Sequel to battle over Georgia’s election laws in play in 2022 Legislature
As Georgia legislators prepare to resume the public’s business inside the Gold Dome today, the fireworks over absentee ballots and a host of other voting rules are expected to erupt again after 2021’s controversial GOP overhaul of the state’s election laws.
Following the heated debates last winter over Senate Bill 202, the lobbying arm representing Georgia’s 159 counties will take a wait-and-see approach after advocating for a handful of changes that were recommended by local election superintendents and other leaders.
Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller’s plan to ban absentee drop boxes in 2022 foreshadows more bitter partisan strains after drop boxes became popular during the pandemic during the 2020 election cycle. Additionally, Republicans are proposing legislation that would permit the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to investigate election-related complaints without a request from a local government while a separate measure would allow voters to use paper ballots instead of touchscreen devices.
Following the 2020 presidential election, Georgia became ground zero for restrictive voting rights legislation . Democrats and progressive groups charged Republicans of disenfranchising minority voters in particular, resulting in multiple lawsuits against Georgia’s new election law. In the 2022 session, the Association of County of Georgia is trying to remain neutral after its receiving some blowback over the extensive bill passed last year. County officials administer elections.
“Senate Bill 202 had dozens and dozens of provisions, five or six of which we asked for, the remainder we didn’t,” Deputy Legislative Director Todd Edwards said. “Because it becomes very political very quickly… it’s something we had to handle very delicately because of how politically charged it is.”
“So (in 2022) we’re just going to take it step by step on each issue and rely on our policy council to formulate our positions on those bills as we see them,” Edwards said.
Changes to election law in 2022 will likely come in more digestible bites, as opposed to last year’s 98-page bill, which added a new ID requirement to vote by mail, shortened the window to request absentee ballots and reduced the time that out-of-precinct provisional ballots can be cast.
In his campaign to fill an opening for lieutenant governor, Miller announced he wants to eliminate absentee drop boxes altogether in order to prevent election officials from disregarding security regulations, such as maintaining cameras monitoring the boxes.
This would mark the second major change for drop boxes since Miller and Republicans mandated in SB 202 that every county provide a dropbox for absentee ballot deposits, but also limited the maximum number of drop boxes that led to Fulton County reducing 38 of them in 2020 to eight last year.
According to the secretary of state’s office, counties stayed largely within the new dropbox compliance rules last year. Drop boxes are only permitted inside early voting locations while polls are open, while before they could be .
“Removing drop boxes will help rebuild the trust that has been lost,” Miller said. “Many see them as the weak link when it comes to securing our elections against fraud. For the small number of Georgians who need to vote absentee, that will remain as easy and accessible as it was before 2020.”
A Republican bill likely to be considered in the state Legislature would let voters choose paper ballots over the electronic touchscreen devices that were built into the Dominion Voting Systems package first used statewide in 2020.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Burt Jones, a Trump-endorsed GOP candidate for lieutenant governor, says paper ballots will offer a more secure way to vote than electronic devices alone. A series of unfounded conspiracy theories followed the 2020 presidential election about Dominion’s voting machines, although supporters of paper ballots have long advocated for better voting security.
Also, GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger wants to gain legislators’ support for a constitutional amendment that would bar non-citizens from voting. State law already prohibits the practice, but the top election official says stronger language is needed.
State Democrats pledge they will not back down, not with high-stakes races for governor, secretary of state, U.S. Senate in 2022, and the threat that new election laws could further restrict access to the ballot box.
And the level of concern is high for the nonprofit voting advocacy organization, New Georgia Project, which says new rules have already resulted in a significantly higher rejection rate for absentee ballot applications, increased the consolidation of voting precincts, and led to more restructuring of local election boards.
“Despite recent statements by Gov. Kemp that further election changes are not considered a priority by his office, we definitely believe that they are going to put forward more restrictive voting measures,” New Georgia Project Action Fund said Stephanie Ali, policy director for NGP Action Fund. “And we say that based on precedent. This is what they always do. Especially now that they know that it might be the only way they can win.”
Atlanta Democrat Rep. Bee Nguyen, who is running for secretary of state, said Miller’s absentee plan is another restrictive policy that is not supported by evidence that drop-boxes are not secure.
“It’s just a continuation of the voter suppression bills that we’ve seen Republicans introduce and pass in Georgia,” she said. “Specifically as it pertains to somebody like Butch Miller, he’s running for statewide and so this is just an attempt to continue to peddle the big lie and sow those seeds of doubt when it pertains to security of our election system.”
Some top state GOP officials are pressing for some updates, but urge party members to focus on the upcoming elections instead of harping on 2020 where President Donald Trump and his allies, including some in the Georgia Legislature, pushed the false narrative of widespread fraud resulting in a stolen election.
House Speaker David Ralston wonders why the proposal to eliminate absentee ballot drop boxes was not pushed by Miller last year when lawmakers overhauled the state’s election law.
The Blue Ridge Republican told reporters Thursday that he does support pursuing changes now that would give the GBI the authority to investigate potential election law violations without an invitation from local officials, as is needed now.
“I think that would give us the professional, thorough, investigative body to go in from the get-go and look at these things,” Ralston said. “Here we are now, what, 14 months after an election and you still have some people who don’t accept the result. Part of that’s due to the fact that we didn’t have an independent, non-political investigation go in early. Had we had that, I don’t think we would be here.”
Lt. Geoff Duncan said last week that election law revisions shouldn’t be politically motivated because its campaign season and that it would be a “mistake to try to relitigate the 2020 elections” that were fair and accurate
Duncan announced last spring he is not seeking a second term in favor of focusing on his post-Trump movement he calls GOP 2.0.
The state of Georgia has become a hotbed for battles over voting rights, with SB 202 facing multiple federal lawsuits – including a U.S. Department of Justice complaint – claiming it violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by suppressing Black votes.
On Tuesday, Democratic President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are set to visit Georgia to advocate for the passage of significant federal voting rights legislation that could overturn new state-level laws after efforts stalled in the U.S. Senate.