Voting rights advocates and experts are raising alarm about a surprise "voter suppression bill" introduced by Georgia's GOP legislators on Thursday in the wake of the state's residents helping return the White House and U.S. Senate to Democratic control with the November presidential election and a pair of runoffs in January.
"Georgia Republican lawmakers are brazenly trying to silence voters through House Bill 531, which includes deliberate restrictions on early voting, absentee voting, and ballot drop boxes," declared Aklima Khondoker, Georgia state director of All Voting Is Local Action, a campaign of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
"This is a desperate attempt to solidify their own power by silencing others," Khondoker said in a statement Friday. "Despite a global pandemic and repressive legislative attempts to block access to the ballot, record numbers of Georgians voted in 2020 using every method available, and now that accessibility is under attack."
"This bill targets all Georgians, and particularly punishes low-income voters, people in rural communities, the elderly, and religious communities of color," she added. "It's critical that lawmakers reject this alarming legislation that aggressively limits voting in communities that have long suffered diminished access to the ballot.
The text of the 48-page omnibus bill, filed by state Rep. Barry Fleming (R-Harlem), was made public on Thursday shortly before the Georgia House's Special Committee on Election Integrity's 3 pm hearing on the measure. In response, Common Cause Georgia executive director Aunna Dennis charged that "the Georgia Legislature's practice of leaving the public out of 'the people's business' reached a new low."
Also from a top Democratic elections law attorney ... https://t.co/cWFUHEIO5U
— Greg Bluestein (@bluestein) February 18, 2021
The bill would limit access to secure ballot drop boxes, reduce the time frame that voters can request and return absentee ballots, require voters to submit a copy of their photo identification or state ID number to vote absentee, and prohibit government agencies from sending out ballot applications. It would also restrict early voting to 9 am to 5 pm on Monday through Friday and eliminate early voting on Sundays, when Black churches hold "Souls to the Polls" events.
Ari Berman reported for Mother Jones that the bill "limits the weekend early-voting period to only one Saturday before the election. Fleming claimed the provision will provide 'uniformity' in voting hours across the state, but in practice it will take away voting opportunities for large, heavily Democratic counties in Atlanta, like DeKalb and Fulton, which held early voting on multiple weekends in the runup to the 2020 election when many Black voters turned out."
"By aiming at our ability to cast ballots, Georgia's legislators are striking at the very core of our government."
—Aunna Dennis, Common Cause Georgia
As Dennis noted: "This is the same voting system that a Republican-led legislature and a Republican governor established 15 years ago. The voting system that produced results in November that were upheld by multiple audits, multiple recounts, and dozens of court cases."
"Now our Republican legislators want to slash away at their own system, without any public input. This bill is Jim Crow with a suit and tie," she asserted. "Georgia's voters deserve better than to be shut out of legislators' discussions—particularly when those discussions involve new barriers to voting."
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Dennis blasted GOP legislators for serving their party interests or political donors rather than the people of Georgia with what she described as an attack on democracy—warning that "by aiming at our ability to cast ballots, Georgia's legislators are striking at the very core of our government."
GOP members of the Georgia House aren't the only ones under fire, explained Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America:
Georgia Senate Republicans have introduced their own bills to restrict voting access, including ending no-excuse absentee voting—which 1.3 million voters used in 2020—and adding voter ID requirements for mail-in ballots. The bills were passed by subcommittees of the Senate Ethics Committee at 7 am on Wednesday morning with no public livestream, which also prompted an outcry from Democratic members who argued that Republicans were passing the bills with little public scrutiny.
"Clearly we are trying to hide something from the public, the people we answer to," state Sen. Elena Parent, a Democrat from Atlanta, told the Associated Press. "This gamesmanship is unacceptable."
In a joint letter (pdf) Friday to the Special Committee on Election Integrity, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the SPLC Action Fund took Georgia lawmakers to task for yet another measure that would "create unnecessary barriers and burdens on voters that disproportionately impact racial minority, low-income, elderly, rural, disabled and/or student voters—rather than foster ways to expand political participation on the heels of ever-grown participation by Georgians in elections."
BREAKING: We submitted testimony today in opposition to yet ANOTHER VOTER SUPPRESSION bill introduced in Georgia. The hearing on this 48-page bill, HB 531, was held less than 24 hours after it was introduced. Fortunately, @NAACP_LDF & @splcaction have our #eyesontheprize. https://t.co/lhQEis5374
— Sherrilyn Ifill (@Sifill_LDF) February 19, 2021
While the GOP's voter suppression efforts in Georgia have garnered national attention because of the state's significance to federal elections—not to mention former President Donald Trump's attempts to pressure Republican state leaders to "find" votes to reverse his loss, moves that have led to a criminal probe by a local prosecutor—measures designed to limit ballot access are far from restricted to the Peach State.
As Common Dreams reported in early February, just over a month into the new year, Republicans in over two dozen states have already introduced more than 100 bills to restrict voting access, according to an analysis conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.
"Democrats have a clear choice," Berman said at the time, referring to members of Congress. "They can get rid of the filibuster to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act to stop GOP voter suppression, or they can allow the GOP to undermine democracy for the next decade."