Georgia Braces for Another Round of Election Law Changes

Staff Report From Georgia CEO

Monday, April 8th, 2024

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For the second election cycle in a row, the ground rules will be different when Georgia voters head to the polls in November.

The General Assembly passed the most far-reaching election law changes last month since 2021, when the legislature’s Republican majorities enacted a sweeping election system overhaul following Democrat Joe Biden’s narrow victory in the Peach State in 2020 and the capture by Democrats of both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats in January 2021 runoffs.

The passage of most of the following five bills came primarily along party lines:

  • Senate Bill 189 – Makes it easier to file mass voter challenges; eliminates QR codes from paper ballots; eases requirements for third-party presidential candidates to get on Georgia’s ballot.

  • House Bill 1207 – Allows fewer voting machines on election days; requires poll workers to be U.S. citizens; allows closer access for poll watchers.

  • Senate Bill 368 – Prohibits campaign contributions from foreign nationals.

  • House Bill 974 – Requires secretary of state to set up a statewide system to scan and post paper ballots at a minimum resolution; requires more audits of statewide election results.

  • House Bill 1312 – Reschedules state Public Service Commission elections following a ruling in a lawsuit accusing the current system of violating the federal Voting Rights Act.

Senate Bill 189 and House Bill 1207 have drawn the most criticism from legislative Democrats and voting-rights advocates, so much so that the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia has threatened to sue if Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signs Senate Bill 189.

The 12-section bill was cobbled together last month after many of its provisions had failed to move when introduced earlier in the 2024 session as separate measures.

What opponents find most objectionable is a provision establishing probable cause – an easier burden of proof to meet – as the standard for filing a successful voter challenge. In 2022, Republican activists filed thousands of voter challenges in Democratic-leaning counties only to see local election boards dismiss the vast majority as baseless.

Opponents of Senate Bill 189 say they expect to see even more challenges this year once Senate Bill 189 becomes law.

“We are making voter challenges easier to bring and easier to sustain,” state Rep. Saira Draper, D-Atlanta, said on the House floor before the bill gained passage on the last night of this year’s legislative session. “Mass voter challenges do not clean the rolls. They hurt eligible voters.”

“Access to the ballot is at the heart of our democracy,” added Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia. “This election ‘Frankenbill’ violates the National Voter Registration Act. We are committed to protecting Georgia voters.”

Republicans say this year’s election bills are aimed at restoring election integrity, citing claims of widespread voter fraud lodged by GOP officials after the 2020 election. Those claims were subsequently dismissed by courts that found no widespread fraud.

“What’s crazy to me is the idea that anybody in this chamber would be OK with a fraudulent vote canceling your legal vote or anybody’s legal vote,” Rep. John LaHood, R-Valdosta, chairman of the House Governmental Affairs Committee, said on the House floor. “Fraud makes votes not matter. What this does is make sure your legal vote does matter.”

“Our bill actually makes the process of challenging more difficult,” added Rep. Victor Anderson, R-Cornelia. “It actually is designed to clarify what constitutes a valid challenge and constitutes an invalid challenge.”

House Bill 1207 takes Republican-led efforts to reduce the supply of voting machines an additional step. After absentee ballot drop boxes were made widely available leading up to the 2020 elections because of the pandemic, the passage of Senate Bill 202 in 2021 limited the number of drop boxes.

The new legislation would give local election superintendents discretion to allow fewer voting machines on Election Day than current law requires, depending on the voter turnout they expect.

“The legislature ignored the input of election directors from across the state about these provisions and how it would impact their ability to conduct elections … in the name of solving problems that do not exist,” said Anne Gray Herring, policy analyst for Common Cause Georgia.

While both Senate Bill 189 and House Bill 1207 passed along partisan lines, Senate Bill 368 sailed through the Senate unanimously and cleared the House with only two “no” votes. To Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, prohibiting campaign contributions from foreign nationals was the most important of the election bills.

“This commonsense measure defends Georgia elections,” Raffensperger said. “Voters deserve assurance that their elections remain free from foreign influence.”

House Bill 974 was less controversial than Senate Bill 189 and House Bill 1207, drawing support from many legislative Democrats.

Still, some Democrats expressed frustration with the bill’s election audit requirements.

“We’ve done audit after audit. We’ve done study after study,” said Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Atlanta. “Our elections are secure. There is no widespread voter fraud.”

House Bill 1312 was forced upon the General Assembly by a federal lawsuit charging the current system of electing the five members of the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) statewide rather than by district dilutes Black voting strength in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

While the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals subsequently upheld the current system, the case forced the cancellation of PSC elections in 2022 and again this year. House Bill 1312 rescheduled the elections for 2026 and 2028.

Democrats complained the new schedule would let commissioners who normally serve six-year terms stay in office for eight years or longer. Republicans countered that they had no choice because of the court case.

While most of the bills would take effect in time for the November elections, a provision in Senate Bill 189 eliminating QR codes from paper ballots wouldn’t become law until 2026. That’s to give the secretary of state’s office time to develop new technology to replace the QR codes.