Election lawyers alarmed over Georgia GOP “suppression” bill voted on “in the middle of the night”

GOP lawmakers advance last-minute bill to ban drop boxes and make it easier to challenge voters' eligibility

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published March 1, 2023 4:28PM (EST)

Voters stand in line to cast their ballots during the first day of early voting in the US Senate runoffs at Lenora Park, December 14, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia. (TAMI CHAPPELL/AFP via Getty Images)
Voters stand in line to cast their ballots during the first day of early voting in the US Senate runoffs at Lenora Park, December 14, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia. (TAMI CHAPPELL/AFP via Getty Images)

The Georgia Senate Ethics Committee passed a version of an elections omnibus bill Tuesday night that includes a last-minute ban on absentee drop boxes and would expand the ability of Georgia residents to challenge the eligibility of other voters.

Some of the changes included in the roughly 20-page bill would ban non-citizens from working in elections, add more risk-limiting audits, allow counties to use paper ballots filled out by hand instead of by voting machines if approved by the State Election Board and could disqualify voters from voting based on an allegation that they had changed their address.

A Republican majority on the committee approved the substitute to Senate Bill 221, which could receive a vote in the full Senate within days.

Lawmakers and the public had access to the bill for only about 10 hours before the vote, and even then, several amendments were crafted in real-time or after lawmakers and legal counsel for the committee questioned certain language included in the substitute.

"Georgia is trying to enact a new omnibus voter suppression law in the middle of the night," Democratic election lawyer Marc Elias warned on Twitter, vowing to file a lawsuit if the bill is approved.

Several voting rights experts and advocates have criticized the bill for appeasing conspiracy theorists and imposing more unnecessary challenges on voters. 

"What we need to do in Georgia is to make the voter experience better and make the lives of our local elections officials better," said Vasu Abhiraman, senior policy counsel at ACLU of Georgia. "Local elections officials are struggling in the current system. They have to deal with these constant changes that come down the pike, an environment of disinformation, low pay, long hours, and that's why we see a whole bunch of turnover in the system."

Abhiraman, who testified at the hearing, criticized the bill's ability to challenge the change-of-address data, which he said targets out-of-state college students and people who relocate a lot – which mostly includes people of color and lower-income voters. 

The voter challenge provision would essentially provide a "recipe to file challenges that will assuredly disproportionately" affect people who are younger, lower income and live in urban counties, he added.

"The bill opens the floodgates to voter challenges saying that anybody who files a national change of address request with the post office that they would be eligible to be challenged here,"  Abhiraman said.

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Last fall, Gwinnett County, the second-largest county in Georgia, had more than 37,000 voter registrations challenged by a group of election deniers. Election staffers were tasked with reviewing these challenges, consulting attorneys and scheduling hearings for the public in the weeks leading up to the election.

"All these officials have been telling the legislative legislature that folks need to get a handle on these challenges and make sure that you limit them so that we don't see so many baseless challenges that commandeer our resources, and the bill went in the opposite direction,"  Abhiraman said.

The legislation also calls for the outright elimination of absentee ballot drop boxes, which could create more barriers for voters. 

Prior to the 6 p.m. meeting, one of the changes proposed in the bill included requiring counties to set up video surveillance of drop boxes that would be publicly available. 

Bartow County elections supervisor Joseph Kirk testified that the newest proposal would create a safety risk for voters because of harassment and threats amplified by attacks on the 2020 election.

Near the end of the meeting, committee vice chair Sen. Rick Williams offered a new amendment completely banning drop boxes without offering any discussion or public comment on the issue. This was approved by five Republicans before the meeting abruptly adjourned.

A 2021 election law rewrite already severely restricted drop boxes and required them to be inside early voting locations. Voting rights advocates criticized the committee's impulsive decision to ban drop boxes altogether on a whim. 

"These recommendations should really be coming from election offices and the state board of elections, not the legislature and not this committee," said Aunna Dennis, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia.

She added that there are other provisions in the bill that attack voters who are experiencing housing discrepancies, including people who temporarily relocate, college students and people experiencing homelessness since they are required to register to vote by using the address of their county's courthouse.

"You shouldn't be targeted because of your social economic status," Dennis said. "You shouldn't be targeted because of the life situation that you're going through at that point in time. So this bill is just inequitable ... It's really only tried to give accessibility to balloting options to people who are privileged to not have hurdles or challenges when it comes to voting"

Williams said during the hearing that college students should ensure that they only change their addresses temporarily when they are at school so that they are not challenged.

"If they're smart enough to go to college, they're smart enough to make a phone call" to the elections office when they relocate, Williams said.

However, a temporary address is only valid for six months for the U.S. Postal Service, which is shorter than the time most people will spend in college, pointed out Fair Fight deputy executive director Esosa Osa.

Georgia Republicans made an effort to push their proposal in a rushed and non-transparent way, Osa added. 

"When you schedule meetings for either 6 p.m. or 7 a.m., when you limit testimony, you do that because you know you have a bad bill," Osa said. "Georgia Republicans know this bill is bad and they know they can't justify it and so their anti-democratic solution is to push it through in the rushed and least transparent way possible. They are pushing it through with typos, they are pushing it through with incorrect statutes, they are rewriting the wrong parts of the law. They're pushing through a bill that they know very well violates federal law. You do that when you're embarrassed."

This attack on democracy is not just happening at the Georgia legislature, Osa said. It's also happening at the local level where "anti-democratic forces" are creeping into our local elections.

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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