For The Record

New sweeping election bill decried as ‘burdensome’ by voting rights groups

By: - February 18, 2021 8:52 pm

Republican Rep. Barry Fleming filed a sweeping voting bill on Feb. 18 that he says will restore confidence in the system. Democrats and a coalition of civil rights and voting rights groups say the proposed changes would disenfranchise voters. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

A new state House committee set up as a gatekeeper for election bills is scheduled to hold a daylong hearing Friday on a controversial package that more than two dozen voting rights groups say would set devastating limitations on the ability of Georgians to cast ballots. 

The House Special Committee on Election Integrity’s hearing is set to take place a day after its chairman, Rep. Barry Fleming, filed his 48-page omnibus bill. He says it creates more uniformity to guide counties  to run elections and restores confidence in the election system.

The bill was filed Thursday afternoon, about an hour before Fleming held a hearing to offer an overview of the sweeping proposal to shrink Georgia’s voting options. Democrats requested more time to digest the comprehensive legislation.

The legislation would prevent counties from offering Sunday voting, mandate a three-week early voting period, cut down on time to request absentee ballots, and add more restrictions to the hours and locations that absentee drop boxes are available.

The bill also restricts the mailing of unrequested absentee ballot applications. And it requires Georgians who vote absentee to verify their identity with their driver’s license or state ID numbers or by their date of birth and a portion of their social security number.

“I believe the goal of our process here should be an attempt to restore the confidence of our public in our election system,” said Fleming, a Harlem Republican. “There are obviously things that need to be done. We never designed an election system for a pandemic. But we certainly had to learn how to run one during that time period.”

Shortly after the hearing, 28 civil rights and voting rights organizations sent a letter to House Speaker David Ralston and Fleming complaining about proposals they say would harm many Georgia voters. The coalition also asked for more time to analyze the bill before holding another hearing. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, one of the letter’s signers, said Fleming’s proposal would disenfranchise voters and is an improper response to unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. 

A record 4.9 million Georgians voted in the Nov. 3 general election, including 1.3 million via absentee ballots.

“As with dozens of other anti-voter bills SPLC Action Fund is tracking this legislative session in Georgia, HB 531 is especially burdensome in its absentee ballot identification provisions,” Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for the SPLC Action Fund said in a statement.

“These new burdens will disproportionately fall on communities of color and other historically disenfranchised groups. Eliminating Sunday early voting blatantly targets a mobilizer of voters of color: Black churches that run Souls to the Polls operations.”

During Thursday’s committee meeting, Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat, also asked for more time to comb through the details of such an extensive bill. 

“There’s nothing more important, fundamentally, than a person’s right to vote and the privilege of voting,” he said. “And I think something of this magnitude requires a lot of vetting.”

Rep. Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican, said he supports changes that better ensure that voters and county election offices in rural communities have the same opportunities as people living in larger cities.

“Nobody that I know of wants to suppress any voter, to disenfranchise anybody, but the other side of that coin is they want to be sure that we have a process that is absolutely working,” he said. 

More than two-dozen voting bills have so far been filed this session by Democrats and Republicans in both chambers, including a proposal to end the state’s no-excuse absentee ballot system.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, a Republican from Carrollton, said he plans to file omnibus voting legislation this week.

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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.