ATLANTA — Republicans controlling a Georgia House committee approved legislation Wednesday that would prevent election officials from proactively sending mail ballot request forms to voters ahead of an election.
If it makes it through both chambers and gets Gov. Brian Kemp's signature, it could take effect ahead of November's general elections.
To protect voting rights during the coronavirus pandemic, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, sent absentee ballot applications to nearly 7 million active registered voters for the state's June 9 primary elections, enabling huge numbers to avoid having to vote in person. That contributed to increased turnout, with turnout particularly high among Democrats.
The election was marred by problems after poll workers dropped out in fear of getting infected and their replacements had trouble with new voting equipment, contributing to hours-long lines in some locations.
Soon after Raffensperger sent ballot applications to all voters, House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, expressed concern that it could be bad for the GOP, telling news outlet Fetch Your News in April that expanded use of mail voting "will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia." Ralston later walked back those comments and said his concerns are about the potential for ballot fraud. Historically, there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud through mail-in voting.
Senate Bill 463 proposes several changes to Georgia election law, including giving county election officials leeway in deciding how many voting machines they'll need for certain elections. It was amended Wednesday morning in the House Governmental Affairs Committee to include language that would block Raffensperger's office as well as counties from proactively mailing out absentee ballot applications.
Raffensperger pushed back in a statement Wednesday afternoon, saying that "By a wide margin, voters on both sides of the political spectrum agree that sending absentee applications to all active voters was the safest and best thing our office could do to protect our voters at the peak of COVID-19. Some seem to be saying that our office should have ignored the wave of absentee voting that was clearly coming."
Several groups, including the NAACP and Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams, were quick to condemn the legislation as well, saying in a joint statement that "localities, as well as the state, should maintain as many possible tools in their toolbox to promote vote by mail generally and certainly in the midst of a raging, ongoing health crisis."
Republican Rep. Shaw Blackmon, chairman of the committee, said the change is meant to help county election officials avoid being flooded with absentee ballot applications, as happened in some counties before the June 9 primary.
"There's no attempt in any way to remove the ability to request or vote in this particular manner," Blackmon said. "It just is a capacity issue."
Rep. Renitta Shannon, a Democrat from Decatur on the panel opposed to the change, said she was concerned about how the bill would effect county election offices..
"The secretary of state has already said that he is not going to send out proactively absentee applications," Shannon said. "This ties the hands of local governments if they want to do that to help in their elections."