(The Center Square) – Despite protests and overwhelming opposition from Democrats, the Georgia General Assembly passed an omnibus voting reform bill Thursday that Gov. Brian Kemp promptly signed into law.
Republicans filed a spate of election reform bills this legislative session in response to November's election. Georgia's election process drew criticism from former President Donald Trump and his supporters after the Republican president lost the historically Republican state to Joe Biden.
The 95-page bill encompassed several of the other bills that cleared either the House or Senate. The measure led to lengthy debate Thursday in both chambers of the Georgia Legislature as dozens of protestors gathered outside. It passed the House, 100-75, before the Senate approved the changes, 34-20. Kemp signed it into law Thursday evening.
Republicans said the measure would increase election integrity.
"You're about to have the chance to make voting better in Georgia and also make voting in Georgia more accessible," said Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, who presented the bill.
Democrats said it would limit voting access and increase the taxpayer burden for elections. They also argued the overhaul is an extension of Trump's baseless fraud accusations against the state.
"In contrary to the hyperpartisan rhetoric you may have heard inside and outside this gold dome, the facts are that this new law will expand voting access in the Peach State," Kemp said.
The main changes are made to absentee ballot voting. The process drew not only criticism from Trump but also legal challenges from his supporters.
Under SB 202, absentee voters have to write their driver's license number, identification card number, voter registration number or the last four digits of their Social Security number with their birthdate on ballots. It requires ballot drop boxes to be inside of early voting locations except for during a declared emergency. Voters will have up to 11 days before an election to request an absentee ballot.
The measure establishes a hotline to report voting issues or fraud. It also allows the State Election Board to take over local election offices and gives the General Assembly the power to elect a chair of the State Election Board and to make the secretary of state an ex-officio nonvoting member of the board.
The bill allows poll workers to assist at precincts in neighboring counties and instructs precinct officials to take specific measures to reduce wait times. It also prohibits giveaways of food and drink within 150 feet of a polling place or 25 feet of voters standing in line. Poll workers can make water coolers available for voters.
Opponents of the bill also argued it disenfranchises Black voters. Some even compared the measure to civil rights limits on Black people during the Jim Crow Era.
"SB 202 is the most flagrantly racist, partisan power grab in modern Georgia history," tweeted U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, who also serves as chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia. "The GOP is burning democracy down to silence Georgians of color. We will fight tooth and nail in court to put this legislation in the ash heap of history along with the rest of Jim Crow."
The measure changes when runoff elections must be held – from nine weeks to four weeks after the general election – and shortens early voting for runoff elections. Early voting for general elections would be extended under the measure, however. Polling places will open on two Saturdays statewide and local election officers can conduct early voting on two Sundays.
Democrats argued Thursday the new rules could make county election offices susceptible to litigation and increase their administrative burden.
"I will tell you that there are so many problems in this almost 100-page bill that's going to come back, at some point, it's going to cause more problems," said Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, a longtime attorney. "Because there's going to be litigation, and they're going to be issues, and your local folks are going to have no idea what's going on. And not only that, but it's going to cost tons and tons of money."
The November presidential election resulted in three recounts in Georgia. The first recount resulted in the discovery of missing tabulations in a handful of counties, but President Biden was calculated as the winner each time.