Kemp commends election overhaul, braces for legal challenges

Voting overhaul point man state Rep. Barry Fleming made his closing argument to GOP House colleagues Thursday before they passed sweeping election changes. Hours later after fiery Senate speeches, the governor signed the legislation into law. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed off on an overhaul of Georgia’s new voting laws that limit absentee voting Thursday with partisan support and an acknowledgement that courts will decide if new restrictions are legal.

Following weeks of embittered debate and protests, Georgia Republicans hours earlier passed the expansive Senate Bill 202, coined the “Election Integrity Act 2021,” a plan they say will restore confidence in a broken election system.

After signing the bill into law, Kemp referenced litigation that he anticipates is forthcoming over changes to early and absentee voting and a slew of other election laws.

A lawsuit was quickly filed Thursday night on behalf of voting rights groups, the New Georgia Project, Black Voters Matter Fund and Rise, that challenges the new voting restrictions, such as identification requirements to cast an absentee ballot and a ban on distributing water and snacks to voters waiting in line.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams and state House Minority Leader James Beverly said the party plans to legally challenge efforts they say will significantly disenfranchise many Georgians, predominantly minority voters, the disabled and seniors.

Republicans sold the legislation as making absentee drop boxes permanent for the first time, adding new vote-by-mail ID requirements and an extra weekend voting day, and requiring more public notice when polling locations are changed.

Kemp said the legislation is a significant step in reforming elections after an array of “alarming problems” occurred in last year’s elections.

Kemp served as secretary of state when he won a closely contested 2018 gubernatorial election over Stacey Abrams, the founder of Fair Fight and a staunch critic of Senate Bill 202.

“According to them, if you believe in protecting the security and sanctity of the ballot box, you’re a ‘Jim Crow in a suit and tie,’” Kemp said shortly after signing the legislation into law. I’ve fought these partisan activists tooth-and-nail for over 10 years to keep our elections secure, accessible, and fair.

“Like before, I’m sure they will threaten to boycott, sue, demonize and team up with their friends in the national media to call me everything in the book,” Kemp said. “But fighting for free and fair elections is worth all of that and more.”

The nearly 100-page bill is a combination of sweeping House and Senate bills and other more minor legislation introduced this session, as Republican lawmakers followed through on their pledge to revamp elections.

Opponents called out the bill for restricting drop boxes to inside early voting locations except during a public health emergency, punishing people for casting out-of-precinct provisional ballots, and making it a crime to pass out water and snacks while voters wait in lines.

President Joe Biden called the GOP voting proposals moving through state houses like Georgia’s “un-American” and “sick” during a press conference Thursday.

Over recent weeks, GOP leaders made some concessions that included not moving forward with banning Sunday voting as well as abandoning a proposal to end the no-excuse absentee law after a record 1.3 million Georgians voted absentee in the general election.

In recent months, Georgia became the subject of national controversy for its flurry of proposed voting restrictions that follow baseless complaints of election irregularities peddled by former President Donald Trump and many supporters after losing the November election to now President Joe Biden by 12,000 votes.

Georgia’s 2020 election cycle was the most secure in the state’s history, according to GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Biden’s victory was confirmed by machine and hand recounts three times.

Williams, who also chairs the Georgia Democratic Party, said Thursday’s passing of SB 202 signifies the importance of passing federal legislation this year protecting voters’ rights.

“We played by their rules & WON,” Williams wrote in a Tweet. “Now Georgia Republicans are changing the rules to make it harder to vote. Brian Kemp just signed a sweeping voter suppression bill into law.”

“Here in the south we know how to fight Jim Crow,” Williams said. “We’ll see you in court AND in Congress with #HR1.”

Kemp’s signing means many changes will impact how this year’s municipal elections in Atlanta and across the state will operate.

That includes moving up the absentee ballot request deadline, requiring a state ID number to verify a person’s identity instead of relying on the current absentee signature verification system, and giving poll watchers more access.

Republican Sen. Max Burns, a Sylvania Republican, mentioned the absentee ballot process’s validity as a chief concern that the legislation tackles.

A Cobb County signature audit of thousands of absentee ballot signatures conducted by the GBI uncovered no fraud.

“The challenge is not in the fact that the votes were counted incorrectly; they were counted correctly. The challenge is whether the votes themselves were legitimate,” said Burns, who chairs the Ethics Committee that held hearings on election bills. That’s why you see in this bill, the absentee ballot process that ensures that the same identification requirements were an absentee ballot that you would have if you were to go to the polls to vote early or to vote Election Day.”

Another controversial new law replaces the secretary of state as chair of the State Election board.

Legislators would instead have the power to fill that post, giving the General Assembly the authority to appoint the majority of the state board that could take over underperforming local election boards.

Sen. Jen Jordan, an Atlanta Democrat and attorney, said taxpayers will end up fronting expensive litigation costs and local counties will have to incur more expenses to run elections.

“Your local folks are going to have no idea what’s going on, and not only that, but it’s gonna cost, tons and tons of money,” she said.

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.