Georgia Republicans have advanced a sweeping bill in the state Senate that further restricts voting – keeping a state that was pivotal to the 2020 elections at the forefront of the GOP backlash against expanded voting.
The expansive package, which passed by a narrow margin Monday, would repeal no-excuse absentee voting for many Georgians – a method 1.3 million of the state’s residents used to cast ballots in last November’s general election. The measure now moves to the Georgia House, which has passed its own slate of proposed voting restrictions.
The developments in Georgia come amid a flurry of activity around the country by Republican-controlled legislatures to make it harder to vote after the GOP lost the presidency and the US Senate majority in the 2020 elections. On Monday, Iowa became one of the first states to enact new restrictions as the Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a new law that makes it harder to vote early.
But Monday’s vote in the Peach State – which came on the final day that the Senate could send its voting package to the state House for consideration – also underscored fresh tensions building among Republicans over how much to restrict paths to the franchise. Republican grassroots activists mounted a weekend campaign to ensure the bill’s passage. In the end, the measure survived by only a one-vote majority of the Senate’s 56 senators, once abstentions were taken into account. And the No. 2 GOP official in Georgia, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, opted to boycott Monday’s debate.
Voting-rights groups also have vowed to bring pressure on legislators in the weeks to come to keep the state from rolling back an array of voting policies that helped drive a record number of Georgians to the polls amid the coronavirus pandemic in the 2020 general election and Senate runoff elections. The efforts to restrict voting come after the traditionally red state backed Democrat Joe Biden for the presidency last year and sent two Democrats to the US Senate, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.
The ACLU of Georgia executive director Andrea Young said her group would use “every tool” available to block the voting restrictions, including taking the fight to the state’s corporate interests. “As a business community, you can’t talk about racial justice and then stand by and let voting rights be pushed back,” Young told CNN in an interview Monday.
Lauren Groh-Wargo – the CEO of Fair Fight Action, the voting rights group founded by former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams – promised to “fight in Georgia, in the courts and in Congress to make sure that Georgians’ voting rights are not infringed.”
In one sign of the controversy over the measures, Duncan, who normally presides over the Senate, left the chamber Monday during the debate to signal his opposition to ending no-excuse absentee voting, his spokeswoman Macy McFall said.
“The Lt. Governor has been crystal clear that he does not support the roll-back of absentee voting, and instead believes that modernizing and updating the system is more appropriate,” McFall said in a statement to CNN.
The state’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has not declared whether he would sign the bill in its current form into law, but his spokeswoman Mallory Blount told CNN via email that Kemp “has been clear about his support for strengthened voter ID provisions on absentee voting.” The sweeping measure would establish new ID rules, requiring Georgians to submit an approved form of identification when both when requesting absentee ballots and when they return the ballots.
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More broadly, Kemp wants to “ensure Georgia’s elections are secure, accessible, and fair – and that it must be easy to vote and hard to cheat in Georgia,” Blount added, echoing Kemp’s standard line about voting.
Leading up to Monday’s vote, Georgia Republicans faced pressure from grassroots GOP activists to pass voting restrictions. Former President Donald Trump has made repeated and baseless claims that election fraud contributed to his defeat in Georgia and elsewhere. And Trump has lashed out against Kemp, who is up for reelection in 2022, and other Republicans in the state who refused to back his fraud claims.
The former President lost the state by nearly 12,000 votes last November, and there’s no evidence of widespread fraud that would have overturned the election’s outcome in Georgia or anywhere else, federal and state officials have said.
Debbie Dooley, a Trump supporter and Tea Party activist in the Atlanta area, worked to rally support for the bill ahead of the vote. “Republicans either stand for election security and integrity or they stand with Democrats,” she said in a phone interview with CNN Monday, shortly before the Senate vote.
“The Republican base is united in this, and I dare Brian Kemp to veto a strong election security bill that comes to his desk,” she said. “He’s in enough trouble as it is. I know a lot of Republicans that have pledged not to support him under any circumstance.”
Much of the debate in Georgia focused on the ways the Senate bill would limit voting by mail. The bill aims to dismantle a 2005 Republican-backed law allowing no-excuse absentee voting. Georgia is one of 34 states that do not currently require an excuse to vote by mail, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Under the measure approved Monday, to qualify for an absentee ballot, voters must be 65 years old or older, absent from their precinct, observing a religious holiday, required to provide constant care for someone with a physical disability, or required to work “for the protection of the health, life, or safety of the public during the entire time the polls are open,” or be an overseas or military voter.
A new analysis by the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice at New York University concludes that allowing people who are 65 or older to cast their absentee ballots easily – while making it harder for younger voters to do so – would likely benefit White Georgians, who have made up a bigger share of older vote-by-mail participants.
“It’s an example of how a ‘race neutral policy’ can end up having racially disparate impacts,” said Kevin Morris, a Brennan Center researcher. “You don’t have to use the word ‘race’ to carve up the electorate in racially disparate ways.”
The Georgia legislative session ends March 31.