Georgia elections bill backs ballot inspections and GBI investigations

Omnibus legislation builds on sweeping voting measure passed last year
211130-Atlanta-Voters cast their ballots in the city of Atlanta runoff election Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021 at Ormewood Presbyterian Church. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

211130-Atlanta-Voters cast their ballots in the city of Atlanta runoff election Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021 at Ormewood Presbyterian Church. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia Republicans introduced a broad elections bill Wednesday that would enable public ballot inspections, restrict nonprofit funding and empower the GBI to investigate fraud allegations.

The proposals are the next wave of attempts to change election rules following Democrat Joe Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia in 2020 over Republican Donald Trump. Last year, the General Assembly passed an expansive bill that limited drop boxes, required more ID for absentee voting and allowed state takeovers of local election boards.

This year’s legislation focuses more on how the government runs elections than on voter access.

The 40-page bill could move quickly through the legislative process, with a committee vote as soon as Thursday and a vote in the full House by Tuesday.

Voting rights organizations immediately criticized the bill, characterizing it as an effort to create new hurdles to running smooth elections in response to unfounded suspicions of fraud. Three vote counts and multiple investigations upheld the results of the 2020 election.

But supporters of the measure said it would improve election security and ease concerns about election integrity from Republican voters.

“The intent of the bill is to address issues that we’ve seen in the elections process,” said state Rep. James Burchett, a Republican from Waycross and the sponsor of House Bill 1464.

Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams, said the legislation would empower endless ballot inspections by supporters of losing candidates and burden election officials by cutting outside funding.

“This bill could also make it easier for Big Lie pushers to open up sham ballot reviews putting even more work on our election officials who are already strapped with resources,” Hillary Holley, organizing director for Fair Fight, said on Twitter.

The legislation would open original paper ballots for public inspection, similar to other government records. Under current law, ballots can only be unsealed by a judge’s order, though digital ballot images are already available.

Some Republican voters looking for evidence of fraud in the 2020 election have sought access to original ballots, saying digital copies are inadequate to conduct independent recounts or find flaws. Only election officials would be allowed to touch ballots, and those requesting to see ballots would be responsible for the costs of the inspection.

In addition, organizations would be prohibited from giving money directly to county election offices after millions of dollars in grants flowed from a group backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2020. The bill aims to prevent outside funding inequalities between Democratic and Republican areas by requiring donations to first be approved by the State Election Board.

The legislation also gives the GBI authority to subpoena election records for fraud investigations, a priority of House Speaker David Ralston.

Currently, the secretary of state’s office handles most election investigations, but the GBI has assisted with inquiries into allegations of counterfeit ballots, ballot collection practices and signature mismatches. The GBI didn’t find evidence of wrongdoing.

“The most concerning piece of the current legislation for me is the idea of bringing in the GBI,” Douglas County Elections Director Milton Kidd said. “The secretary of state’s office has a more than capable elections division that we’re just bypassing by bringing in the GBI.”

Much of the bill deals with ballot handling, requiring election officials to fill out paperwork when they touch ballots, then use seals for storing ballots. Legislators supporting the idea said it would improve accountability, but county election directors said it would slow ballot counts and results.

“Obviously, we need to secure our elections. There were so many out-of-the-norm behaviors in 2020,” Merrybelle Hodges, a Duluth voter, said during Wednesday’s committee meeting. “If we do not secure our elections, we do not have a state and we do not have a country.”

Georgia omnibus election bill

House Bill 1464 would:

  • Open original paper ballots to public inspection
  • Allow the GBI to subpoena election records
  • 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