simple for us to apply because it should be simple for us to vote.”

The Republican majority in the Georgia General Assembly passed expansive changes to the state’s election laws in March after Trump’s voters demanded changes following his narrow loss. The law includes new absentee voting requirements, expands weekend voting in some rural counties and gives the Legislature more power over local elections.

Though absentee applications now require manual signatures, a different part of Georgia’s voting law reduced reliance on signature ID verification of absentee voters. A driver’s license number or other documentation is now required when requesting and returning absentee ballots, replacing the state’s previous system of comparing voters’ signatures.

The State Election Board passed the rule unanimously Thursday.

The rule specifies procedures for implementing requirements in Georgia’s voting law, Senate Bill 202, stating that applications must contain a voter’s signature. Websites to help voters request absentee ballots are permitted but will only partially fill out request forms. Manual signatures are still needed on forms.

“The requirement of a wet signature is really problematic,” said Sara Tindall Ghazal, the board’s lone Democrat. “I understand that’s also in the statute. If there’s not a way that this can be worked within the rule-making process, then I think it’s really important to go back to the Legislature and ask them to revisit this question.”

The board’s three Republican members didn’t comment on the rule before voting for it.

Georgia’s voting law also curtails absentee voting by limiting the availability of ballot drop boxes, confining them inside early voting locations and closing them four days before an election. About 56% of absentee voters in metro Atlanta’s four core counties returned their ballots in drop boxes before last year’s election, according to ballot transfer forms.

The number of people seeking to use absentee ballots has plummeted this year.

Fewer than 35,000 Georgia voters have requested absentee ballots for upcoming local elections after last year’s high-turnout presidential race.