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What Hall lawmakers, election officials are saying about Georgia’s election changes

An elections overhaul that limits mail-in absentee voting and expands access to in-person early voting in Georgia has drawn strong reactions and national media attention.

Senate Bill 202 passed 100-75 in the state House and 34-20 in the Senate following tweaks. It was signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday, March 25. 

The bill was proposed and supported fully by Georgia Republicans, including all of Hall County’s delegation, while Georgia Democrats were staunchly opposed.

The 96-page bill includes provisions that heighten photo ID requirements for absentee voting, shorten the timeline for runoff elections, disallow out-of-precinct provisional ballots cast before 5 p.m. and restrict ballot drop box access to early voting and inside voting hours only.

It also cuts the amount of time voters have to request an absentee ballot.

State Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, said that for many the bill “doesn’t go far enough” to address election reform and for others, it “goes too far” in changing the state’s voter registration and balloting process.

“Conversations around voter law changes began after the 2016 presidential election and continued through the 2018 gubernatorial election and now in the November 2020 and January 2021 elections as well,” Dubnik said. “Both sides of the political spectrum have been clamoring for changes to Georgia election laws for a while, and this bill is not a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to the November election.”

For lawmakers in the Georgia General Assembly, addressing election reform hot off the heels of one of the most contentious and transformative election cycles in the state’s history was always on the table.

Throughout the legislative session, Republican lawmakers have promoted election reform as an effort to ensure fair and secure elections throughout the state.

“Not addressing the election process was not an option,” said state Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville. “No matter where one is on the issue, I believe we can all agree that voter integrity and confidence are of the utmost importance.”

SB 202 saw a lot of revisions from its first introduction in mid-February to the governor’s signature.

The bill originally had a provision to eliminate the no-excuse absentee voting provision installed under Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2005 and proposed restrictions on weekend voting hours. 

However, those were nixed following opposition from state Democrats and voting groups.

More than 1.3 million Georgians voted with mail-in absentee ballots in the 2020 election cycle. 

Still, Republican lawmakers believe the bill will go a long way to restoring voter confidence in the state’s elections.

“While election outcomes may be debated and even challenged, voter confidence in our voting process is imperative,” Hawkins said. “The recent pandemic has caused changes in our way of life and for some, those changes may be permanent. Hopefully, we will all emerge, in some way, stronger and better prepared for future challenges.”

Dubnik said the new law’s provision requiring photo identification for absentee balloting follows suit with how one would provide photo identification to access other services.

“We also ask for an ID to buy alcohol, get on a plane, enter the State Capitol building, to pick something up from a retail store via curbside pickup, to buy or lease a vehicle, open a bank account, to apply for welfare, to apply for Medicaid, to apply for unemployment, to secure a hotel reservation, and even when adopting a pet,” he said. “This new law requires a voter to provide a driver’s license or state ID card number to request and submit an absentee ballot.”

Dubnik added that 97% of Georgia residents have a driver’s license, and the bill allows anyone to receive a state-issued ID at no cost.

“Consider this. More Georgians voted in the November 2020 general election than ever before – some 5 million voters,” Dubnik said. “Georgia is a state that cherishes the right to vote, encourages citizens to vote and protects the sanctity of the ballot box. By this bill being signed into law, we ensure elections are fair, accurate and secure.”

Another aspect of the new law allows the state’s board of elections to determine which county boards are underperforming. State officials can choose to replace the entire elections board in identified counties with a state-appointed administrator.

Tom Smiley, Hall County elections board chair, said the Hall board will adjust to new elections laws and ensure a “fair and secure” voting process on the local front.

“Obviously, we are interested in how Georgia laws will affect the work and operation of the local elections we provide,” said Smiley. “I don't see anything in SB 202 recently signed by the governor, that will adversely affect how we provide election services."

But since the introduction of SB 202 and legislation like it, state and national Democrats and voting rights groups have been keen to address what they call voter-suppression tools.

Leigh Miller, vice chair for the Hall County Democrats calls the bill’s passage a “national embarrassment” that actively impedes Georgians to vote.

“I am confounded by this bill that actually makes it more difficult for Georgians to vote and criminalizes acts such as handing out water for people waiting in line at the polls,” she said. “The fact that the governor signed this bill behind closed doors just makes this whole situation shadier.”

Miller said that while the new law has “intended consequences” to prevent fair access to the polls, she’s hopeful that challenges from voting rights groups can rewrite SB 202’s effect. 

President Joe Biden — the beneficiary of Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in the 2020 election — didn’t mince his words on the success of SB 202 in Georgia’s legislative session, comparing it to a modern-day Jim Crow law.

"Yet instead of celebrating the rights of all Georgians to vote or winning campaigns on the merits of their ideas, Republicans in the state instead rushed through an un-American law to deny people the right to vote," said Biden in an official statement released on March 26. “This is Jim Crow in the 21st Century. It must end. We have a moral and constitutional obligation to act.”

The president has called on the Senate to pass HR 1, or the For The People Act, and Congress to pass HR 4, titled the John Lewis Voting Right Advancement Act, federal proposals that seek to combat racial discrimination and voter suppression at the polls.

Kemp issued a response to the president’s remarks on Friday.

“It is obvious that neither President Biden nor his handlers have actually read SB 202, which I signed into law yesterday. This bill expands voting access, streamlines vote-counting procedures, and ensures election integrity,” he said in his March 26 remarks. “There is nothing ‘Jim Crow’ about requiring a photo or state-issued ID to vote by absentee ballot – every Georgia voter must already do so when voting in-person.”

Aas Kemp and several White state lawmakers celebrated the signing of the law on Thursday, state police officers handcuffed and forcibly removed state Rep. Park Cannon, a Black woman, after she knocked on the door of the governor's private office.

Cannon was charged with obstruction of law enforcement and disruption of the General Assembly, both felonies. She was released from jail late Thursday. 

The Associated Press contributed.

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