ATLANTA – Republican state lawmakers took a major step Monday toward overhauling voting by mail and other election procedures in Georgia with passage of an omnibus bill by the state House of Representatives along party lines.

State Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, pitches his bill proposing broad changes to Georgia’s voting system, particularly for absentee voting, on March 1, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Sponsored by Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, the 66-page bill contains more than two dozen provisions including proposals to impose stricter identification requirements on absentee voters, a change the state Senate approved last week.

This story also appeared in Capitol Beat News Service

Fleming’s bill would scrap Georgia’s current signature-verification process for absentee ballots and force voters seeking mail-in ballots to provide the number on their driver’s license or state identification card, or photocopies of other valid ID forms.

Democratic lawmakers and voting-rights groups have condemned the tightened absentee voter ID rule, likening it to an attempt at voter suppression seeking to blunt Democrats’ momentum after the party flipped the presidency and both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats in the 2020 elections.

Republicans have argued the change is needed to shore up confidence in the state’s election system, which drew claims of fraud from former President Donald Trump after his loss to now-President Joe Biden by 11,779 votes in Georgia. Election officials and federal courts rejected all claims of widespread fraud.

Beyond absentee voting, Fleming’s bill would tweak rules for early voting on Sunday, instead requiring counties to pick either one Saturday or one Sunday ahead of Election Day for their precincts to be open.

It would also require absentee-ballot drop boxes to be located inside polling places or local elections officials during early voting, and scrap Georgia’s free-for-all “jungle primary” format for special elections that places all candidates on the same ballot.

Fleming chairs the House Special Committee on Election Integrity, where his bill passed last week. He said the measure aims to both boost voter confidence in Georgia’s elections and ease burdens on local elections officials who were taxed with tallying millions of mail-in ballots during the recent elections.

“The way we begin to restore confidence in our voting system is by passing this bill,” Fleming said from the House floor. “There are many common-sense measures here to begin that process.”

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, speaks from the House floor to oppose Republican-led voting changes on March 1, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Democrats scoffed at that notion Monday, calling it a smokescreen for Republican moves in Georgia to upend the elections playing field after last year’s historic statewide wins by Democrats.

“This is a step in the wrong direction,” said Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, the General Assembly’s longest-serving member. “I strongly believe it’s time that we encourage every citizen to participate in the purest sense of citizenship, and that’s voting.”

Democrats also warned passing Fleming’s bill could prompt costly lawsuits and cost counties millions of dollars to put in place changes like new security paper for ballots. They also argued the bill would limit opportunities for counties to secure grant funding for elections.

“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 [in recent elections],” said Rep. Kimberly Alexander, D-Hiram.

“And you know your only chance at winning future elections is to prevent eligible Georgians from casting their ballots and having their voices heard.”

Republicans doubled down in touting Fleming’s bill Monday, framing it as a way to clean up confusion among voters and election workers and bolster faith in the integrity of voting by mail by tossing Georgia’s controversial signature-match process.

“Everybody’s got a right to vote and that subjective signature match is a tough one,” said state Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell. “This is an objective way of verifying who someone is.”

Republicans also highlighted less-testy aspects of the bill such as revising precinct boundaries to curb long lines, blocking outside groups from sending absentee-ballot applications to cut down confusing mailers sent to voters and boosting training for poll watchers.

“Our goals in regulating elections should be to assure voting is fair, accessible, understandable, convenient and trustworthy,” said House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones, R-Milton.

The bill passed by a 97-72 vote along party lines and now heads to the state Senate, where it will join a host of other elections-focused measures now winding through the General Assembly.

While Fleming’s bill is the most wide-ranging measure on election changes, it is similar to a separate omnibus bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton.

Senators advanced other contentious measures last week that have split Republicans, including a bill sponsored by Senate Rules Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, that would end Georgians’ ability to vote by mail for any reason and limit absentee voting to elderly, disabled and overseas voters.

That measure, which Democrats have blasted as an attack on voter access, has drawn opposition from key state Republican leaders including Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

However, those top Republican leaders have also supported proposals such as Fleming’s bill to tighten absentee voter ID laws, all but guaranteeing passage later this month in the Republican-controlled state legislature.

Other Republican-brought bills on election changes currently in play include measures to end automatic voter registration when Georgians obtain or renew their driver’s licenses, empower state elections officials to assume temporary control over local poor-performing elections boards and let county officials start processing absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

Protesters oppose state Rep. Barry Fleming’s, R-Harlem, bill to clamp down on absentee voting and other elections changes outside the state Capitol on March 1, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans) Credit: Stephen B. Morton/Georgia Ports Authority / Georgia Ports Authority

Beau Evans/Capitol Beat

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