ATLANTA (AP) — Republican lawmakers in Georgia are backing away from two of the more contentious efforts to limit voting access as they advance sweeping changes to election law, changes proposed after Democrats won the state’s presidential contest and two U.S. Senate runoffs.
But Democrats and voting rights groups are still raising alarms, saying the proposals would restrict voting access in other harmful ways and inject more partisanship into the administration of elections.
New versions of election bills advancing in state House and Senate committees no longer contain provisions that would limit Sunday voting, a popular day for Black churchgoers to vote during “souls to the polls” events. Also gone is language to greatly limit who can vote absentee by mail, which would have ended no-excuse absentee voting available to any Georgia voter since 2005.
The process is widely expected to result in a House-Senate conference committee, where the chambers work to reconcile their differences on the issue. That could mean further changes, or even revival of the scuttled provisions, before the two sides vote again on whether to agree to a compromise bill. Time is running short, with Georgia’s legislative session set to end March 31.
A state House panel on Monday approved Senate Bill 202, which passed the Senate earlier this month as a two-page bill to limit who can be sent an absentee ballot application but has since ballooned in size. The current version would limit the time people have to request an absentee ballot, restrict where absentee ballot drop boxes can be located and when they can be accessed, and make it a crime for anyone to hand out food or water to voters standing in line.
The bill also would allow lawmakers to appoint the chair of the state election board, a position currently held by Georgia’s elected secretary of state, and give lawmakers a new mechanism to intervene in county election offices they deem to be underperforming.
Rep. Barry Fleming, the chairman of the House committee, has said that changes are needed to restore voters’ confidence in the election system.
Many of the GOP proposals are a direct response to falsehoods pushed by members of their own party, after former President Donald Trump and his allies pushed baseless claims that voter fraud swayed the November election.
Fair Fight, a voting rights group founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams, slammed the legislation in a tweet shortly after committee approval.
The group said the bill “would restrict voters’ freedoms and access, as well as giving GOP legislators the unprecedented power to remove and replace entire local boards of elections and take control of the State Election Board.”
“It attacks every aspect of voting access,” Fair Fight said.
Also under consideration in the legislature is House Bill 531, which could receive a vote in Senate committee later this week. The Senate has introduced a new version of the bill that is very similar to legislation passed by the chamber earlier this year, without provisions that limit who can vote absentee by mail.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan said Monday that provision was removed after it “seemed to cause consternation” as the bill was moving through initial rounds of voting.
The current version of the bill would ban the secretary of state from entering into consent agreements, after Trump falsely claimed that a consent agreement prohibited election officials from properly scrutinizing signatures on absentee ballot envelopes. It would also give the legislature the ability to overturn emergency rules adopted by the state election board, among many other provisions.
Both bills would require a photo ID for absentee voting, a proposal that has been endorsed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
Voting rights advocates say the ID requirement could disenfranchise voters, especially minority voters and the elderly who don’t have easy access to identification.