Georgia Senate members take the oath of office on the first day of the 2021 legislative session on Jan. 11, 2020. (Beau Evans/Capitol Beat News Service)

ATLANTA – The battle for votes in Georgia is set to leap from the ballot box to the state Capitol as legislative Republicans look to clamp down on vote-by-mail rules Democrats have championed amid recent electoral wins.

Though no major election bills were introduced in the 2021 legislative session’s first week, state Republican leaders have placed Georgia voting laws in their crosshairs since the Nov. 3 presidential election, framing proposed changes as needed to boost election integrity following record-setting absentee voting.

Democratic state lawmakers are readying for a fight. Already, they have taken to podiums and press conferences at the Capitol to thrash proposed mail-in voting changes as modern-day voter suppression aimed at halting Democratic gains in recent election cycles.

In particular, Republicans in the Georgia Senate last month called for ending no-excuse absentee voting, which since 2005 has allowed registered Georgia voters to request and cast mail-in ballots for any reason and not just if they are out-of-state, elderly or disabled.

Some top Republican lawmakers and officials have been cold to that idea, preferring instead to focus on adding stricter voter identification requirements for casting absentee ballots than the signature-verification process that stirred controversy in the 2020 election cycle.

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston previewed his priorities for the 2021 legislative session at the State Capitol on Jan. 7, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Legislation on mail-in voting may have to clear a new committee on election access and oversight being formed by Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, before passing the legislature. Ralston has said he wants bills to address “perceived problems” many Georgians had with the 2020 elections.

“Many Georgians are concerned about the integrity of our election system,” Ralston said. “Many of those concerns may or may not be well-founded, but there may be others that are.”

Nixing no-excuse absentee

The pivot to election-law changes in the state legislature comes after Georgia voters cast record-setting numbers of absentee ballots in the 2020 primary, general and runoff elections, spurred by fears over voting in person during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mail-in votes topped one million in all three election rounds, far exceeding past Georgia election cycles. The huge vote-by-mail turnout helped Democrats win the presidential contest in Georgia and flip both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats for the first time in decades.

That outcome drew an intense backlash from the losing candidate, President Donald Trump, who insisted Georgia’s election system was “rigged” by fraud even as the state’s Republican elections chief and federal courts rejected his claims.

The outcry from Trump supporters was enough for Republican state lawmakers to hold four hearings on election fraud claims, each concluding that changes should be in order for how Georgians can vote by mail in future elections.

“There’s a lot of trust issues and confidence issues we have to try to restore around the state,” said Georgia Senate Majority Whip Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega. “I do not want to suppress the vote. … But we want to make sure every legal vote is counted.”

Gooch and other members of the Senate Republican Caucus have pledged to shrink who can request an absentee ballot, effectively overturning the state’s no-excuse absentee voting law that Republicans sponsored in 2005 under then-Gov. Sonny Perdue.

That proposal has backing from Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who faced attacks from Trump and his allies for not reversing the state’s election results. He has said the flood of absentee ballots put too much pressure on local election officials as they raced to count votes under the heat of national scrutiny following the Nov. 3 election.

Gov. Brian Kemp (right) joined Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (center) and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (left) to condemn riots by Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

“Until COVID-19, absentee ballot voters were mostly those who needed to cast absentee ballots,” Raffensperger said. “For the sake of our resource-stretched and overwhelmed elections officials, we need to reform our absentee ballot system.”

But putting the squeeze on mail-in voting could face hurdles even within Republican ranks after Ralston recently said he won’t back the change unless “a real strong case” can convince him otherwise. Instead, he called for absentee voting to have the same “level of security” as in-person voting.

Voter ID on the table

Ralston’s comments on security point to changes Republican lawmakers are pushing that would tighten voter ID rules for mail-in voting, such as requiring Georgians to provide copies of their driver’s license or other identification cards to receive an absentee ballot.

Currently, registered Georgia voters need only provide their signature on an application form to request an absentee ballot. Signatures on that request form as well as on the envelope in which voters mail their ballots are matched with other signatures in voters’ registration files before those ballots are accepted.

Unlike for absentee ballots, Republican leaders have highlighted how Georgia voters must show their driver’s license or other identification when voting in person – though a driver’s license, Social Security number or other identifying documents are already needed to register to vote in Georgia.

Raffensperger has called for lawmakers to pass legislation requiring ID card copies or numbers for Georgians to request absentee ballots, similar to how his office’s newly created online application portal now requires a driver’s license or state-issued ID number for voters to receive a mail-in ballot.

Gov. Brian Kemp has also backed the extra ID requirement for absentee voting, marking his strongest stance on election-law changes so far. The governor has avoided discussing no-excuse absentee voting and left out election issues entirely from his annual State of the State speech on Jan. 14.

“Voters casting their ballots in person must show photo ID and we should consider applying that same standard to mail-in balloting,” Kemp said shortly after certifying the Nov. 3 election results.

State Senate leaders have also signaled they may bring legislation to outlaw mail-in drop boxes that were widely used in the 2020 elections, as well as measures to boost access for poll watchers in ballot-counting areas and require more routine audits of absentee ballots.

Ralston had yet to appoint members of the election-focused committee as of Friday.

Democrats muster opposition

State Sen. Elena Parent (at podium) joined Georgia Democratic leaders in opposing moves to limit absentee voting at the State Capitol on Jan. 14, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

As state Republican leaders work out what election bills to introduce, Democratic lawmakers have signaled they plan to loudly oppose all but the most minor changes to voting rules in Georgia – though they face long odds of blocking any legislation that majority Republicans are determined to pass.

Democrats condemned the recent Republican-led hearings on election fraud claims, labeling them a smokescreen to pass voter ID changes that could make it tougher for poorer Georgians to cast absentee ballots and curb the large 2020 vote-by-mail numbers that benefitted Democrats.

Limiting absentee voting would be out of step with what most Georgians want, several Democratic leaders argued this week as the session kicked off. House Minority Leader James Beverly, D-Macon, said he is open to tweaking some election rules but will “vigorously fight” proposals for major changes.

“Let’s deal with the facts [and] not the fraud issue,” Beverly said. “Let’s maybe tweak a couple rules, but we shouldn’t be spending that much time on that issue when you’ve got people really suffering right now.”

At a news conference Jan. 14, Democratic leaders from both chambers said they plan to file bills to expand access to mail-in voting rather than limiting it as well as allow Georgians to register to vote on Election Day instead of a deadline set weeks before.

“We know our policies are the ones preferred by a majority of Georgians,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta. “As Democrats, we are not afraid to be held accountable by the people we represent.”

This story comes through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a service of the Georgia Press Education Foundation.

Beau Evans is a reporter for Capitol Beat, a service of the Georgia Press Education Foundation.