Georgia House approves elections bill to allow for more investigations

A combination of groups protest voting legislation and other bills in front to the Capitol during Crossover Day on Tuesday. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

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A combination of groups protest voting legislation and other bills in front to the Capitol during Crossover Day on Tuesday. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Bill would enable GBI inquiries and public ballot inspections

The Georgia House passed an elections bill Tuesday that would empower GBI investigators to pursue fraud allegations, restrict nonprofit funding and allow public ballot inspections of paper ballots.

The party-line vote, 98-73, was the latest Republican effort to change voting rules in the wake of the 2020 election, when Democrat Joe Biden narrowly defeated Republican Donald Trump in Georgia.

Voting rights groups marched outside the Capitol in protest of the legislation, and Democratic representatives opposed it, saying the measure hinders county elections management.

But the bill’s supporters said GBI investigators would help police election problems and make elections more accountable.

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State Rep. Chuck Martin (left) talks Tuesday to state Rep. James Burchett, sponsor of House Bill 1464, and state Rep. Stan Gunter, chairman of the Elections Integrity Committee. This bill builds on last year's elections measure that limited drop boxes, required more voter ID for absentee voting, and allowed state takeovers of county election boards. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

State Rep. Chuck Martin (left) talks Tuesday to state Rep. James Burchett, sponsor of House Bill 1464, and state Rep. Stan Gunter, chairman of the Elections Integrity Committee. This bill builds on last year's elections measure that limited drop boxes, required more voter ID for absentee voting, and allowed state takeovers of county election boards. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Combined ShapeCaption
State Rep. Chuck Martin (left) talks Tuesday to state Rep. James Burchett, sponsor of House Bill 1464, and state Rep. Stan Gunter, chairman of the Elections Integrity Committee. This bill builds on last year's elections measure that limited drop boxes, required more voter ID for absentee voting, and allowed state takeovers of county election boards. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The GBI would gain authority to launch election investigations without an invitation from the secretary of state’s office. After the 2020 election, the GBI assisted election investigations and found no fraud when it looked into allegations of counterfeit ballots, ballot signature mismatches and ballot collection.

“If we can’t trust the highest law enforcement in the state, who can we trust?” asked state Rep. James Burchett, a Republican from Waycross. “Do you want to have Cyber Ninjas to come in here and work on your elections?” referring to the company that conducted a disputed elections audit in Arizona.

ExploreLIVE: Georgia bill tracker 2022

The legislation, House Bill 1464, builds on last year’s sweeping Georgia voting overhaul, which limited ballot drop boxes, required more voter ID for absentee voting and allowed state takeovers of county election offices.

Democrats said greater police involvement in elections could intimidate voters and make them fear casting a ballot.

“The use of threat of law enforcement in elections is not something new and is not conjecture,” said state Rep. Derek Mallow, a Democrat from Savannah. “Members of the majority party are doubling down on voter suppression. ... This is another attack on the right to vote.”

By regulating outside money in elections, supporters of the legislation said elections would be less vulnerable to inequalities in resources. During the 2020 general election and runoffs, county election offices received about $43 million in grants from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, an organization backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Any election donations would be subject to approval of the majority-Republican State Election Board.

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A group of protesters sits on the south side of the Georgia Capitol waiting on House Bill 1464 to come to the floor Tuesday. The bill would allow anyone to inspect original paper ballot and empower the GBI to intervene in fraud investigations. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A group of protesters sits on the south side of the Georgia Capitol waiting on House Bill 1464 to come to the floor Tuesday. The bill would allow anyone to inspect original paper ballot and empower the GBI to intervene in fraud investigations. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Combined ShapeCaption
A group of protesters sits on the south side of the Georgia Capitol waiting on House Bill 1464 to come to the floor Tuesday. The bill would allow anyone to inspect original paper ballot and empower the GBI to intervene in fraud investigations. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Voting rights organizations said the legislation’s funding limitations would harm election offices that need additional resources, as they did in 2020 amid record turnout and the coronavirus pandemic.

“While local county officials are working hard to prepare for another unprecedented turnout election, this bill places undue pressure on their ability to do their jobs,” said Vyanti Joseph of the Asian American Advocacy Fund. “Moreover, HB 1464 perpetuates a whole new level of intimidation by giving the Georgia Bureau of Investigation unprecedented authority to investigate election workers and voters.”

In addition, the bill would allow anyone to review paper ballots if they want to check results or look for errors. Ballots would become public records in the custody of the superior court clerk. Under current law, original ballots can only be unsealed by a judge’s order. Digital images of ballots were already made public last year.

Other parts of the bill would require paperwork and seals when election officials move ballots, make it a felony to threaten violence against poll workers, and require fewer voting machines on Election Day.

The legislation also would require “meaningful” access for poll watchers during vote counting and require employers to give workers time off to vote during early voting or on election day. Current law only requires time off on election day.

The legislation now advances to the state Senate for final votes before this year’s legislative session concludes April 4.