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Georgia legislators gut controversial elections bill

A state Senate committee voted unanimously to narrow the bill to include just one element of the original proposal.
Georgia Election Officials Continue Ballot Counting
Election workers count ballots at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Nov. 4, 2020.Jessica McGowan / Getty Images file

Legislators in Georgia on Tuesday night stripped down an elections bill that would have given the state's bureau of investigations jurisdiction over voter fraud cases, among other measures, following pushback from state workers.

In a 10-0 vote, members of the state Senate Ethics Committee opted to substitute a significantly narrower, two-page election reform bill for the original 39-page measure. The bill that was advanced features only one element of the original proposal: expanding how long voters can take off from their jobs to vote during the state’s early-voting period.

The committee’s vote Tuesday night followed a day of testimony from a bipartisan group of election workers across the state who had expressed opposition to the bill’s proposed ballot handling rules and restrictions on outside donations. An elections supervisor said at Monday’s hearing that such proposals amounted merely to “security theater.” Many expressed concern about the possibility of implementing even more changes to elections while they continued to carry out the changes mandated by last year’s sweeping election law.

The move effectively kills the most controversial parts of the original bill, one of which would have given the Georgia Bureau of investigation jurisdiction over election crimes and voter fraud. The original bill’s sponsor, state Rep. James Burchett, a Republican, said at the hearing that he felt lawmakers could pass additional measures.

“This is one of the most politicized issues across the country,” Burchett said. “We’ll just continue working on these issues that were in the bill and try to find some middle ground.” The current legislative session ends Monday.

The original bill, H.B. 1464, which passed the House this month, proposed empowering the GBI to hunt for election code violations, and it would have given the agency authority to conduct any audits it sees fit and to subpoena documents with the consent of the attorney general.

The bill also proposed limiting the required number of voting machines counties must provide on Election Day, and it would have provided new rules for how outside groups could provide donations or grants to election workers. In addition, the original bill proposed adding restrictions to how ballots are handled before elections while removing the requirement that ballots be sealed for two years after elections.

Voting rights advocates said such proposals would create long lines at the polls, deprive counties of much-needed grant money and make it easier for third-party groups to conduct audits.

Many of the same advocates claimed victory after the committee vote: A coalition of groups opposed to the original bill said it had been “defeated."

Legislators, however, still have until Monday night to continue debating and voting on changes to election rules. If the full Senate votes for the slimmed-down bill, legislators from the House and the Senate would hold a conference committee to reconcile differences between the different versions — which could result in some of the stripped-out measures' being included.

The original legislation was proposed after state Republicans passed the so-called Election Integrity Act last year. It would have added ID requirements for mail voters and limited the use of ballot drop boxes, among other changes. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who had championed the 2021 bill, said in January that he felt it was not necessary to further change elections laws after last year's overhaul — however, in recent days, he and other top Republicans appear to have backed off that position.

Georgia's proposals are part of a much broader trend of voting restrictions proposed in states with Republican-controlled legislatures.