Democrats unified against the voting limitations over three hours of passionate debate, saying the restrictions would especially harm Black voters after struggles for ballot access during the civil rights movement. Four Republican senators excused themselves, along with Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, the Senate’s presiding officer who opposed the bill but doesn’t get a vote. The bill now advances to the state House of Representatives.
The far-reaching measure would make it harder to vote in Georgia, a nationally watched battleground over voting rights. The state House backed additional restrictions last week that would limit Sunday voting, require identification for absentee voting and curb the use of ballot drop boxes.
Republican senators proposed limits on who can cast absentee ballots after a record number of Georgians voted remotely last year. Over 1.3 million people voted absentee in the presidential election, which is more than a quarter of the state’s total turnout of 5 million.
Democrats said the measure, Senate Bill 241, is based on former Republican President Donald Trump’s “big lie” that he had won the election. Recounts, both by hand and machine, verified that Democrat Joe Biden won Georgia by about 12,000 votes.
“America is at a turning point right now. Our democracy is in peril and our society divided along increasingly partisan lines,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta. “It will not work. Voters see through transparent attempts to cling to power through suppressive and anti-democratic means.”
Republicans said additional safeguards are needed to restore voter confidence and prevent the possibility of voter fraud, but state election officials from their party have said there’s no evidence of widespread fraud. GOP senators didn’t question the results of their own races.
Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, said the bill was designed to ease the workload on election officials burdened by so many absentee ballots while also accommodating in-person voters.
“This is not preventing anyone from voting by mail-in absentee,” Dugan said. “All this is doing is laying the groundwork to relieve some of the stresses we’ll continue to see moving forward as we continue to grow.”
Any registered voter has been allowed to cast an absentee ballot without having to give a reason since 2005 under a bill passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Georgia is one of 34 states that doesn’t require an excuse to vote from home, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
If the bill becomes law, about 2.8 million of Georgia’s 7.7 million registered voters would remain eligible to vote by absentee ballot, Dugan said.
A separate proposal that would have eliminated automatic voter registration didn’t receive a vote in the Senate before Monday’s internal deadline for bills to pass their first legislative chamber, meaning the idea is unlikely to advance. Georgia has signed up everyone to vote when they get a driver’s license since fall 2016 except those who opt out of the program.
State Sen. Nikki Merritt, D-Grayson, said efforts to reduce absentee voting access in SB 241 are based on perceptions, ignoring the reality that the presidential election was accurate.
“The purpose of 241 and all of the vote-limiting bills we have before us is to validate a lie. It is to prevent massive voter turnout from happening again, especially in minority communities,” Merritt said. “Don’t find yourselves on the wrong side of history.”
But state Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan, said lawmakers needed to respond to the concerns of their constituents, pointing out that Democrats also criticized the voting process after the 2018 election.
“This didn’t start today. This didn’t start since Nov. 3,” Brass said. “This bill is about reviewing a process that we saw flaws.”
More Republicans than Democrats usually voted absentee in prior election years, but Biden won two-thirds of absentee votes last fall after Trump criticized absentee voting. Then in January runoffs for the U.S. Senate, Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock defeated Republican incumbents.
An analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice found that Black voters would bear the brunt of proposed absentee voting restrictions. About 31% of absentee ballots in November’s election were cast by Black voters, an increase from 23% in 2016. Meanwhile, absentee voting by white voters dropped from 67% to 54% in that period.
Georgia voters embraced absentee voting last year amid the coronavirus pandemic, when doctors and election officials cautioned the public to avoid human contact at the polls. In previous elections, no more than 220,000 people voted absentee in Georgia.
The sweeping legislation also would establish a hotline to the attorney general’s office to report election irregularities, give the General Assembly the power to throw out emergency election policies set by the State Election Board, and limit voting buses to emergencies.
Supporters and opponents of the bills rallied at the Georgia Capitol as senators cast votes.
Arianne Hampton of Cherokee County brandished a sign that urged legislators to “bring integrity to our elections!”
Hampton said she wants to see all of the Republicans’ bills enacted. She said she has no confidence in Georgia’s election system. She’s especially concerned by the volume of mail-in ballots, saying “the system can’t handle it.”
“The goal is to have a fair election for everyone, no matter what party,” Hampton said.
Nearby, Al Herring of Stone Mountain sat with several dozen opponents of the Republican bills.
Herring wore duct tape over his face-masked mouth and fake chains on his arms to demonstrate his belief that the Republican legislation will suppress minority votes. On the duct tape he wrote the numbers of two of the biggest election bills, House Bill 531 and SB 241.
Herring said his group is standing up for voting rights for everyone.
“Modern voting methods are being opposed,” Herring said. “We’re trying to form a more perfect union. It’s not just one group. It’s all of us.”
Now that major election bills have passed both the Senate and House, the committee process starts over in the other chamber.
The Senate Ethics Committee will take up House Bill 531, which would restrict early voting hours on weekends, limit ballot drop boxes and require more voter ID for absentee voting.
The House Elections Integrity Committee will debate Senate Bill 241, which would eliminate no-excuse absentee voting as well as impose additional ID requirements.
All bills must pass both chambers by the end of this year’s legislative session on March 31 to have a chance of becoming law. Then Gov. Brian Kemp would decide whether to sign or veto them.