For The Record

Georgia lawmakers press forward with bills to restrict voting access

By: - February 25, 2021 6:57 am

Rep. Barry Fleming, a Harlem Republican, and GOP Rep. Alan Powell, of Hartwell, discuss Fleming’s omnibus election bill that critics say disenfranchises voters with changes to absentee and early voting laws. The bill moved through a special House committee on Wednesday. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

Legislation to restrict absentee ballot access and reduce early voting options advanced through a special Georgia House committee Wednesday.

The controversial legislation moved through the House Special Committee on Election Integrity with Republicans outvoting Democrats on a proposal to require voters to have an ID to vote absentee. It would also ban provisional ballots if someone votes outside of their precinct and require absentee ballot drop boxes to be placed inside early voting locations. 

Rep. Barry Fleming, a Harlem Republican, said that his bill is a step in the direction to restore confidence in Georgia’s election system.

Fleming said that while some lawmakers oppose his legislation because they say the bill disenfranchises Black and other marginalized voters, others argue the bill isn’t far-reaching enough. 

“Usually, when both sides of the opposite end are criticizing it, you’re doing something right,” Fleming said.

Democrat Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus said he’s disappointed that the bill still prevents drop boxes from being available around-the-clock as long as they’re under video surveillance, as was allowed in the 2020 elections. 

A last-minute compromise allows local election boards to add another weekend day for early voting. The bill initially proposed banning Sunday voting, a popular day for Black churches to rally their members to the polls.

“A couple of these instances I see some regression, especially when you’re dealing with the weekend and the number of hours that you can vote during the course of early voting,” Smyre said. 

Smyre said he’s still bothered by the harm some of the proposals might cause in a state that’s becoming much more politically competitive. President Joe Biden won Georgia by 12,000 votes out of 5 million cast so small changes could matter.

“A tweak of a bill could determine the election,” Smyre said.

Rep. Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican, said Fleming’s legislation is a work in progress and will likely evolve if it makes it past its next stop at the gatekeeping Rules Committee for a hearing by the full House. 

“We’re trying to lock things in so there’s a standard of unity of what to expect no matter which of the 159 counties you’re in,” Powell said. “Now, with that being said, this isn’t the end of it.

“We’ve got Senate bills and people forget this is a two-chamber legislative process, so this will go through the transition process,” Powell said.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger refused demands from then-President Donald Trump to overturn the results of the November election and endured withering criticism from fellow Republicans. Wednesday afternoon he suggested in a Tweet that many of the voting restriction bills this year are an outgrowth of lingering frustrations among Republicans.

“At the end of the day, many of these bills are reactionary to a three month disinformation campaign that could have been prevented,” said a tweet from the secretary of state’s official account.

Fleming’s bill is the second sweeping election reform proposal filed this session by GOP lawmakers. The Republican Senate Caucus proposed this week to end no-excuse absentee voting, approved by GOP lawmakers in 2005. The leader of the state Senate, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, said last month he is not in favor of ending no-excuse voting.

A record-shattering 1.3 million Georgians voted absentee during the Nov. 3 election.

The Senate bill calls for voters to provide a government ID to vote by mail. Counties would have to report total ballots cast after the polls close.

And legislators would get the power to overrule State Election Board emergency orders. The panel voted to help steer voters to absentee drop boxes last year as the pandemic spread.

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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.