Georgia elections bill gutted in committee vote

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Senators erase fraud policing and ballot inspection proposals

A Georgia Senate committee voted unanimously to remove every contentious proposal from a broad elections bill, discarding plans for GBI fraud investigations, paper ballot inspections and funding limitations.

The decision Tuesday to advance a stripped-down bill sets up a showdown in the final days of this year’s legislative session, when lawmakers will attempt to negotiate a final version.

The Senate Ethics Committee scrapped much of the bill after hearing testimony Monday from several county election officials who opposed strict ballot handling rules and restrictions on outside donations from nonprofit organizations. One elections supervisor called its requirements little more than “security theater.”

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Senators shrank the 39-page bill to a two-page measure Tuesday, leaving only a requirement that businesses give workers up to two hours off to vote either on election day or during three weeks of early voting. Under current law, workers are only entitled to time off to vote on election day.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. James Burchett, told senators he hopes lawmakers can continue to work on the measure and reach a compromise.

“This issue that we’re taking up is one of the most politicized issues across the country, not just Georgia,” said Burchett, a Republican from Waycross. “I know each and every one of you are being hit by your constituents on both sides.”

County election officials said legislators responded to the public’s concerns after Monday’s three-hour hearing.

“We demand that the full Senate and House accept this bill as amended and not make any additional changes,” 11 Democratic county election board members from across Georgia said in a statement Tuesday. “This is a clear example of the progress that can be made when legislators listen to and take recommendations from local election officials.”

Voting rights groups had also criticized the measure, House Bill 1464, saying it would make it harder for election workers to run smooth elections.

The previous version of the bill would have empowered the GBI to launch its own election investigations independent from the secretary of state’s office, made original ballots public records available for inspection, and required any outside election funding to be distributed by the State Election Board in a “fair and equitable” manner across Georgia.

What’s left of the legislation would expand opportunities for workers to vote, an idea that both Republican and Democratic senators on the committee supported.

The bill’s future is uncertain.

It could soon receive a vote in the full Senate, and then if the House disagrees with the changes, a conference committee would hash out a final version before this year’s legislative session concludes late Monday night.