A sign directs voters to the polls in Gwinnett County.
Caption
A sign directs voters to the polls in Gwinnett County.
Credit: Stephen Fowler | GPB News

Republicans in the Georgia House have released an omnibus elections bill that proposes tougher restrictions on both absentee and in-person early voting, among other sweeping changes to election laws after a controversial 2020 election.

HB 531, filed by Rep. Barry Fleming (R-Harlem) was introduced directly into the Special Committee on Election Integrity on Thursday, and the text of the bill was made available about an hour before the 3 p.m. hearing.

Section 12 of the bill would provide "uniformity" to the three-week early voting period, Fleming said, requiring all counties to hold early voting from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday for three weeks before the election, plus a mandatory 9-to-5 period of voting the second Saturday before the election. It would allow counties to extend hours to 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., but would prohibit counties from holding early voting any other days — including Sunday voting popular in larger metro counties and a high turnout day for Black voters that hold "souls to the polls" events.

Like other bills making their way through the GOP-controlled legislature, there would be a new photo ID requirement for absentee ballots. In HB 531, voters would need to include their driver's license number, state ID number, or a copy of acceptable form of photo ID. The driver's license number or state ID number is already required for the newly created online request portal, and photo ID is required to vote in person.

But the proposal would also shrink the window voters can request an absentee ballot and limit the timeline that county officials can mail them out. No absentee ballot could be requested earlier than 11 weeks before an election or later than two Fridays before the election, and absentee-by-mail ballots would not be sent out until four weeks before day of the election.

The bill restricts the location of secure drop boxes to early voting sites, and limits the use of those drop boxes to just the days and times where early voting takes place. Another section would ban county elections offices from directly accepting outside funding for elections, coming after the Center for Tech and Civic Life and the Schwarzenegger Institute gave tens of millions of dollars to counties across Georgia to run the November and January elections amidst a pandemic.

Many of the changes in the bill would predominantly affect larger, minority-heavy Democratic strongholds of the state, constituencies that helped Joe Biden narrowly defeat Donald Trump in November and flipped both U.S. Senate seats in January. In recent months, many Republicans at the local, state and federal level have pushed false claims of election fraud and lawmakers in Georgia have vowed to change laws in response.

For example, one section appears to target Fulton County's mobile voting buses, which were used during early voting to hold several pop-up locations under a recent Georgia law that allows early voting sites to be held at any location that is an election day polling location. This bill appears to target a different code section unrelated to early voting sites.

Some changes would give county elections workers more flexibility and greater staffing for polling locations, such as a code tweak that allows poll workers to be from adjoining counties instead of just the county of their residence. Another would allow officials leeway in the requirement of voting equipment for lower-turnout primaries and runoffs.  But elsewhere, the deadline for results to be counted and certified is moved four days sooner to the Monday after the election.

Fleming's bill revives a measure supported by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger last year that would require precincts with over 2,000 voters and lines longer than one hour to add more workers, more machines or split the precinct.

Rep. Rhonda Burnough (D-Riverdale) expressed concern that Democrats did not have any input into the 48-page measure, and the quick timing of the bill.

"The public, people of color, they didn't have opportunity to review or to give an opinion and there's a lot of information in here that needs to be digested and looked at," she said. " I think if we're trying to really work towards restoring confidence that we should be working towards improving everything based on suggestions from the entire state of Georgia, not just us down here in the General Assembly."

There will be more hearings on the bill in the coming days before it's potentially voted out to the House floor.