Ga. senate panel hears critics of wide-ranging election bill as vote looms

    Georgia lawmakers continued to debate a wide-ranging bill proposing new limits on elections, including restrictions on casting ballots early as voters in this line did last summer. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

    A Georgia Senate panel focused on changes to election rules is expected to wrap up hearing testimony Wednesday from dozens of people, many of whom are likely critics of a wide-ranging Republican proposal to restrict access to the ballot box. 

    The Senate Ethics Committee could take a vote on the legislation as soon as Thursday. It is one of two controversial voting measures pending as the 2021 Legislative session winds down.

    Rep. Barry Fleming, a Harlem Republican, says House Bill 531 creates a more uniform way for voting and restores confidence in the state’s election system by setting statewide standards for early voting, restricting absentee drop boxes and adding an ID requirement to vote by mail.

    Democrats and numerous voting rights and civil rights groups argue that the bill unfairly makes voting harder for Black people and other minorities, seniors and rural Georgians. 

    Geovani Serrano, with the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, said Fleming’s plan would cause hardships for working-class Latinos because it calls for absentee drop boxes to be kept inside early voting sites and limits weekend voting options. 

    “Sometimes, if we’re fortunate enough, they will look for us in their neighborhoods, and they will show the sticker, proudly, because they were able to vote,” Serrano said. “If it wasn’t for weekend voting and Sunday voting, many of my community members would not have been able to participate in the previous elections.”

    Fleming’s bill also is one of several proposals this session requiring Georgians to have a government ID to vote absentee, a change that Democrats say could affect more than 200,000 registered voters without a state ID.

    But it’s a provision that stands a good chance of becoming law because of the support from top Republican officials who back a more objective way of verifying the voter’s identity than the current method of matching signatures county’s keep on file with absentee ballots. 

    Marilyn Marks, executive director with the Coalition for Good Governance, said the state should keep its signature verification process. 

    “The reason that we don’t have confidence in the system is because we are lacking transparency and oversight by the parties and the citizens,” she said. “All we need to do really is just to tweak the law a bit, to be sure that there is transparency and oversight in a bipartisan basis, and you would have everything you need to maintain the absolute best laws in the country.”

    Not all of the testimony on Tuesday was critical of Fleming’s bill. Cobb County resident Pamela Reardon said she doesn’t feel the legislation goes far enough to prevent voting fraud.

    Reardon supports Fleming’s proposal to make it a crime to pass out snacks and water to people waiting in line to vote, but prefers Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan’s sweeping voting bill that calls for ending the no-excuse absentee law approved by the GOP-majority Legislature in 2005.

    A record 1.3 million Georgians voted absentee in the Nov. 3 election as Georgians elected a Democrat for president for the first time in decades. 

    Dugan, however, on Monday said the chances of lawmakers voting to repeal no-excuse absentee voting are slim this year.

    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.