Georgia House approves election reform legislation

The Georgia House of Representatives approved a massive election reform measure Monday afternoon in a party-line vote.

"House Bill 531 is designed to begin to bring back the confidence of our voters back into our elections system," said State Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, the bill's primary sponsor.

The 66-page bill comes after a majority of Georgians voted for President Joe Biden, the first Democrat to win the state in nearly three decades.

"Republicans in the Georgia General Assembly are trying to change the rules of the election here in Georgia, rules that you wrote, because you were handed defeat on November the 3rd and again on January the 5th and you know your only chance at winning future elections is to prevent eligible Georgians from casting their ballots and having their voices heard," said State Rep. Kimberly Alexander, D-Hiram.  

RELATED: State lawmaker, police clash during voting bill protest

Democrats said the bill would unfairly impact and disenfranchise minority voters and was only introduced to perpetuate "the big lie" that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen from President Donald Trump.  Republicans, however, said it strengthens security at the ballot box.  

The legislation makes significant changes to the state's absentee ballot request process, early voting and rules surrounding absentee ballot drop boxes.

Absentee Ballots

Under the proposal, voters must include their Georgia Driver's License or ID number, or a photocopy of another government-issued document in order to request an absentee ballot.  That would do away with the state's controversial signature match requirement.

HB 531 also shortens the window for Georgians to request an absentee ballot from 180 days prior to the election to 78, and the deadline to submit an application is 11 days before Election Day.  

The bill prohibits counties and the state from sending out unsolicited absentee ballot applications as they did ahead of the 2020 primaries because of the coronavirus pandemic.  Any outside groups that send absentee ballot applications to voters must include a disclaimer that the application "is not a ballot."  

Counties would be required to have at least one absentee ballot dropbox, but cannot have more than one box per 100,000 active registered voters or the number of advance voting locations in the county, whichever is less.  

Those drop boxes would have to be at the county elections office or inside an advance voting location and would only be open during early voting hours.  Counties would also be required to provide "constant surveillance" by an election official, law enforcement officer or licensed security guard.  

Election workers would be able to begin opening and scanning absentee ballots about two weeks before Election Day.  They would not, however, be allowed to tabulate them until 7 a.m. on the day of the election or primary.  Current state law prohibits counties from even opening absentee ballot envelopes until Election Day.  

Overseas and Military Ballots

In order to avoid the nine-week runoff Georgians experienced for the state's two U.S. Senate seats, House Bill 531 creates ranked-choice voting for those in the military or voting overseas.  

Early Voting

House Bill 531 would also change Georgia's advance voting period.  Early voting would still begin about three weeks before Election Day, but the hours would be set by the state as 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Registrars could choose to extend early voting from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. 

The bill also limits weekend voting to just the second Saturday before the election and then either the third Saturday or third Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

The legislation also bans the use of mobile voting precincts, except in "emergencies declared by the Governor [...] to supplement the capacity of the polling place where the emergency circumstance occurred.

Fulton County was the only one in the state to use mobile voting precincts last fall.  

Provisional Ballots

Provisional ballots would be a thing of the past under HB 531.  Currently, anyone who shows up at the wrong precinct on Election Day can ask to cast a provisional ballot.  That means the voter will likely end up with races on their ballot for which they are not qualified to vote.

Under current law, elections officials simply count the votes for the races in which the voter was supposed to vote.  House Bill 531 would require they toss out the ballot in its entirety.  

Election Mechanics

The legislation requires ballots be printed on "security paper" so that they can be identified as valid.  

HB 531 also bans counties from accepting grants or any other outside funding to run their elections, like many did during 2020 to pay for absentee ballot drop boxes and PPE for poll workers.  

Under the bill, people would be prohibited from offering food and drinks to anyone waiting in line to cast their ballot.  

Secretary of State

HB 531 also strips some of the Secretary of State's power. Rather than serving as chair of the State Election Board, the Secretary would instead be a non-voting member.  The legislature would choose their own chair to head up the board.

'Jungle Primary'

In November, 20 candidates appeared on the ballot to replace retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.  The so-called "jungle primary" not only guaranteed there would be a runoff in that race but also led to voter confusion.  

Under House Bill 531, vacancies like that one would require a special primary before the special election.  

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