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Putting ‘cologne on Jim Crow’: Georgia GOP lawmakers drive toward new voting restrictions

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Republican lawmakers in Georgia are racing to pass sweeping bills that would clamp down on ballot access and give state officials more powers over local elections, following record voter turnout in 2020 that helped Democrats seize the White House and control of the US Senate.

Crucial action comes this week. The state’s GOP-controlled General Assembly has only five legislative workdays left on its calendar before it adjourns March 31. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate say they plan to finalize changes to election bills in the days ahead.

An omnibus bill that a key House committee passed Monday would impose identification requirements for absentee voting, limit the use of ballot drop boxes and disqualify most provisional ballots cast outside of voters’ home precincts. It also would make it a misdemeanor to provide food or soft drinks to voters as they wait in line.

Of particular concern to voting rights activists in the state: Measures that strip authority from the elected secretary of state and grant state officials broad rights, including the ability to replace local elections officials.

“We are facing an emergency,” Hillary Holley, organizing director of Fair Fight Action, told CNN.

Despite last-minute alterations to the package to preserve more weekend early voting, “this bill continues to be nothing but voter suppression,” said Cliff Albright, the co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund. “The recent changes are nothing more than putting a little makeup and cologne on Jim Crow.”

His group plans a rally Monday at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce headquarters in Atlanta to pressure businesses to oppose the package, part of a planned week of action.

High stakes

Georgia, a battleground state, sits at the forefront of efforts in Republican-controlled legislatures around the country to impose tough, new restrictions on voting. The proposed voting limits in Georgia arrive ahead of high-stakes gubernatorial and US Senate races next year.

A February tally by the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice tracked bills that would restrict voting in 43 states. More states have joined the list since then, with new bills landing recently in North Carolina and Wisconsin.

Republican lawmakers in the state have cast their efforts as needed to shore up a system battered by allegations of fraud. A preamble to the House bill said it was designed “to address the lack of elector confidence in the election system on all sides of the political spectrum” and promote “uniformity in voting.”

Former President Donald Trump and his allies have stoked false claims that he lost the election because of fraud. There’s no evidence of widespread fraud that would have changed the election outcome in Georgia or elsewhere. President Joe Biden’s nearly 12,000-vote victory in the state was reaffirmed in three separate counts of the ballots.

Voting rights activists say the measures under consideration would restrict ballot access for wide swaths of Georgia’s increasingly diverse population.

Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said ID requirements for obtaining absentee ballots, would harm older voters, those who are low-income, and college students because they are all less likely to have driver’s licenses or other forms of required identification, such as passports or a state or federal photo identification card.

Georgia currently uses signature matching in absentee voting, which Republican lawmakers argue is an unreliable way to verify voters’ identities. A signature-match audit in Cobb County, Georgia, following last November’s general election, found “no fraudulent absentee ballots with a 99% confidence threshold,” according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s office.

The Georgia House bill would require voters to provide their driver’s license numbers or state ID numbers and other identifying information, such as their date of birth, on the ballots.

Georgia Republicans “are saying that voting should be for the 1% and … for the privileged,” Dennis told CNN.

Last-minute changes

In recent days, lawmakers in Georgia backed down on a provision that critics say would have unfairly targeted Black voters. Republicans now say they plan to preserve Sunday early voting as part of the omnibus voting package that the House committee will take up this week. The change under discussion would specifically allow Georgians to cast ballots on two Sundays during the state’s early voting window. A previous bill sought to allow only one optional day of Sunday voting.

Voting rights activists had criticized that limit as attacking “Souls to the Polls” — programs that help drive turnout among Black churchgoers, a key Democratic constituency. And a CNN analysis of voting patterns in November’s general election found the measure eliminated days when a disproportionate number of Black voters had cast their ballots.

Republican Rep. Barry Fleming, the architect of the voting restrictions moving through the Georgia House, also has indicated that efforts to repeal no-excuse absentee voting are now dead. His package does not include the repeal passed by the Georgia Senate earlier this month. A record 1.3 million Georgians voted by mail in last November’s general election.

Fleming’s office did not immediately respond to request for comment. At a meeting last month, Fleming said the bills aim to address the “controversy” surrounding recent elections.

“If you have been following at all the issue of elections in Georgia, you know that there has been controversy regarding our election system. And I believe the goal of our process here should be an attempt to restore the confidence of our public in our election system,” Fleming said on February 18 as his committee began its work.

Georgia Republican Sen. Max Burns, who chairs the panel handling election bills in the Senate, has crafted a companion bill, the text of which was released Friday afternoon. His committee is scheduled to take it up Monday with a vote coming as early as Tuesday, Burns told CNN.

In a meeting Wednesday, Burns said his version “would address some of the issues and some of the challenges that we have.” He did not respond to a request for comment over the weekend.

New powers

Both measures give state lawmakers more authority over elections.

A provision in the House bill boots the elected secretary of state as the chairman of the state elections board. The General Assembly would choose the new chairman, giving lawmakers three out of five board appointments.

The current Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger drew the former President’s ire last year when he rebuffed Trump’s false claims that widespread voter fraud in the state contributed to his defeat. (Trump’s entreaty to Raffensperger to “find” votes is now the subject of a Fulton County, Georgia, investigation.)

On Monday, Trump endorsed Raffensperger’s primary rival, George Rep. Jody Hice, who backed the former President’s election challenges.

The House package would grant the state elections board the right to suspend both local election superintendents and local boards of election and appoint a new official to step in as a temporary superintendent. During Monday’s meeting, Fleming’s committee amended its bill to reduce the direct role of legislators in requesting investigations that could lead to the removal of local officials.

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.

In his bid to overturn his loss, Trump targeted not only election officials, but also reached out to members of an obscure election board in Wayne County, Michigan, charged with certifying Biden’s win in the Detroit area.

“Imagine if they had this power in the last election,” Albright said of the new authority the Georgia package contemplates. “It’s the provision that can trump every other one in this bill.”

Article Topic Follows: National Politics

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