Updated to reflect Kemp has signed the bill into law.
The Republican-controlled Georgia legislature has approved and Gov. Brian Kemp has signed a massive overhaul of election laws that enacts new limitations on mail-in voting, expands most voters’ access to in-person early voting and caps a months-long battle over voting in a battleground state.
The 96-page bill would make dramatic alterations to Georgia’s absentee voting rules, adding new identification requirements, moving back the request deadline and other changes after a record 1.3 million absentee ballots overwhelmed local elections officials and raised Republican skepticism of a voting method they created.
Previous plans to require an excuse to vote by mail, as well as restrict weekend voting hours primarily used in larger Democratic-leaning counties were scrapped amidst mounting opposition from voting rights groups, Democrats and county elections supervisors.
On a 100-75 party-line vote, the State House approved SB 202 early Thursday, and the Senate voted to agree with the House changes 34-20 on a party-line vote as well.
“Included in SB 202 are topics that are important to all Georgians,” Ethics Committee chairman Sen. Max Burns said when presenting the bill, ticking through provisions such as a new fraud hotline for the Attorney General’s office to a new expansion of early voting.
Currently, law requires three weeks of in-person early voting Monday through Friday, plus one Saturday, during “normal business hours. The new bill would add an extra Saturday, make both Sundays optional for counties and standardize hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or as long as 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Many of the measures in SB 202 would streamline the election administration process at the local level, such as allowing officials to process absentee ballots sooner, require them to count ballots nonstop once the polls close and allow flexibility with voting equipment for smaller, lower-turnout races. Poll workers could serve in neighboring counties, after the pandemic saw a shortage of trained workers.
Precincts with more than 2,000 voters that have lines longer than an hour at three different points throughout the day would have to add more machines, add more staff or split up the poll. The absentee ballot request window is narrower, starting for most Georgians 11 weeks before the election and ending 11 days before.
Third-party absentee ballot applications must be more clearly labeled, state and local governments would not be allowed to send unsolicited applications.
The bill would also shorten Georgia’s nine-week runoff period to four weeks by sending military and overseas voters instant-runoff ranked choice absentee ballots and only requiring in-person early voting starting the Monday eight days before election day.
Democrats opposed several pieces of the bill, including language that would remove the secretary of state as chair of the State Election Board, allowing the SEB and lawmakers a process to temporarily take over elections offices and limiting the number, location and access to secure absentee drop boxes.
Drop boxes were enacted as an emergency rule of the SEB because of the coronavirus pandemic, so this codifies their existence, requires all counties to have at least one, and would only allow voters to use the drop boxes during early voting hours and inside early voting locations.
“How does this bill help to build voter trust and confidence?” Rep. Debbie Buckner (D-Junction City) said. “The bill adds up to more burdens and cost and returns to old practices that were abandoned years ago for security, convenience and safety.”
Voters who show up to the wrong precinct would not have provisional ballots counted, unless it was after 5 p.m. and they signed a statement they could not make it to the correct poll.
A performance review of local elections officials could be initiated by the county commission or a certain threshold of General Assembly members. The SEB could also create an independent performance review board, and no more than four elections superintendents could be suspended at any given time.
Rep. Kim Alexander (D-Hiram) said county elections officials shared concern about the timing and the cost of the legislation, including a requirement for more expensive security paper for ballots.
“We have heard testimony from county election officials… that more time is needed to fully understand the fiscal and logistical impacts the provisions in these bills would have,” she said. “Given the substantial changes we’d be making with this legislation, why not take more time to get county input on the proposed legislation and take this up next session?”
In the Senate, Democrats objected to the bill being brought up without a fiscal analysis of the cost to the state and counties, but Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan ruled that the bill did not meet requirements that needed that sort of analysis.
Elsewhere in the bill, the secretary of state would be required to conduct a pilot of posting scanned ballot images from elections, and those images would be public records. Ballots used in the election would have to be on special security paper, which will cost more to use.
Overall, the bill will touch nearly every facet of elections, like a section that aims to provide more information about vote totals as results come in.
As soon as possible, but no later than 10 p.m. on election night, counties must publish the total number of votes cast by each method, and all absentee ballots would have to be counted by 5 p.m. the day after the election, otherwise a county supervisor could face the state’s new performance review process.
The 20-candidate special election to fill the remainder of Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term and accompanying runoff between then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler and current Sen. Raphael Warnock would be no more: special elections would have special primaries.
Fulton County would no longer be able to use its two mobile voting buses for early voting, as the bill would limit mobile polls to emergencies.
The bill now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature.
This story available through a news partnership with Georgia Public Broadcasting.