For The Record

Voting restricton debate reaching peak as 2021 Legislature winds down

By: - March 21, 2021 10:10 pm

Rep. Barry Fleming is the author of a controversial voting bill that proposes an expansive package of voting restrictions. The Harlem Republican also chairs a House election committee considering other sweeping voting restrictions. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

The battle over Georgians’ voting rights appears headed for a showdown this week, with lawmakers gearing up to vote on bills intended to reshape how elections are run.

Democrats and many voting rights activists have denounced sweeping Republican-sponsored bills as attempts to make it harder to cast ballots through new absentee ID requirements, limiting the use of absentee drop boxes and other restrictions.

But two of the most contentious proposals — limiting weekend voting options and ending the no-excuse absentee law — no longer appear to be on the table with the session scheduled to wrap up on March 31.

GOP Rep. Barry Fleming’s Special Committee on Election Integrity is scheduled to consider Monday a new version of Senate Bill 202 that expands weekend early voting opportunities from one mandatory Saturday to two Saturdays and two optional Sundays.

Another modified proposal would allow absentee ballot drop boxes to be placed outside early voting locations during a public health emergency, but still require them to be kept inside absent a crisis. 

A record 1.3 million Georgians voted absentee in the Nov. 3 election.

The Senate Ethics Committee could also vote as early as Monday on Fleming’s 80-plus page bill. He said it will create election uniformity across Georgia’s 159 counties, which he said is needed to reassure voters the state’s elections are fair.

“If you’re trying to instill confidence in the election system, then you want the public to perceive that the election system is similar if not the same as much as it can be in those places,” Fleming said.

Lawmakers who support these measures are ignoring their impact on minorities and the evidence confirming the security of the election system, said Pichaya Poy Winichakul, an attorney for the SPLC Action Fund.

“(These bills) will erode their confidence in Georgia’s election system because it stands to roll back their voting rights,” she said.

Voting rights groups continue questioning the push to require an ID to vote by mail.

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 matching signatures on file with ones written on absentee ballot mailings.

Opposition to the ID requirement to vote absentee remains among some activists, with some saying it’s a hardship on hundreds of thousands of Georgians who don’t have a state-issued ID. But a voter ID card available to Georgians at no cost, said Carolyn Garcia, a lobbyist with the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“The idea of saying that having a photo ID is suppressing the vote, I don’t see the reasoning, or the argument in it when it’s easy to obtain one,” she said.

Public uproar over voting bills reached new peaks last week, as did demands for the business community to use its political muscle to halt efforts by state lawmakers to impose voting restrictions. 

“Like many in our community, our interest in these issues began long ago and reflects our collective belief that every eligible Georgia voter — regardless of background or political views — should engage in the voting process,” Metro Atlanta Chamber President Katie Kirkpatrick said in a statement. “We will continue to use our voices to keep accessibility, convenience and security at the center of any discussions about changes to our election process.”

Potential of legal challenges loom if sweeping voting changes are approved and federal legislation that could override any new state voting laws, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

“This allows Republicans to go back to their constituents and say, you know, we heard your concerns,” Bullock said. “Polling numbers that I’ve seen say 75% of Republicans think that there was something amiss in Georgia’s election so they can go to their core constituents and say, ‘Yeah, we passed something to try to address that.’”

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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.