Georgia Senate panel passes bill to expand ability to challenge voters

Legislation also would ban ballot drop boxes
Cobb County Board of Elections Chairwoman Tori Silas speaks to Georgia senators about Senate Bill 221 at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Tuesday. (Olivia Bowdoin for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

Cobb County Board of Elections Chairwoman Tori Silas speaks to Georgia senators about Senate Bill 221 at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Tuesday. (Olivia Bowdoin for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

A Georgia Senate committee approved a bill Tuesday that could allow voters to be disqualified based on an allegation that they had changed their address, which voting rights groups said could lead to mass disenfranchisement.

The Republican-sponsored proposal would expand the ability of Georgia residents to challenge the eligibility of other voters, based on a belief that elections are rife with the potential for fraud.

Few cases of ineligible voters have been proved in Georgia in recent years, and investigations have repeatedly dismissed claims of dead voters, ballot stuffing, fake ballots and faulty ballot counts.

But the legislation advanced Tuesday on a 5-3 vote by the Senate Ethics Committee. Senate Bill 221 could receive a vote in the full Senate within days.

Voter advocates say the bill would permit unreliable change-of-address data to be used against people who temporarily relocate, including college students, military members and the poor. The measure specifically targets the homeless by requiring them to register to vote by using the address of their county’s courthouse.

“Voter challenges have been weaponized,” said Isabelle Otero, Georgia policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund. “It should not be one of the only reasons why someone could be challenged.”

Georgia Senate Ethics Chairman Max Burn speaks Tuesday about Senate Bill 221 at the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta. (Olivia Bowdoin for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

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Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

Republican voters have challenged the eligibility of hundreds of thousands of registrations since the 2020 election year with limited success.

County election boards threw out most of the challenges, but some voters proved that they were falsely accused of having moved from Georgia, including a military contractor who was working in California and voters who were homeless.

Jason Frazier, who has filed voter challenges in Fulton County, told senators that he wants to ensure that registered voters are legitimate.

“I don’t want to disenfranchise anybody when I challenge a registration,” Frazier said. “However, when you’re registered at a UPS store, you might be in the wrong precinct. You might be voting for the wrong mayor or city council.”

The 20-page bill caters to concerns by skeptics who continue to doubt election results after Republican Donald Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

The legislation also calls for an outright elimination of absentee ballot drop boxes after the General Assembly passed a voting law in 2021 that confined them inside voting locations.

In addition, the bill would require digital ballot images to be displayed online, mandate audits after both primary and general elections, and prohibit non-U.S. citizens from working in county election offices.

State Sen. Rick Williams, a Republican from Milledgeville, said college students should ensure that they only change their addresses temporarily when they’re at school so that they’re not challenged.

“If they’re smart enough to go to college, they’re smart enough to make a phone call” to the elections office when they relocate, Williams said.

Voting rights advocates, however, said the U.S. Postal Service considers a move to be permanent after six months, meaning students could then be challenged based on incorrect records indicating that they’re no longer eligible to vote in Georgia. State law allows students to retain their Georgia voting eligibility while away at school.

“This is a shocking attempt to legislate election intimidation and mass disenfranchisement,” said Esosa Osa, deputy executive director for Fair Fight Action, a voting rights organization. “We know who will most likely be impacted: Black and brown voters, and young people attending college.”

The proposal builds on Georgia’s 2021 voting law, which allowed individuals to file an unlimited number of challenges to voters’ eligibility.

A pending lawsuit in federal court alleges that sweeping voter challenges amounted to voter intimidation by True the Vote, a conservative organization that promotes unproven claims of election fraud.

The Senate Ethics Committee also passed a separate bill on Monday that would ban county governments from accepting outside funding to help defray elections costs, a reaction to millions of dollars donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg since 2020.

About Senate Bill 221

Senate Bill 221, which the Georgia Senate Ethics Committee advanced Tuesday by a 5-3 vote, would:

  • Enable voter challenges based on change-of-address records
  • Ban absentee ballot drop boxes
  • Require the homeless to register to vote with the address of a county courthouse
  • Prohibit non-U.S. citizens from working for county election offices
  • Mandate election audits after primary elections as well as general elections
  • Allow counties to use paper ballots filled out by hand instead of by voting machines if approved by the State Election Board