Voters confront Georgia lawmakers over Sunday and absentee voting

Special Committee of Elections Integrity Chairman Barry Fleming (second from right) listens to witnesses Friday during a committee meeting in the Paul D. Coverdell Legislative Office Building in downtown Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Special Committee of Elections Integrity Chairman Barry Fleming (second from right) listens to witnesses Friday during a committee meeting in the Paul D. Coverdell Legislative Office Building in downtown Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

An expansive bill that would end Sunday voting, limit drop boxes and require ID for absentee ballots moved closer to a vote after a Georgia House elections committee listened to nearly three hours of public comments Monday.

Voting rights advocates told lawmakers the bill would reduce turnout and create new limitations on voting without doing much to improve election security.

Skeptics of Georgia’s elections said they’re suspicious of absentee voting and encouraged legislators to pass stricter laws that would ensure only legitimate voters cast absentee ballots. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, 1.3 million Georgia voters cast absentee ballots, but election officials, backed up by multiple recounts, have said there’s no evidence that widespread fraud occurred during the presidential election.

The House Election Integrity Committee could vote on the sweeping legislation, House Bill 531, as soon as Tuesday, potentially setting it up for a vote in the full House of Representatives within days.

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Several people told lawmakers that restrictions on Sunday voting and absentee ballots would disproportionately affect Black voters who participate in ”Souls to the Polls” events after church during early voting.

“Voter confidence is improved through community conversation and engagement, not through barriers to access to the voting booth,” said the Rev. James Woodall, president for the Georgia NAACP.

Georgians seeking greater election security said absentee ballots lack supervision, unlike in-person voting where poll workers can observe every step. They said they’re concerned that absentee ballots could be cast by someone other than the voters who were supposed to receive them, or that voters could face pressure outside the polling place.

“Drop boxes were the necessity of the year. Here’s the problem in three words: chain of custody,” said Joel Natt, a Republican Party member of the Forsyth County elections board. “If they can’t have proper controls, they shouldn’t be used.”

Ballot drop boxes were required to be monitored by video at all times, fastened to the ground and located on government property.

Under the legislation, drop boxes would only be allowed inside early voting locations, and they would only be available for the same hours as in-person voting.

The bill would also require voters to submit either a driver’s license number, state ID number or copy of photo ID when requesting an absentee ballot. In addition, the bill sets an absentee ballot request deadline 11 days before election day.

Voting rights advocates told lawmakers the bill would reduce turnout and create new limitations on voting without doing much to improve election security.

Republican claims of election insecurity started with a misinformation campaign waged by President Donald Trump following his defeat in November. The same GOP lawmakers have not questioned the results of state legislative races that allowed them to maintain control of the General Assembly.

Meanwhile on Monday, the Senate Ethics Committee moved forward with three other election bills.

The committee approved Senate Bill 141, which would require local election officials to continue tabulating ballots until counting is finished.

Currently, counting often is suspended late on election night and continued the next day, especially in Georgia’s largest counties, which tally hundreds of thousands of votes. Sometimes counting continues for several days.

Sen. Jason Anavitarte, R-Dallas, the bill’s sponsor, said it would ensure “that the people of each county know the outcome of those elections” in a timely manner.

Cynthia Battles of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda testified that prohibiting exhausted election workers from taking a break is the wrong approach. She said the bill seems designed to address the “myth” that “if we don’t get results on election night, something is wrong.”

The committee also passed Senate Resolution 100, which proposes an amendment to the Georgia Constitution that would create statewide grand juries to investigate voter fraud and other election crimes. The panel would have the authority to investigate election crimes and return indictments anywhere in the state.

Currently, the secretary of state’s office investigates election crimes and refers cases to the attorney general for prosecution.

In addition, the committee advanced Senate Bill 93, which would limit the use of portable polling places to emergencies, such as when existing polling places are deemed unsafe or suffer a utility failure. Fulton County used a mobile voting van to encourage voting in the November election.

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