Republican legislators followed up on last year’s election law overhaul on Monday by passing a bill that establishes a new unit to investigate election fraud allegations, but other plans to open up ballots to public inspection and add new chain-of-custody procedures fell by the wayside.
The twists and turns of the election bills played out over the past week and into the late hours Monday as Sine Die marked the end of this year’s 40-day legislative session.
A push by Republican Sen. Pro Tempore Butch Miller to get a vote on Senate Bill 89 was rejected by GOP Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan for being out of order, a decision upheld by the Senate with a 29-20 vote.
Duncan, who is not seeking re-election, flexed his proverbial legislative muscle to block the ballot chain-of-custody procedures and a proposal to make original paper ballots available for public inspection, two of the controversial provisions that voting rights advocates and local election officials had opposed.
Instead, the results were mixed for both fans and detractors of the major election measures, with House Speaker David Ralston seeing one of his priorities come to a fruition with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation getting the power to initiate election fraud cases.
The GBI rule was tacked onto another bill, Senate Bill 441, which includes a clause stating that the state law enforcement agency could take lead in cases where allegations cast doubt on the outcome.
Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, said when he proposed that the GBI be more involved last spring, it wasn’t a partisan ploy rooted in displeasure over the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Donald Trump and his allies have pushed unfounded claims of widespread fraud in Georgia and continued to cast doubt on an election verified by several counts that confirmed Joe Biden’s victory.
“It was a good government measure to be sure that we have competent, professional, thorough investigators,” Ralston told reporters after Sine Day ended. “GBI is the best there is in the state. Let them go in, not before an election, and not at the behest of the governor, but when in response to a complaint or an allegation of a violation of the elections law.”
However, Atlanta Democratic Rep. David Dreyer cautioned that the bill now could give a governor, who appoints the director of the GBI, the ability to abuse that power and potentially overturn an election. The subpoena powers essentially would be a way to access ballots and other election records.
“What we’re doing here is we are authorizing the executive branch of the state of Georgia to meddle in our elections,” Dreyer said.
Before it failed to come to a vote in Monday’s Senate, supporters of Senate Bill 89 said the bill would improve transparency and strengthen security around election ballots and the people in charge of them.
Atlanta Democratic Rep. Bee Nguyen urged legislators not to militarize elections by giving more control to the GBI and away from the secretary of state’s office and State Election Board.
But Nguyen called out her GOP colleagues for playing into the “Big Lie” of a stolen election instead of providing enough resources to run elections.
“Giving power to the GBI will not restore confidence, and in fact, it may cause intimidation to local election boards, officials and to voters,” said Nguyen, a candidate for secretary of state.
Under SB 441, the GBI and secretary of state’s office could continue working together on cases. such as investigating the 2020 surveillance video of Fulton County workers processing absentee ballots at State Farm Arena and auditing Cobb County absentee ballot signatures.
About $580,000 has been added to next year’s budget to hire GBI staff to investigate election complaints.
Senate Bill 89 became the main election law vehicle Monday. A larger House version was neutered by the Senate Ethics Committee on March 29 after hearing about how the unnecessary procedures could drive away poll workers.
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