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Georgia absentee, early voting changes clear General Assembly, signed into law
election bill
Sen. Max Burns presents his omnibus Georgia election bill shortly before final passage in the state Senate on March 25, 2021. - photo by Beau Evans, Capitol Beat News Service

ATLANTA – Sweeping legislation to overhaul voting by mail, advance voting and state oversight of Georgia elections passed out of the General Assembly on Thursday and was promptly signed by Gov. Brian Kemp after months of intense debate at the state Capitol.

The 95-page bill contains dozens of proposals pitched by Republicans that would require stricter voter ID rules for mail-in ballots, ban people from handing out food and drink to voters waiting in line outside polling places and halt absentee ballot applications from being accepted within 11 days of an election.

It cleared the state House of Representatives by a 100-75 vote along party lines Thursday before gaining final passage a few hours later in the state Senate, also by a party-line vote. Kemp signed the bill into law about an hour after its passage in the Senate.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Max Burns, R-Sylvania, absorbed proposals from several other election-focused measures on its way to passing out of the state legislature, swelling to nearly 100 pages from an original 2-page bill last week in a process that drew concerns over transparency.

Beyond absentee and early voting changes, Burns’ bill would also allow state officials to take over county election boards for poor performance, which Democratic leaders and voting-rights advocates argue could give Republicans a back door to influence local election operations in many counties.

The bill also dropped a prior effort by Republican state lawmakers to shrink early voting on Sundays in Georgia. It instead would require two Saturdays of early voting and give counties the option to hold poll hours on two Sundays.

Among the bill’s most contentious changes to survive final passage is a requirement that registered Georgia voters provide the number on their driver’s license or state ID card to request and cast absentee ballots. If they do not have those ID forms, voters instead would have to send in a copy of their passport, employee ID card, utility bill or bank statement.

“Our goal is to ensure election integrity and to restore or confirm confidence in the election process,” Burns said from the Senate floor shortly before the bill’s passage.

Georgia Democratic leaders have long condemned the changes pushed by Republicans, characterizing them targeted at minority and low-income voters to curb election turnout in communities where Democrats tend to draw strong support.

“Make no mistake: This is democracy in reverse,” said Minority Leader Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain. “We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we’ve seen since the Jim Crow era.”

Election bills that have sparked intense debate in the General Assembly come after former President Donald Trump and his allies sowed doubts over Georgia’s election system, calling it fraught with fraud despite the repeated rejection of Trump’s claims by state officials and federal courts in recent months.

Speaking from the House floor Thursday, Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, who has spearheaded the push for election changes in the House, framed the bill as an expansion of voter access and tighter oversight of local election officials as he presented the bill before the vote.

“The bill greatly expands accessibility of voters in Georgia and greatly improves the process of administration of elections, while at the same time providing more accountability to ensure the integrity that the vote is properly preserved,” said Fleming, who chairs the House Special Committee on Election Integrity.