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GOP-controlled Georgia legislature speeds sweeping elections bill to governor’s desk

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In the span of a few hours Thursday, the GOP-controlled Georgia legislature sped a sweeping elections bill through both chambers, putting the battleground state on a course to impose new voting restrictions on citizens in a state that was pivotal to securing Democratic control of the White House and the US Senate.

The bill passed the Georgia Senate by 34-20 late Thursday afternoon and headed to the desk of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who announced moments after the vote that he would sign it later Thursday.

The legislation would impose new voter identification requirements for absentee ballots, empower state officials to take over local elections boards, limit the use of ballot drop boxes and make it a crime to approach voters in line to give them food and water.

“It’s like the Christmas tree of goodies for voter suppression,” Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan said on the Senate floor as lawmakers considered the nearly 100-page bill.

Republicans cast the measure, dubbed The Election Integrity Act of 2021, as necessary to boost confidence in elections after the 2020 election saw then-President Donald Trump make repeated, unsubstantiated claims of fraud.

The package is part of a national Republican effort that aims to restrict access to the ballot box following record turnout in the election. But Georgia is on pace to become the first presidential battleground to overhaul its voting practices in the wake of big Democratic wins in 2020.

President Joe Biden said in his first White House press conference Thursday that he will “do everything” in his power to halt efforts to restrict voting rights, saying that he thinks the efforts underway in state legislatures are “un-American.”

The Georgia bill underwent major change in recent days — growing from a narrow, two-page bill into a sweeping omnibus package to the brink of becoming law in a little over week. Voting rights activists in the state held rallies and threatened corporate boycotts in an unsuccessful attempt to disrupt its progress through the General Assembly.

“They have rammed this through as quickly as possible,” said Jonathan Diaz, a top lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center in Washington. “I suspect because they know many of the provisions in this bill are not very popular.”

Voting rights advocates say they are alarmed by measures that would allow any Georgian to lodge an unlimited number of challenges to voter registrations and eligibility, saying it could target voters of color. And Democrats in the Georgia Senate on Thursday lambasted measures that boot the secretary of state from the state elections board and allow lawmakers to install his replacement, giving lawmakers three of five appointments.

Another provision shortens the runoff cycle from the current nine weeks to just four weeks.

During Thursday’s floor debate, Republican state Rep. Barry Fleming argued the bill would provide “more accountability” to the election process in the state.

Voting rights groups have slammed the far-reaching bill, particularly for provisions aimed at the secretary of state and local election officials. They 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.

“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.

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 it 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.

Article Topic Follows: National Politics

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