For The Record

Georgia GOP Senate bill would ease voter challenges despite possible federal law conflict

By: - March 1, 2023 6:28 pm

During Tuesday’s unwieldy Senate Ethics Committee meeting, Democratic Sen. Derek Mallow questioned Republican Sen. Max Burns about why Burns didn’t have legislative counsel review a sweeping election bill. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder (file photo)

A contingent of Georgia Republican lawmakers is pursuing election legislation relitigating 2021’s sweeping voting law overhaul that was spurred by baseless claims that former President Donald Trump lost Georgia’s 2020 election due to fraudulent absentee ballots and voters casting illegal ballots.

The most controversial election bill of the 2023 legislative session so far is Senate Bill 221 that advanced through a Senate Ethics Committee Tuesday night after a flurry of amendments and doubts were raised about whether it could pass legal muster. The 20-page bill would ban counties from offering absentee drop boxes, expand the opportunity for mass challenges of voter eligibility and spell out more security measures for ballots.

The legislation, sponsored by Ethics Committee Chairman and Sylvania Republican Max Burns, cleared the committee hurdle ahead of Monday’s Crossover Day, the deadline for bills to move from one of the Legislative chambers to create a clear path for approval this year.

Voting and civil rights organizations Fair Fight Action, ACLU of Georgia, Common Cause Georgia, and Progress GA say provisions in the measure would lower the bar to remove a voter from a county’s rolls and unfairly target election workers.

The bill would allow for a voter’s eligibility to be primarily challenged based on information found in a National Change of Address database that election experts on Tuesday labeled as unreliable.

The voting rights coalition said it is particularly worrisome that the legislation undermines the rights of voters and further emboldens the frivolous and largely rejected past challenges to voters’ eligibility.

Esosa Osa, deputy executive director for Fair Fight Action, says this year’s bill is a continuation of the Republican-backed sweeping election law overhaul Senate Bill 202 passed just months after the 2020 presidential election.

“Georgia Republicans, who touted the effectiveness of elections last year and even pushed to limit challenges, have capitulated to extremists and renewed attacks on our democracy by giving unprecedented power to conspiracy theorists one day after data came out that exposed the discriminatory impact of their baseless voter challenges,” Osa said in a statement.

The bill provides that a voter can be disqualified through address databases published by the U.S. Postal Service backed with at least one other factor, which could range from insurance changes to a person providing “reasonably reliable evidence” in a sworn statement.

State election director Blake Evans was among the witnesses who testified at Tuesday’s committee meeting about concerns that the bill could run afoul of a federal voter registration act by not going through the proper channels to confirm where a voter lives and that the change of address database is unreliable.

Mass voter challenges became more common following the 2020 presidential election as the right-wing voter watchdog group True the Vote teamed up with the Georgia Republican Party on a campaign to cast doubt on the eligibility of hundreds of thousands of Georgia voters.

The new legislation aims to clarify areas that have been questioned in order to ensure that all 159 counties comply with Georgia law, Burns said at this week’s committee meeting.

“You’ll notice that we dealt a lot with ballot security, a lot with ballot access, digital ballot access, and we dealt with voter challenges,” he said. “If you have not changed your permanent residency, the fact that your name appears on the change of address registry is not sufficient grounds to be challenged.”

The types of election workers allowed to enter a secure room where ballots are stored is spelled out, as well as a chain of custody protocol that requires blank ballots to be placed in sealed containers and two people to sign a transfer form when the ballots are transported between voting precincts.

Prosecutors could not be held liable for misconduct if they make a good faith effort to investigate allegations of violations of election laws, under Burns’ proposal.

The bill also includes a requirement that poll workers must be U.S. citizens and “judicious, intelligent and upright.”

Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United // Let America Vote Action Fund, urged Georgia lawmakers to reject Burns’ election legislation.

“From lowering evidentiary standards for challenging election results, to outlawing the use of drop boxes, to empowering conspiracy theorists, SB 221 is a downright assault on the freedom to vote in Georgia,” she said in a statement. “The Republicans aren’t even being coy that this bill is in direct response to the fact that more and more people of color are casting their votes and making their voices heard. Instead of winning elections on merit and ideas, they’re attempting to maintain their grip on power by changing the rules.”

Several other election-related bills have been introduced during this session, including two local GOP-sponsored bills that organizations like Black Voters Matter claim are a coordinated effort to reduce the number of Black school board members on election boards in Ware County and Macon-Bibb County.

In House Bill 422 and Senate Bill 227, election board members would be appointed by the Ware and Macon-Bibb county commissions rather than by the main political parties and election board chairman.


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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.