Home National Georgia Republicans speed sweeping elections bill restricting voting access into law

Georgia Republicans speed sweeping elections bill restricting voting access into law

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 03: Demonstrators stand outside of the Georgia Capitol building, to oppose the HB 531 bill on March 3, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. HB 531 will add controversial voting restrictions to the state's upcoming elections including restricting ballot drop boxes, requiring an ID requirement for absentee voting and limiting weekend early voting days. The Georgia House passed the bill and will send it to the Senate. (Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Republicans in Georgia sped a sweeping elections bill into law Thursday, making it the first presidential battleground to impose new voting restrictions following President Joe Biden’s victory in the state.

The bill passed the Georgia Senate by 34-20 late Thursday afternoon, and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp swiftly signed it.

The law imposes new voter identification requirements for absentee ballots, empowers state officials to take over local elections boards, limits the use of ballot drop boxes and makes it a crime to approach voters in line to give them food and water.

“It’s like the Christmas tree of goodies for voter suppression,” Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan said on the Senate floor as lawmakers prepared to vote on the nearly 100-page bill Thursday.

Republicans cast the measure, dubbed The Election Integrity Act of 2021, as necessary to boost confidence in elections after the 2020 election saw then-President Donald Trump make repeated, unsubstantiated claims of fraud.

The package is part of a national Republican effort that aims to restrict access to the ballot box following record turnout in the election.

Biden, in his first White House press conference Thursday that he will “do everything” in his power to halt efforts to restrict voting rights, saying that he thinks the efforts underway in state legislatures are “un-American.”

The Georgia bill underwent major change in recent days — growing from a narrow, two-page bill into a sweeping omnibus package to the brink of becoming law in a little over week. Voting rights activists in the state held rallies and threatened corporate boycotts in an unsuccessful attempt to disrupt its progress through the General Assembly.

“They have rammed this through as quickly as possible,” said Jonathan Diaz, a top lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center in Washington. “I suspect because they know many of the provisions in this bill are not very popular.”

Voting rights advocates say they are alarmed by measures that will allow any Georgian to lodge an unlimited number of challenges to voter registrations and eligibility, saying it could target voters of color. And Democrats in the Georgia Senate on Thursday lambasted measures that boot the secretary of state as chairman of the state elections board and allow lawmakers to install his replacement, giving lawmakers three of five appointments.

Another provision shortens the runoff cycle from the current nine weeks to just four weeks.

During Thursday’s floor debate, Republican state Rep. Barry Fleming argued the bill would provide “more accountability” to the election process in the state.

Voting rights groups have slammed the far-reaching law particularly for provisions aimed at the secretary of state and local election officials. They argue that granting the state new powers over county elections bucks the tradition of local control and could lead to a scenario in which state officials swoop in to prevent a county from certifying its election results.

“It will make what we all lived through in 2020, child’s play,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo — CEO of Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group founded by Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams — in a news conference on Tuesday, as the bill was approved to head to the full House for a vote.

The bill is part of a larger effort by GOP-led legislatures across the country to pass restrictive voting measures in key states like Arizona, Michigan and Florida. As of February, state legislators in 43 states have introduced more than 250 bills with restrictive voting provisions, according to a tally from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

House Speaker David Ralston supported the legislation, saying that it made “voting more accessible and improves election security.”

The bill comes as Georgia’s changing demographics have made the longtime Republican stronghold a key political battleground.

Last November, Biden became the first Democrat in nearly three decades to win the state. And strong voter turnout in January helped send two Democrats to the US Senate, flipping control of the chamber to their party. One of those new senators, Raphael Warnock, captured his seat in a special election and will be on the ballot again in 2022.

The law makes broad changes to how elections are administered and how and when voters can receive and cast their ballots. Voters will have to request absentee ballots 11 days before an election, rather than the Friday before Election Day as currently allowed.

Additionally, voters who seek absentee ballots have to provide a copy of their identification or the number of their Georgia driver’s license or state ID to both apply for and return the ballot. It also prohibits the secretary of state’s office from sending unsolicited absentee ballot applications, as it did before the 2020 primaries due to the coronavirus pandemic.