For The Record

Georgia House panel sets up broad election oversight for approval this year

By: - March 10, 2022 7:36 pm

A Georiga voting law bill Republican lawmakers claim will improve election security by expanding the scope of election fraud investigations, and opening up the ballot review process could get a House floor vote early next week. In this file photo, Fulton County sorted absentee ballots during a pilot audit after the June 9 primary. Stephen Fowler/GPB

Republican state lawmakers are poised to move forward with an election overhaul that gives the GBI more power to investigate elections and increases the public’s ability to review paper ballots.

Waycross GOP Rep. James Burchett’s House Bill 1464 passed the House Special Committee on Election Integrity on a party-line vote Thursday, just days before the Tuesday deadline for bills to clear at least one chamber. 

The bill builds on Georgia’s Republicans’ so-called Election Integrity Act passed in 2021 as the state became the ground zero for controversial GOP election changes following the 2020 election.

Critics charge the House bill is another attempt to play to unfounded accusations of rampant voting fraud conspiracy theorists say cost former President Donald Trump a second term. 

Opponents say the 40-page legislation will burden election administrators, staff, and poll workers and cost millions of dollars in private donations that could lead to longer lines at the voting booths.

Like last year’s SB 202, Hartwell Republican Rep. Alan Powell said this year’s omnibus seeks to improve the security of elections, streamline the law, and restore confidence in the election process.

This bill would authorize the GBI to lead investigations into election cases. It would also make original paper ballots available for public inspection, and require chain-of-custody paperwork for ballots. 

 “Because of the election issues, what we’re trying to do is get to the point that everything is uniform, no matter what county it is, so that we can dispel the anxiety and the concern that there’s been something been done wrong,” he said.

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, has expressed support for giving the nonpartisan GBI more power to investigate election law violations. 

Burchett said the state’s top law enforcement agency is best equipped to handle election investigations that involve bank and wire fraud.

Advocates for voter ballot access argue that granting a crime fighting agency more authority over elections could lead to more intimidation of poll workers, activists, and voters.

“We understand that this State Election Board had a terrible backlog of cases but we think that the current board and the current Secretary of State has done a tremendous job in trying to catch that up,” said Cindy Battles, director of policy engagement at the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda. “I think that making every single investigation a criminal investigation is going to deter not only voters but also poll workers.”

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The bill also would revamp the open records law to allow inspection of the original paper ballots instead of digital images as is now the case.  

Hart County voter Dana Smith said at Thursday’s hearing that the state’s election system will operate better with stronger measures for tracking ballots and by limiting outside groups from donating to elections offices. 

“As a voter,  I just always assumed that taxpayer dollars paid to run an election,” Smith said “Most people think that, so I actually appreciate the language in this bill restricting where all this outside money comes from. Because I want it I to be just as squeaky clean as it can possibly be for both sides.”

Voting rights advocacy group Fair Fight Action said that if the law had been in force in 2020, county elections offices would have missed out on at least $43 million from outside agencies to fight COVID-19, improve wages for poll workers, and assist “cash-strapped, overworked elections offices.”

Douglas County Elections Director Milton Kidd said losing out on grants would have repercussions beyond elections cycles when races for president and governor attract the largest numbers of voters and require the most resources.

“We pay attention to these processes in large election years but we don’t think about municipal elections, your special elections,” he said. “For Douglas County, we use that grant funding to purchase trucks, we purchase (places) where we can house equipment and different things.”

Changes under last year’s election law overhaul added a new ID requirement to vote by mail, shortened the window to request absentee ballots, added a required day to early voting, and limited access to absentee drop boxes.

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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. 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.

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