The Georgia Senate Monday voted to approve an expansive voting bill that would end the no-excuse absentee system used by a record number of Georgians in recent elections that tagged Republicans with high-profile statewide losses.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan’s bill moved through the chamber after a tense debate over reducing the availability of Georgia’s absentee voting to people 65 or older, those who are out of town or who have a physical disability.
Dugan, a Carrollton Republican, dismissed accusations from Democrats and voting rights groups that his bill will disenfranchise a large group of people after 1.3 million Georgians cast absentee ballots in the Nov. 3 general election.
He denied that his legislation is an overreaction to former President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on the state’s new election system. Trump blamed his close election loss to President Joe Biden on absentee voting irregularities and other unfounded election fraud claims.
Dugan said eliminating the no-excuse absentee voting law would ease some of the workloads on county elections staff poorly equipped to handle an absentee ballot surge, save money to run elections and instill more confidence in an election system that many Georgians perceive as unfair.
The Georgia House is now set to consider Senate Bill 241 after Monday’s 29-20 party line vote provided just enough of a majority for the legislation to pass.
“This is a reform bill that continues a process that we began in this party a couple of years ago,” Dugan said. “There is great passion about it because of the last election. But that doesn’t mean we should be scared to do what needs to be done.”
The bill proposes to create a hotline in the Attorney General’s Office for voters to report allegations of voter intimidation and illegal election activities while reining in the powers of the secretary of state and the State Election Board during a public health emergency after both agencies facilitated absentee voting during 2020 elections.
Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat, said the Republicans pushing absentee ballot restrictions should accept Biden’s close win in Georgia was confirmed with a machine and hand recount of 5 million ballots. An audit of thousands of absentee ballot signatures in Cobb County did not find a fraudulent vote.
Civil rights advocates also oppose Dugan’s bill and dozens of other GOP-backed election bills they say would erect barriers to the ballot box that would disproportionately impact minorities, seniors, and rural Georgians.
The Brennan Center for Justice ranks Georgia as one of the most prolific producers of restrictive voting legislation in 2021 and Dugan’s bill is just one of the most wide-ranging.
“Let’s not choose the feelings and freedoms of one group of voters over another,” Butler said. “I am asking each of you today not to disregard the thousands of Georgians who had worked for centuries to earn the right to vote.”
The state’s top GOP leaders are on record that they aren’t on board with upending Georgia’s no excuse absentee voting law, meaning it could still face an uphill battle from within the GOP.
Republicans House Speaker David Ralston, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp have publicly advocated for stronger absentee ID requirements, but not for ending the law that allows Georgians to vote by mail without having to provide a reason.
House lawmakers recently passed a sweeping bill to require the government ID to vote absentee.
Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan sat out the vote in his office to show his opposition to the bill and four GOP senators skipped the vote.
“Because the provision rolling back no-excuse absentee voting is still in SB 241, and because he does not get a vote in the Senate, he felt that leaving the chamber and not presiding over the debate was the best way to show his opposition,” Duncan’s spokeswoman Macy McFall said.
Sen. Harold Jones, an Augusta Democrat, said very few documented instances of absentee fraud have been confirmed in Georgia over decades and the proposed upheaval is unwarranted.
“We should also recognize that this is going to be a new way of voting, that we need to figure out how to make sure we continue to expand the franchise, not to try to limit it,” Jones said.
Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat, said the dramatic changes are motivated by loyalty to Trump’s supporters who say they believe the election was stolen from the former president.
“Regrettably, this big lie of Trump’s was propped up by thousands of smaller lies told by Republicans, including some members of this body, who use their positions of authority to lend credence to Trump’s lies,” she said.
Sen. Matt Brass, a Newnan Republican, compared the Democrat’s challenges to the state’s new voting system to the current partisan debate over election integrity versus ballot box access.
“This bill is about reviewing a process that we saw flaws in,” Brass said. “That is what it is about. We answered the call of the minority leader from 2019. He said the process should be reviewed because the one thing we should hold most dear is the security of Georgia voters.
“The security of Georgia voters, the minority leader called for this two years ago,” Brass said. “My only regret is it took us this long to answer that call.”