Before Elections, Georgia Republicans Again Consider Voting Restrictions

ATLANTA — Butch Miller, a Republican leader of the Georgia State Senate, is running for lieutenant governor and faces a tough fight this spring against a primary opponent backed by former President Donald J. Trump.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that Mr. Miller, a co-sponsor of a sweeping and restrictive state voting law last year, has once again jumped into the fray, promoting a new measure to prohibit the use of drop boxes for absentee ballots, which he says would increase security — though no problems with their use by voters have been verified.

“Drop boxes are the weakest link in our election security,” Mr. Miller said in a statement. “This change removes that weakest link without doing anything to prevent access. It’s actually easier to vote early in person — and we provide far more days than most states for that.”

Georgia was a key to President Biden’s victory as well as the Democratic takeover of the Senate, and this is the second year that Georgia Republicans are focused on voting restrictions. Mr. Miller’s proposal is among a raft of new bills that underscore how much Republicans have embraced Mr. Trump’s false narrative that voter fraud cost him the 2020 election.

One measure under consideration would allow Georgians to use paper ballots if they have concerns about the recently purchased touch-screen voting machines that were the subject of fantastical fraud claims promulgated by some of Mr. Trump’s supporters.

Another proposal would allow the state bureau of investigation to open inquiries into allegations of voter fraud. Yet another would create a constitutional amendment to prevent noncitizens from voting — even though they are already barred from voting under existing state law.

At the same time, the elections board in Fulton County, the most populous in the state and a Democratic stronghold, is the subject of a state investigation of its management practices. In theory, this investigation could lead to a Republican-directed takeover of the local election board — one that was made possible by the 2021 election law.

The investigation, and the new proposals before the Republican-controlled legislature, have triggered fresh anger among Democrats who believe the measures could contribute to an already unfair playing field in a state where numerous Trump-backed candidates are running for statewide offices in the November elections.

“The most disturbing thing is that the people who have an iron grip on power in the General Assembly believe that they have to continue to suppress voting in order to maintain that iron grip,” said David Worley, a Democrat and former member of the state elections board. “And they’re willing to try any method at hand to do that.”

Though Republicans dominate the state legislature, some of the proposals may prove to be, at most, performative gestures by lawmakers eager to show the party’s base that they are responsive to Trump-fueled concerns about voter fraud. The measure that would expand the role of the state investigations bureau, backed by the powerful House speaker, David Ralston, may have the greatest chance of success.

Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, this week sounded a less than enthusiastic note about going much further than the 2021 voting law, which he called “the No. 1-ranked elections integrity act in the country.”

More than any other state, Georgia was the linchpin of Democrats’ fortunes in 2020 — the Republican stronghold that not only flipped for President Biden, but delivered the Senate to him, said Larry Sabato, the veteran political analyst and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“That’s why the new voting rules in Georgia and elsewhere matter so much,” he said. “Will they shave just enough votes from the Democratic column to put Republicans firmly back in the driver’s seat? If the G.O.P. sees that no penalty is paid for voter suppression, surely that will encourage Republicans to do it wherever they can get away with it.”

He added: “In both 2022 and 2024, Georgia is going to be the canary in the coal mine. And it’s a pretty damn big canary.”

In a year that saw Republican-led legislatures nationwide pile new restrictions on voting, the elections law that Georgia lawmakers passed last spring was less notable for its severity than for its specificity. The measure took dead aim at the record 1.3 million absentee votes cast the previous November, disproportionately by Democrats. It did so by sharply reining in the use of drop boxes that were favored by mail-in voters, imposing ID requirements on absentee ballots and raising stiff barriers to the distribution of mail-in ballot applications by both local officials and voting drives.

Atop that, the law allowed for state takeovers of county election boards, banned mobile voting sites in heavily Democratic Atlanta and even barred residents from providing food and water to voters waiting in line at the polls.

