ATLANTA — A bill that would institute stricter absentee ID requirements, limit ballot drop boxes and give state lawmakers more control over local election administration passed both chambers Thursday and now heads to the governor’s desk.

The bitter battles over election legislation spurred by the 2020 election came to fruition on Thursday when lawmakers voted in favor of passing Senate Bill 202 which outlines nearly 100 pages of new voting rules. Changes opponents say would harm and disenfranchise voters.

The measure passed along a party-line vote in both the House and Senate.

Gov. Brian Kemp moved swiftly to sign the bill not long after it passed which he called a step “toward ensuring our elections are secure, accessible and fair.”

“After the November election last year, I knew like, so many of you, that significant reforms to our state elections were needed,” he said. “There’s no doubt there were many alarming issues with how the election was handled, and those problems, understandably led to the crisis of confidence.”

The revisions to the state’s election system also include an expansion of early, in-person voting for most voters and a provision that shortens Georgia’s runoff period from nine to four weeks.

“The bill greatly expands accessibility of voters in Georgia and greatly improves the process of administration of elections, while at the same time providing more accountability to ensure the integrity of the vote is properly preserved,” said Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, who led voting bills in the House.

Sylvania Republican Sen. Max Burns, who carried the bill in his chamber, said the final bill included provisions from both House and Senate omnibus bills and is a “reasoned, well thought out, collaborative effort by both bodies.”

“Our goal is to ensure election integrity and to restore or to confirm confidence in the election process,” he said.

The omnibus elections overhaul measures that have been debated under the Gold Dome sparked both statewide and national outcry from voting rights advocates and Democrats who claim Republican lawmakers are responding to the former president’s false allegations of voter fraud.

While restrictive voting measures are under consideration in a number of state’s across the country, Georgia lawmakers — who grabbed nationwide attention during the last election cycle — have been under increased scrutiny. Earlier versions of voting bills included more extreme measures like doing away with no-excuse absentee voting altogether.

Republicans have also walked back an earlier provision that would have done away with early in-person voting on Sundays which voting rights advocates called a direct attack on Black voters who often take part in “Souls to the Polls” events with their faith community. The final provision actually expands weekend early voting by requiring two Saturdays of early voting and allowing for an optional Sunday.

Democrats in both the statehouse and Congress have fiercely opposed the bills that would upend the state’s current election administration arguing they would make it harder to vote — particularly for Georgians of color. Protesters set up camp outside of the state capitol throughout the legislative session and took part in numerous demonstrations against the election changes across Atlanta.

“We cannot undermine free and fair elections in Georgia because of baseless and unproven claims of fraud,” Rep. Kim Alexander, D-Hiram, said Thursday.

Opponents have also criticized the measure as a “power grab” by the GOP-controlled General Assembly as it would also remove the secretary of state as the chair of the State Election Board and allow lawmakers to take over “problematic” county elections offices if they feel intervention is needed.

“Some of the most dangerous provisions have to do with the takeover of local elections boards and not only that but at the state election board level,” Atlanta Democrat Sen. Jen Jordan said. “…The majority party in the Senate and the House would effectively control the state election board.”

Drop boxes — which were largely hailed as a success after being instituted to bolster public safety during the pandemic — would be limited in number, location and hours of access as well as require round-the-clock monitoring. It also criminalizes “line warming” or passing out food and water to voters in line.

“Make no mistake, this is democracy in reverse. Some politicians did not approve of the choice made by voters in our hard-fought election,” Minority Leader Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, said.

Republicans have framed the 2020 election as riddled with issues across Georgia’s 159 counties but voters turned out in record numbers despite the pandemic — utilizing absentee ballots to cast their votes unlike ever before. All ballots cast in the presidential contest were tallied three times, including once by hand.

“I think the challenge is not the fact that the votes were counted incorrectly — they were counted correctly,” Burns said. “The challenge is whether the votes themselves were legitimate.”

Atlanta Democrat Rep. Zulma Lopez said the bill would disproportionately harm voters of color who turned out in droves during the 2020 election cycle. A diversifying electorate in Georgia helped the state back a Democrat for president and send two Democrats to the U.S. Senate — the first Jewish and Black U.S. Senators in the state’s history.

“Close to 2.5 million Democrats voted in the general election in 2020,” Lopez said. “Yet Democrats in this House were left out of any meaningful input into the drafting of this bill.”

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(c)2021 The Valdosta Daily Times (Valdosta, Ga.)

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