The Georgia Senate Tuesday made the first move in an expected wide-ranging Republican attempt to overhaul state election laws when it passed a bill to require voters who request an absentee ballot to verify their identity using a government ID.

This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

Controversy and conspiracy theories exploded following November’s presidential election when national attention focused on Georgia’s signature match procedure that county poll workers used to confirm voter registrations.

Top Republican state lawmakers set a goal to at least require an ID to vote absentee in future elections, they say to restore confidence in a voting system President Donald Trump claimed was rigged even before he lost to Joe Biden in Georgia by a narrow 12,000 votes.

Sen. Larry Walker, a Perry Republican, said Senate Bill 67 improves the process of verifying the validity of an absentee ballot by ending the subjective signature verification process that became controversial among Trump supporters by requiring a driver’s license number or other approved government ID up front.

Walker waved off accusations from some Democratic lawmakers and voting rights organizations that his bill disenfranchises the 3% of registered Georgia voters – or some 230,000 people – without a government ID. 

The bill advanced through the Senate Tuesday, mostly along party lines, with a 35-18 vote.

“This is just a common-sense measure to adjust our current process for requesting an absentee ballot, to reflect the web portal that worked so well and get the board of elections people out of the middle of trying to verify (signatures),” Walker said.

Other top GOP officials, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, Gov. Brian Kemp, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and House Speaker David Ralston, also want new absentee ballot ID requirements.

But Sen. David Lucas, a Macon Democrat, charged that Walker’s bill and some of the other Republican-sponsored voting legislation harkens back to the Jim Crow-era, as the GOP now scrambles to make changes after Democrats won a presidential election in Georgia for the first time in decades. He hinted that a court challenge is coming if the voting restrictions pass.

“We’re going to fight, and you’re going to spend taxpayers’ money trying to defend it,” Lucas said. 

The Senate also approved bills Tuesday that would require elections offices to update voter history within 30 days after an election and require the total number of votes cast in an election to be posted before election results are released. 

Sen. Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican, said the bills would help prevent accusations that all votes are not accurately counted. 

Dozens of bills to restrict voting access are filed so far a little more than 20 days into the 2021 Georgia legislative session. Among the most recent is a sweeping bill the GOP Senate Majority Caucus announced Tuesday night that would end no-excuse absentee voting. 

Much of the Republican-sponsored legislation is in response to the unfounded claims of widespread election fraud and baseless conspiracy theories that absentee ballot harvesting, a lack of transparency and the state’s new electronic voting system cost Trump the presidential election. 

Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat, challenged Republican legislators who repeatedly said the state needs to restore confidence in a voting system it approved last year at a cost of $104 million to run last year’s elections. Georgia’s election officials called 2020 the most secure in state history.

“The big lie got told here for a good six months, running up to the national presidential election,” she said. “The big lie got told from the White House, and it spread out through the echo chamber of the right wing that if this president doesn’t win then the election is rigged.” 

On Tuesday, the voting rights organization Fair Fight announced a multimillion dollar statewide ad campaign aimed at showing Georgia Republican voters how the “anti-voting” bills will hinder their access to absentee voting.

Georgia is one of several states where Republicans are pushing new voting restrictions this year. Earlier this month, the Brennan Center for Justice ranked Georgia third in the nation for the number of bills with provisions that limit voter access to the ballot box. 

How to restore confidence?

Another controversial measure gaining traction in Georgia is a proposal to end automatic voter registration when someone applies for a driver’s license or identification card. A Senate subcommittee advanced the bill Tuesday with a party-line vote.

Automatic registration was a major contributor to Georgia’s growing voter rolls in recent years. Under the proposal, Georgia residents could still register to vote when applying for a driver’s license, but only if they selected that option rather than today’s default opt-in process. Proponents compared it to how someone selects to be an organ donor.

Sen. Jeff Mullis, a Chickamauga Republican who chairs the powerful Senate Rules Committee, said he was responding to constituent concerns in his conservative North Georgia district – and other rural areas of the state – and called the legislation an attempt to restore confidence in the state’s election system.

“You said it’s to restore confidence and integrity? How does that restore confidence and integrity when you are going backwards,” Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat, asked.

Mullis said after the meeting that many of his constituents object to automatic voter registration because they suspect the process is allowing ineligible Georgians onto the voting rolls.

The Senate panel also backed three other bills from Mullis that drew Democratic opposition, moving them on to the full committee. That includes a requirement that election officials receive monthly reports of recent deaths from coroners, probate judges and funeral homes. 

Another bill would bar the secretary of state and county election officials from mailing out unsolicited absentee ballot request applications, as the state’s election chief and some counties did last year to encourage voters to avoid potential exposure at polling places during the pandemic.

And Mullis is also pushing for a change that would allow poll watchers into tabulation centers, expanding their access on election night and as votes are being counted.

“I would say if you have both parties, or whatever parties are running, and are both there, I’d say there’d be no conspiracy or no concern of proper access or proper vote viewing tabulation, because both parties are watching each other,” Mullis said. 

Sweeping changes mulled

And the third day of hearings wrapped up Tuesday on one of the most controversial proposals, House Bill 531, which has been roundly criticized by voting rights advocates as a Republican-led attempt to suppress Black and other marginalized voters.

The bill’s sponsor and House Special Committee on Election Integrity committee chair, Rep. Barry Fleming, said the bill provides more uniformity in how elections are conducted.

The legislation bans polls from opening on Sundays, adds new ID requirements to vote absentee by mail and restricts the use of absentee drop boxes to locations inside early voting polling places.

The bill also bars people from casting provisional ballots when they show up at the wrong precinct.

Fleming’s legislation is designed with “surgical precision” to block access to the ballot box compared to options available during the 2020 election season, said Sara Tindall Ghazal, former Voter Protection Director for Georgia Democrats and a former state House candidate.

“The numbers bear out the disparate impact of this bill, in particular, will have in eliminating drop boxes for all intents and purposes, restricting early voting three to four possible days, pushing the absentee application process into a very compressed period of time and disenfranchising voters who inadvertently may appear at the wrong precinct on election day,” she said this week. 

Democrats also object to the measure’s proposed ban on outside organizations providing grants to county elections offices.

During the 2020 election cycle, millions of dollars poured into Georgia from organizations backed by former Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and others to cover extra costs to run elections during a pandemic. 

For instance, Muscogee County received $622,000 in grants that allowed the county to open more early voting locations, provide hazard pay to poll workers and purchase equipment, said Laura Walker, former chair of the Muscogee County Democratic Party Committee.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing...