The Republican-backed bill passed with a vote of 29-20. It now goes to the House Elections Integrity Committee where it is expected to be passed in the next several weeks. The bill must pass by March 31 to have a chance of becoming law by the end of the 2021 legislative session in Georgia, subject to Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision whether to sign or veto it.
The bill, SB 241 (pdf), contains sweeping changes to the Georgia Code related to elections and voting. Under the proposed legislation, those who are eligible to vote by mail will be limited to people who are physically disabled; or are over 65 years old; are eligible as a military or overseas voter; have a religious holiday around election day; work in elections; or somehow need to be outside their voting precinct during the early voting period and election day.
The bill would also eliminate no-excuse absentee voting, something that has been allowed in Georgia since 2005.
Among other provisions, the bill would require voter identification to request an absentee ballot. In addition, Georgia would be required to participate in a nongovernmental multi-state voter registration system to cross-check the eligibility of voters. The state’s current participation is voluntary. The bill also clarifies a law about mobile voting units, saying that these units be used only to replace current brick-and-mortar voting facilities, and not supplement them.
Under the bill, a telephone hotline would be set up to receive complaints and reports regarding voter intimidation and election fraud, which would be reviewed by the Attorney General within three days. The state Republican caucus said the hotline would help build trust in the election system since the host of the hotline, the Attorney General, is separate from the office running the election, the Secretary of State’s office.
“We’ve spent several hundred hours doing research and policy development around election integrity, addressing the lack of faith and integrity in our current election systems as expressed by many of our citizens,” the Georgia Senate Republican Caucus said in a statement. “We encourage all citizens to practice their civic duty, and in return, it is our responsibility to ensure public confidence and trust in the system, ensuring our rights are protected. SB 241 codifies open and honest reformation to a multitude of areas regarding election oversight, voting processes, and transparency.”
Shortly prior to the vote on the bill, Georgia Republicans issued a statement saying, “We want every person to vote. We want elections to be secure. We are open to solutions, but Georgia will not be vulnerable to voter fraud.” The statement presumably refers to the 2020 presidential election, which saw numerous allegations of voting irregularities and allegations of election fraud.
Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, Georgia’s No. 2 Republican, chose not to preside over the debate of the bill. He told the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he “refuses to be the presiding officer for a measure he so adamantly opposes,” according to the outlet.
John Albers, Kay Kirkpatrick and Brian Strickland, were the only Republican state senators who did not co-sponsor the bill. All three also chose to be excused from the vote. Another Republican, Chuck Hufstetler, was also excused from the vote.
Republican Majority Leader Mike Dugan, the main sponsor of the bill, said that amid the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic in the last election cycle, a surge in absentee ballots posed a burden on county election offices, reported The Associated Press.
“The increasing burden on local election offices and the increased cost to each of our counties has risen significantly,” Dugan said, according to the news wire service. “In recent years the number of mail-in absentee ballots has increased to the point where counties are in essence running three elections simultaneously.” He added that an estimated 2.7 million Georgians would still be eligible to vote absentee under the criteria outlined in the bill.
Last week, the House passed its own version of an election reform bill, HB 531, which has many overlaps with SB 241. However, the House bill would still allow no-excuse absentee voting.
A number of other voting-related bills passed on Monday in the Georgia senate.
SB 202, which passed by a vote of 32-20, would prohibit anyone other than the Secretary of State or local elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who have requested an absentee ballot.
SB 74, which passed by a vote of 36-18, would expand the areas where poll watchers have access in the tabulation centers, such that they can be in any areas where ballots and election results are received and processed.