Republican Rep. Barry Fleming (left), presided over the first meeting of the new Special Committee on (right) Election Integrity Thursday. The panel voted on party lines to advance a bill that would create an earlier deadline for elections offices to mail absentee ballots. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder
A new state legislative committee focused on election changes passed a bill Thursday that will keep Georgia voters from requesting absentee ballots the week before Election Day.
House Bill 270 would set a deadline of at least 10 days before Election Day for election workers to issue absentee ballots instead of the Friday before as allowed now. It is the first bill to advance through the House Special Committee on Election Integrity, created after Georgia’s contentious 2020 presidential election.
Members of the committee voted along party lines, with the Republican outvoting Democrats, who voiced concerns about residents having a shorter window to vote by absentee ballot. Supporters said the extra time would help ensure ballots depending on mail delivery will count.
More than 1.3 million absentee ballots were cast in Georgia’s presidential election as a record number of voters opted to cast ballots by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic. The significant increase in absentee ballot applications also resulted in a backlog in some counties where election workers were unable to keep up with the unprecedented volume.
It is the first election bill to advance so far in a session that lawmakers are using to quickly make good on promises to push legislation for big changes to voting and elections.
Chairman Barry Fleming, the bill’s sponsor, said the legislation gives election staff more time to focus on the final week of early voting and Election Day and affords voters a better chance of their absentee ballots getting processed and arriving by postal service back by the deadline.
“You are almost setting up someone to fail if we let them know they can wait until the Friday before the election,” said the Harlem Republican.
The legislation is supported by the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, which asked election supervisors across the state if they wanted to make changes after the exhausting 2020 election cycle.
Houston County Election Supervisor Debra Presswood said the extra week would give voters more time to go to the polls instead of hoping their ballot arrives before the close of Election Day.
“Even if we get that request at 4:59 p.m. (Friday), we will get that ballot in the mail before we leave,” she said. “But the chances of that ballot getting back to us by Election Day is pretty much slim to none.”
Rep. Rhonda Burnough, a Riverdale Democrat, said she’s worried without the additional week, longer lines will result in the final week of early voting or on Election Day.
Many Georgians requested their absentee ballots well before the election but they weren’t delivered until much closer to Election Day, said Hillary Li, an attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta.
“We completely understand that counties are facing backlogs and delays in processing absentee ballot applications in practicality and mailing out those ballots, but voters should not be punished for it,” she said.
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