Sunday voting restored in Georgia bill that tightens election rules

Special Committee of Elections Integrity Chairman Rep. Barry Fleming, center, addressed alterations to the 66-page elections bill that his committee approved Wednesday, including restoring voting on Sundays that would enable "Souls to the Polls" events. “We listened to what people were saying," Fleming said, "and we made changes.” (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Special Committee of Elections Integrity Chairman Rep. Barry Fleming, center, addressed alterations to the 66-page elections bill that his committee approved Wednesday, including restoring voting on Sundays that would enable "Souls to the Polls" events. “We listened to what people were saying," Fleming said, "and we made changes.” (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

A key House committee backed off a ban on Sunday voting but approved a vast elections overhaul bill Wednesday that restricts ballot drop boxes, requires ID for absentee voting and shortens the time before runoffs.

Legislators amended the 66-page bill to restore a Sunday early voting day in response to complaints that it would limit voting by Black voters who participate in “Souls to the Polls” events after church. Over 71,000 voters cast ballots on Sundays in November’s presidential election.

Critics of the legislation, House Bill 531, said it would still create obstacles to voters without making elections more secure.

The House Election Integrity Committee passed the measure along party lines, with majority Republicans supporting it and the committee’s Democrats opposing it.

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Committee Chairman Barry Fleming said legislators listened to voters’ concerns during three days of public testimony and accommodated their requests for a Sunday voting day. Under the bill, counties would be required to offer early voting on either the first Saturday or Sunday of the three-week early voting period, as well as the following Saturday.

Fleming, a Republican from Harlem, said the legislation will improve Georgia’s elections following complaints from Democrats in 2018 and Republicans in 2020. State election officials have said there was no evidence of widespread fraud in the presidential election, which they verified through multiple recounts and audits.

“We need in the Legislature to pass reasonable measures that begin to build confidence back into the election system for both the left and the right,” Fleming said. “We listened to what people were saying, and we made changes.”

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Democrat from Columbus, said the bill would make it harder for people to vote early and absentee. Under current law, weekend voting can be offered at any time during early voting, but HB 531 would reduce it to two weekend days.

“This is a step in the wrong direction,” Smyre said. “Early voting limitations affect a lot of working people and a lot of people of color.”

The legislation could receive a vote in the full state House of Representatives within days. If it passes, it would then advance to the state Senate for further debate.

Under the bill, absentee ballot drop boxes would only be allowed inside early voting locations or county election offices, reducing their usefulness to voters who wanted to avoid human contact during the coronavirus pandemic. Each county would be required to offer at least one drop box but no more than one per 200,000 registered voters.

In addition, voters would have to submit a driver’s license number, state ID number or photo ID when requesting an absentee ballot, along with ID when returning the ballot. A Senate bill that passed Tuesday, Senate Bill 67, only required ID when requesting an absentee ballot.

House Bill 531 contains many other proposals to change election laws. They would:

What’s next?

The legislation could receive a vote in the full state House of Representatives within days. If it passes, it would then advance to the state Senate for further debate.