The passage of SB 202, three days before the end of the 2021 legislative session, will inch the bill one step closer to becoming law as the GOP-led state Legislature hopes to successfully make election changes, part of a national Republican effort that aims to restrict access to the ballot box following record turnout in the November election.
The bill was amended in the House and will need to pass each chamber again after conference. Final passage is expected next week, right before the legislative session is set to end.
The legislation would limit drop boxes to inside of early voting locations during voting hours, make giving food or drinks to a voter a misdemeanor, allow for unlimited challenges to voter registrations and eligibility, set up a fraud hotline, and require counties to keep counting ballots without a break in between. It would also shorten the runoff cycle from the current nine weeks to just four weeks.
Voting rights groups have slammed the omnibus bill particularly for its provisions that strip authority from the elected secretary of state and grant state officials broad rights, including the ability to replace local election officials.
“It will make what we all lived through in 2020, child’s play,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo — CEO of Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group founded by Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams — in a news conference on Tuesday, as the bill was approved to head to the full House for a vote.
Voting rights groups argue that granting the state new powers over county elections bucks the tradition of local control and could lead to a scenario in which state officials swoop in to prevent a county from certifying its election results.
“Donald Trump won’t have to strong arm our election administrators. The most radical fringes of the Republican Party, city and state Legislature, will be able to wipe out boards of elections, challenge voters because they don’t have the right name according to them or they don’t look the way a voter should look,” said Groh-Wargo.
“This is Jim Crow 2.0 and those who think that that is hyperbolic need to read this bill,” she added.
The bill is part of a larger effort by GOP-led legislatures across the country to pass restrictive voting measures in key states like Arizona, Michigan and Florida. As of February, state legislators in 43 states have introduced more than 250 bills with restrictive voting provisions, according to a tally from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
House Speaker David Ralston supported the legislation on Monday, following the passage of the bill out of a key committee, saying that it made “voting more accessible and improves election security.”
The legislation that passed out of committee removed a provision that would have restricted weekend voting — it only allowed early voting on two weekend days. Voting rights activists had criticized as attacking “Souls to the Polls” — programs that help drive turnout among Black churchgoers on Sunday, a key Democratic constituency.
The current version now requires weekend voting on both Saturdays and makes it optional on both Sundays during the three weeks of early voting in Georgia.
The bill comes as Georgia’s changing demographics have made the longtime Republican stronghold a key political battleground.
Last November, President Joe Biden became the first Democrat in nearly three decades to win the state. And strong voter turnout in January helped send two Democrats to the US Senate, flipping control of the chamber to their party. One of those new senators, Raphael Warnock, captured his seat in a special election and will be on the ballot again in 2022.
The preamble to the bill said changes are needed to address the “lack of elector confidence in the election system.”
The bill makes broad changes to how elections are administered and how and when voters can receive and cast their ballots. Under the proposal, for instance, voters would have to request absentee ballots 11 days before an election, rather than the Friday before Election Day as currently allowed. Additionally, voters who seek absentee ballots would have to provide a copy of their identification or the number of their Georgia driver’s license or state ID to both apply for and return the ballot. It also would prohibit the secretary of state’s office from sending unsolicited absentee ballot applications, as it did before the 2020 primaries due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A similar bill, HB 531, is currently advancing in the Georgia Senate and is expected to be up for a floor vote in the coming days. The bill, roughly half the length of SB 202, is far less comprehensive and has some marked differences, including a provision that would allow counties to purchase their own voting machines as long as they meet the minimum requirements set by the state election board and certified by the secretary of state.