Ga. Senate panel advances bill to end no-excuse absentee voting, require ID

    A Georgia Senate panel advanced legislation Wednesday that would eliminate the state's no-excuse absentee ballot law. It also signed off on a bill to require voters to provide ID to vote by mail and a full committee is set to consider the changes Feb. 18. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

    Georgia’s Senate Ethics Committee is set to consider Republican-sponsored election bills Thursday that eliminate no-excuse absentee voting and require an ID to vote by mail.

    Georgia Senate Democrats and voting rights organizations have said the Republican absentee proposals add more barriers to legal voters. Their GOP backers say their measures will give many Georgians more confidence in the election system.

    The senators on the committee voted 3-2 along party lines to advance the two bills.

    Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis sponsored the bill to require registered voters to provide a reason to vote absentee, reversing a law passed by a GOP-controlled Legislature in 2005.

    If passed, the absentee option would only be open to people who are 75 and older, have a physical disability or are out of town.

    “We’re just trying to get it back to the way it was to make sure that voter confidence is established in my area and hopefully many other parts of Georgia,” said Mullis, a Chickamauga Republican.

    The use of absentee ballots skyrocketed last year as millions of Georgians opted for the safety and ease of depositing their ballots into mailboxes and drop boxes instead of voting at their polling place during a pandemic. 

    Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler said Mullis’ bill is an attempt to end a system that’s worked well just because more Democrats voted absentee in 2020, which helped deliver the party’s high-profile wins for president and two U.S. Senate races.

    And Sen. Sally Harrell, an Atlanta Democrat, said ending the no-excuse accommodation could place many Georgians in harm’s way should the pandemic continue into next year’s election. 

    Mullis, Harrell added, is responding to unfounded accusations of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election through his legislation.

    “I understand your constituency believes (the fraud claims) because they were told that it’s true,” Harrell said. “But isn’t that a crisis of leadership of our presidency who spread those lies?”

    Mullis’ legislation has the backing of Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller and a long list of other Republican senators. However, GOP leaders Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, House Speaker David Ralston and Gov. Brian Kemp are on the record supporting no-excuse absentee voting.

    Adding more restrictions to vote-by-mail could also lead to longer waits at the polls, with 1.3 million people voting absentee in the Nov. 3 general election, said Christopher Bruce, political director for the ACLU of Georgia.

    Ethics Committee Chairman Max Burns, a Sylvania Republican, said that Georgians would have plenty of other voting opportunities even without a no-excuse absentee option.

    “I like to highlight the fact that we have three weeks of early voting, plus Election Day voting and a Saturday,” he said.

    The bill proposing to require voters to provide a copy of their driver’s license, driver’s license number or state ID number to vote absentee also advanced along party lines Wednesday. 

    Georgians who request their absentee ballots through a secretary of state’s online portal already have to provide their license number and residents must provide an ID to vote in person.

    “We want every eligible registered voter to have ample opportunities to vote regardless of party affiliation, socio-economic status or ideology,” said Sen. Larry Walker, the author of Senate Bill 67 and a Perry Republican. “The purpose of this proposal is not to make it harder to cast a legal ballot, but to make it harder to cast an illegal ballot.”

    A separate Ethics subcommittee passed legislation intended to restrict mobile voting sites to emergency situations, a response to Fulton County using a bus in 2020’s elections to help relieve long waits at a few early voting locations. It also advanced a proposal to create a new position within the secretary of state’s office to oversee county election operations and intervene when problems arise.

    Democrats complained the meetings’ early start time at 7 a.m. and lack of online streaming shut the public out of key decisions that stand to limit voting access. The Senate subcommittee meetings are typically not recorded.

    “Clearly, we’re trying to hide something from the public, the people that we answer to,” Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat, said later to her colleagues. “This gamesmanship is unacceptable.”

    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.