Debate over voting bills heats up as no-excuse absentee proposal fades

By: - March 16, 2021 7:39 am

Monday Rep. Barry Fleming defended elements of his sweeping voting bill from complaints changes are unwarranted that would restrict absentee ballot drop boxes and make it a crime to pass out snacks and water to people waiting in line to vote. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

Georgia Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan said Monday that it’s unlikely he has enough support from top Republican leaders to repeal the state’s no-excuse absentee voting law. It is one component of his expansive voting bill that the state’s top GOP leaders have publicly opposed.

Dugan serves on the Georgia Ethics Committee which heard passionate objections to a House counterpart to his voting legislation that would set statewide standards for early voting, restrict absentee drop boxes and add an ID requirement to vote by mail.

Lawmakers are closing in on the final eight days of the 2021 legislative session with plans that reshape how Georgians vote hanging in the balance. Narrower proposals focus on single issues, like requiring voter ID to vote absentee which enjoys support from the state’s top Republicans.

Public uproar over Republican voting bills reached new peaks in recent days, as did demands for the business community to join Democratic legislators and voting rights organizations in calling for a halt to efforts to impose voting restrictions. 

Dugan, a Carrollton Republican, said he will wait to see what the House Special Committee on Election Integrity does with his wide-ranging Senate Bill 241. But he said it’s unlikely the final version would ban no-excuse voting created by a GOP-controlled Legislature in 2005. Gov. Brian Kemp and House Speaker David Ralston favor keeping no-excuse absentee voting, used often by Republicans to cast ballots in recent elections.  

A record 1.3 million people chose to vote absentee in the Nov. 3 general election, as the pandemic shifted how people voted in 2020 and Georgia elected a Democrat for president for the first time in decades. In December, GOP lawmakers signaled they’d make changes to absentee voting rules.

“I look at all the people that are sitting there going, ‘We don’t want this part,'” Dugan said following Monday’s committee meeting. “I’m going to give you an honest answer. I don’t think it would survive.”

Rep. Barry Fleming argued for his own package of voting restrictions to the Senate Ethics Committee Monday. The Harlem Republican says it creates a more uniform way for voting and restores confidence in the state’s election system, while Democrats on the committee challenged his plan to criminalize distributing water and snacks to voters  waiting in lines and over whether provisions in his bill would make it harder to cast ballots on weekends during the early voting period. 

Democrats said Fleming’s plan would restrict voting access in Georgia’s larger metropolitan counties that accommodate voters with busy work weeks. 

“Don’t you think it’s possible that the needs of a larger county are different than a small county, and therefore, you should keep some local control over those hours,” said Sen. Sally Harrell, an Atlanta Democrat. 

Fleming also says his proposed ban on handing out food or drinks to voters within 150 feet of a polling place is to make sure people aren’t trying to influence how people vote. 

Fleming’s and Dugan’s measures are among a dozen voting bills that remain alive after last week’s Crossover Day, the deadline for bills to pass from one chamber to the other without complicated legislative maneuvering.  

Meanwhile, other smaller bills would provide more access to poll watchers, give the state election board the authority to fine third party organizations who send absentee applications to ineligible voters, and require more notice to voters when their polling place is changed.

Georgia’s 2020 election cycle was the most secure in the state’s history, according to GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. President Joe Biden’s victory was confirmed by machine and hand recounts while an audit of thousands of absentee ballot signatures in Cobb County uncovered no fraud. Still, Republican lawmakers pushing voting restrictions say many supporters of former President Donald Trump believe the election was “rigged” as the president repeatedly claimed.

Proposals this session requiring Georgians to have a government ID to vote absentee have a good chance of becoming law. 

Both Dugan and Fleming bills and the first election bill to advance through a chamber this session propose to require a state-issued ID to cast an absentee ballot. Election officials used signatures to verify the identity of absentee voters during 2020 elections, a process that was audited after the Nov. 3 contest.

“You’re eliminating probably one of the most chaotic portions of our recent election by eliminating the signatures that currently are used, and replacing that with either a driver’s license or state identification card or the last four digits of the social security number,” Sen. Randy Robertson, a Cataula Republican, said at Monday’s committee meeting. 

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo.