Georgia Legislature passes bill to empower GBI to investigate elections

House Election Integrity Chairman Stan Gunter listens to a supporter of election bill SB 89 on Sine Die, the last day of the General Assembly at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Monday, April 4, 2022.   Branden Camp/ For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

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House Election Integrity Chairman Stan Gunter listens to a supporter of election bill SB 89 on Sine Die, the last day of the General Assembly at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Monday, April 4, 2022. Branden Camp/ For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

Lawmakers focus elections bill on voting fraud inquiries

The Georgia General Assembly approved a bill Monday that would give the GBI stronger police powers over elections by authorizing the statewide agency to launch investigations into allegations of fraud.

The legislation is the latest Republican-led change to election rules in Georgia after the close 2020 presidential election. The bill passed along party lines in both the state House and state Senate.

Voting rights groups opposed the proposal, saying greater police intervention in elections could intimidate voters and suppress turnout.

The legislation would authorize the GBI to investigate any potential infractions that could have put the results of an election in doubt. The GBI’s law enforcement authority would overlap with election investigators in the secretary of state’s office, which would also continue to look into election infractions.

“This is an intimidation tactic. It will not only be used against your voters, but could also be used against organizations and county election board officials,” said state Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Democrat from Lilburn. “They already have a hard enough time getting poll workers, and now you want to sic the GBI on them?”

The bill stemmed from complaints about the 2020 election, when Republican Donald Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden by about 12,000 votes in Georgia. Election officials have repeatedly recounted, investigated and upheld the results.

“It’s actually not a partisan measure. It’s not sour grapes over 2020,” said House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge. “It was a good government measure to be sure that we have competent, professional, thorough investigators. GBI is the best there is in the state.”

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Voters sought public access to paper ballots at the Capitol on Sine Die, the last day of the General Assembly in Atlanta on Monday, April 4, 2022. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Voters sought public access to paper ballots at the Capitol on Sine Die, the last day of the General Assembly in Atlanta on Monday, April 4, 2022.   (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

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Voters sought public access to paper ballots at the Capitol on Sine Die, the last day of the General Assembly in Atlanta on Monday, April 4, 2022. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Under the legislation, Senate Bill 441, the GBI would be empowered to start election fraud inquiries and subpoena records, supplementing the authority of the secretary of state’s office.

The GBI previously found no fraud after it assisted in investigations of absentee ballot signatures, counterfeit ballots and ballot collection.

Lawmakers backed off other election proposals, including efforts to unseal paper ballots for public inspection, impose strict ballot handling rules and restrict nonprofit election funding.

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The legislation surfaced on the last day of this year’s legislative session after a state Senate panel had removed every controversial elections proposal from a different bill last week, leaving only a provision that would require companies to give workers up to two hours off to vote either during early voting or on election day. The time-off allowance wasn’t included in SB 441.

Several protesters who are skeptical of the 2020 election held “Access to Ballots!” signs inside the state Capitol on Monday, an attempt to pressure legislators to make original ballots public records.

However, the final version of the bill didn’t include the ballot inspection provision, which won passage in the state House but didn’t get a vote in the state Senate.

“We should be able to see, and there should be nothing wrong with that,” said Valerie Oliver, a voter from Cherokee County. “Nobody should object to that. When they object to it, it makes you think something is suspicious.”

ExploreLIVE: Georgia bill tracker 2022

This year’s elections bill focuses on election oversight after the General Assembly passed a sweeping measure last year that put more regulations on absentee voting. The law limited ballot drop boxes, added absentee voter ID requirements and allowed state takeovers of county election offices.

Voting rights groups most strongly objected to greater involvement of law enforcement in election investigations, skipping the step in the process where the secretary of state’s office investigates allegations of irregularities. Next year’s proposed state budget includes nearly $580,000 for four GBI positions to investigate election complaints.

ExplorePHOTOS: Sine Die at the Georgia Legislature 2022

“This year’s rushed process looks likely to cost Georgia taxpayers $580,000 a year, which will be spent chasing conspiracy theories if anything and everything that creates ‘doubt’ about our elections is suddenly up for investigation,” said Aunna Dennis, executive director for Common Cause Georgia, a government accountability organization.

The bill now advances to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature or veto.

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