The 2021 statute drew a number of legal challenges, including by the U.S. Department of Justice, which argues that the law violates the federal Voting Rights Act by making it harder to vote and that it was racially motivated. Major League Baseball moved its All-Star Game out of the state in protest.

The state law, as well as federal voting rights legislation praised by President Biden in a visit to Atlanta this week, is expected to be front and center in upcoming statewide campaigns. The governor’s race is likely to pit the country’s best-known voting rights advocate, Stacey Abrams, a Democrat, against either Mr. Kemp, whom Ms. Abrams has openly accused of voter suppression in her 2018 race against him, or former U.S. Senator David Perdue, Mr. Kemp’s Republican primary challenger, who has echoed Mr. Trump’s baseless fraud claims.

On Tuesday, Mr. Kemp, in a news conference preceding Mr. Biden’s speech, defended the 2021 election law, saying that the Biden administration had “lied” about it — a reference to Mr. Biden’s untrue assertion that the law “ends voting hours early.”

He blamed Mr. Biden, Ms. Abrams and Vice President Kamala Harris for the backlash to the law, including the loss of the All-Star game, which he said had cost the state $100 million. He warned that the federal voting rights laws Mr. Biden was pushing for amounted to a political grab by Democrats.

“Make no mistake,” he said, “Georgia is ground zero for the Biden-Harris assault on election integrity, as well as an attempt to federalize everything from how hard-working Georgians run their businesses, to what our kids are taught in school, to how we run elections.”

Mr. Kemp and Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, have both earned places atop Mr. Trump’s list of enemies for defying the former president’s demands that they help overturn his electoral loss in Georgia.

Like Mr. Kemp, Mr. Raffensperger has been eager to show Republican voters that he has his own concerns about election integrity in Georgia. He has been one of the most prominent voices calling for a state constitutional amendment barring noncitizens from voting, and in a news conference on Tuesday, he called for a similar amendment to the U.S. Constitution, noting that noncitizen voting in local elections is now legal in places like New York City for municipal elections.

Mr. Raffensperger is locked in a tough primary fight with an ultraconservative Trump-backed congressional candidate, Representative Jody Hice, whose backing of Mr. Trump’s fraud claims included signing on to a Supreme Court case that sought to overturn the November 2020 election results in Georgia and three other states.

If Mr. Hice wins the general election, “there’s a good chance that Georgia’s electoral votes will be pushed into the Republican column in 2024, regardless of the popular vote,” Mr. Sabato noted. “That could easily be copied in other swing states with right-wing secretaries of state and G.O.P. state legislatures.”

In a state where Mr. Biden squeaked to victory by fewer than 12,000 votes, even a slight drop in turnout might be enough to turn a would-be Democratic victory into defeat, a calculus that seems hard to ignore in election measures the legislature passed last year.

Some results of the 2021 law have already become apparent.

After the measure eliminated more than three of every four ballot drop boxes in metropolitan Atlanta, the share of voters using the boxes dropped by roughly half in the region’s municipal elections in November, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this week. Drop boxes were completely shut down the Friday before Election Day — precisely the time when voters who had neglected to mail their ballots needed them most.

In six largely rural counties, the legislature gave conservative judges or Republican-dominated county commissions control of some or all appointments to local election boards. One of the newly constituted boards already has ended early voting on Sunday, a tradition among Democratic-leaning Black voters.

Together, the six counties cast 33,400 votes for Mr. Biden in 2020, three times his margin of victory statewide.

“They control who registers, whose ballots are counted,” said Helen Butler, a leader of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda and a Democrat who was kicked off the Morgan County board in June. “There are a lot of things you can to do prevent people from exercising their right to vote, and the total control and access is there.”

The ongoing scrutiny of the elections system has also drawn a number of once-obscure local elections officials into an unwelcome spotlight. The Fulton County elections director, Rick Barron, announced his resignation in November.

Last week, Jeanetta Watson, the head of elections in Macon-Bibb County government, tendered her resignation as well, writing that an “excessive workload” and “rapidly changing election laws, policies and procedures” had “taken a toll on my mental health.”

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