Georgia senators scrap proposal for more election rules

Georgia Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, sparks laughter, Tuesday, March 29, 2022, during a hearing on an election law bill at the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta. Miller asked a House member "What happened to your bill?" after the Senate Ethics Committee slashed it from 39 pages to two pages, removing all controversial proposals. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy) (Jeff Amy, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ATLANTA – Georgia senators are scrapping plans to seek further big changes in state election law, beset by strong opposition from local election officials who say their offices would be wrapped in needless red tape.

The Senate Ethics Committee amended House Bill 1464 on Tuesday to ditch all its proposals except a provision requiring employers to give workers time off to vote early, supplementing a current law requiring time off to vote on Election Day.

Georgia’s General Assembly was upended last year by a restrictive voting law, which reduced the time to request an absentee ballot, stripped power from Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and severely rolled back the pandemic-driven expansion of absentee ballot drop boxes. It was one of the first and highest-profile restrictive laws passed by Republican-controlled legislatures, a trend that continues this year.

Republicans said Georgia's 2021 law was necessary to restore confidence in the state’s election system, while Democrats decried it as an effort to block Democratic-leaning citizens from voting.

But the 2021 law wasn’t enough for some Republicans, especially those who believe false claims that Georgia’s 2020 election was fraudulently stolen from President Donald Trump.

Despite investigations and recounts after the 2020 election finding no significant fraud, proposals were made to require extensive, new chain-of-custody requirements for handling ballots — including requirements to repeatedly count blank ballot paper. The bill as passed by the House also included requirements to let people physically inspect paper ballots after an election and let only the State Election Board accept private donations.

More than a dozen county election officials lined up Monday before the Senate Ethics Committee, testifying that further measures would paralyze their offices with requirements that amounted to “security theater."

Garland Favorito, a longtime critic of Georgia's election system, wanted lawmakers to go even further, totally banning drop boxes, requiring mail-in ballot envelopes containing voters' personal information to remain with ballots, and requiring every ballot to be printed on a sheet of paper with a unique serial number.

“I think they stripped out all the good stuff,” Favorito said of the committee's action on Tuesday.

What had been a 39-page bill was reduced to less than two pages.

“What happened to your bill?” Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, a Gainesville Republican, asked to laughter. “It looks like it’s on SlimFast.”

But Rep. James Burchett, the Waycross Republican who sponsored the measure in the House, expressed no opposition to the changes. “I appreciate the wisdom and discernment of this committee,” Burchett said, acknowledging the Senate version is “much, much tamped down.”

Though Georgia's 2022 session is nearing its scheduled close on Monday, the latest move doesn't mean debate on election rules is over.

Republican House Speaker David Ralston of Blue Ridge wants to allow the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to start its own inquiries into election law violations without an invitation from local officials, one of the measures stripped Tuesday.

Opponents of the bill called it a “tentative victory," saying they feared the return of the GBI provision, in particular, if the House and Senate negotiate over the vast differences in the respective proposals.

“The bill has changed dramatically, but it could change again,” said Isabel Otero of the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund. “I know that the House wants additional provisions.”

But if the changes hold, it could signal a waning appetite for election legislation among Georgia's Republican lawmakers, a year after many clamored for changes citing a wave of calls and emails demanding restrictions from constituents.

Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Max Burns, a Sylvania Republican, said he favored many of the ideas, but said the bill lacked consensus. He added that he heard from election officials that issues “needed to be addressed in a more deliberate manner.”

Election officials opposing the measure had said they were concerned about implementing more changes while they were trying to deal with last year's changes, redistricting, and a new electronic voter registration system.

They also said a rule requiring all private donations to election agencies be made only to the Republican-controlled State Election Board could deprive them of resources and disrupt relationships with groups that donate their buildings for use as polling places. Some Republicans say $400 million donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg unfairly favored Democratic counties.

On Tuesday, some local election board members thanked lawmakers for listening.

“This is a clear example of the progress that can be made when legislators listen to and take recommendations from local officials,” said a statement signed by 11 county election officials who opposed the bill.

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Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.