The Georgia House passed HB 531, an omnibus elections bill that would limit absentee and early voting access for Georgians.

The Georgia House passed HB 531, an omnibus elections bill that would limit absentee and early voting access for Georgians.

Credit: Stephen Fowler | GPB News

Over objections from Democrats, Georgia House Republicans passed a sweeping elections bill 97-72 that would enact more restrictions for absentee voting and cut back on weekend early voting hours favored by larger counties, among other changes.

HB 531 would also strip the Secretary of State of his role as chair of the State Election Board, prevent county elections offices from receiving direct grant funding, shorten Georgia's runoff period and require counties to add more staff, equipment or polling places in large precincts with long lines.

The bill's sponsor, House Special Committee on Election Integrity Chairman Rep. Barry Fleming (R-Harlem), said the 66-page measure "is designed to begin to bring back the confidence of our voters back into our election system" after Republicans lost confidence in the Republican-backed voting system following Democrats' victories in the November presidential contest and both U.S. Senate seats.

One of the most controversial sections in the bill would mandate counties have the same early voting dates and times: three weeks of Monday through Friday voting, one mandatory Saturday and one additional Saturday or Sunday during the first weekend.

"The bill sets more uniform voting times for advanced voting across the state, and attempts to bring more uniformity to our state and less confusion," Fleming said. 

But Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Black Columbus Democrat and longest-serving member in the chamber, said Fleming's logic was hypocritical and discriminatory against Black voters that use the second Sunday for "souls to the polls" events.

"It takes away the ability to have uniformity in every county," he said. "For example, if a county chooses the first Sunday, the situation will be extremely confusing for county residents with voting closed on that Saturday. An avalanche of misinformation will follow regarding when voting happens on weekends. Confusion deters voting, which brings about voter suppression."

Speaker pro tem Jan Jones (R-Milton) spoke about sections of the bill that restrict access to secure drop boxes, limiting the number of boxes and requiring them to be inside early voting sites and only available during in-person early voting.

"Drop boxes are the most inconvenient way to vote absentee," she said. "Were we to eliminate drop boxes, which we are not, not a single absentee voter would be inconvenienced because every voter has a drop box called a mailbox."

In addition to the drop boxes, Georgia voters can return absentee ballots in person to their county elections office or use the mail, both arguably more inconvenient than a secure 24/7 monitored drop box that minimizes human contact in a pandemic.

Rep. Bee Nguyen (D-Atlanta) said in a floor speech that Republican lawmakers were passing harmful legislation that helps continue a narrative that led to death threats for elected officials and elections workers and contributed to the insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol in January.

"We are legislating on lies... lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories that have gone unchecked by many members of this body, who stayed silent, who signed on to the Texas lawsuit or who encouraged sham hearings in our General Assembly," she said. "Members of this body aided and abetted a deliberate misinformation campaign to sow seeds of doubt among Georgia voters with absolutely no facts or evidence."

Minority Leader James Beverly said the bill did not reflect bipartisan efforts to handle election changes and said it "silences the voice of Georgians."

"In the opening salvo: Line eight restricts access, line 15 limits my ability to vote, line 21 limits my ability to vote, line 25 limits my ability to vote, line 30 restricts access, and it goes on and on for 66 pages," he said. "I stand in opposition to this bill because Democrats weren't involved in any meaningful conversation before 531 was haphazardly thrown together in committee and passed." 

The bill now heads to the Senate, which is considering its own omnibus measure that would end no-excuse absentee voting, among other changes.