Credit: John McCosh/Georgia Recorder 2020 file photo
Latest election overhaul on state Senate agenda as poll supervisors fret more change
A Georgia Senate panel could take up as early as Monday a sweeping voting bill that’s raising alarms over concerns its provisions could intimidate election workers and voters and hamper a county’s ability to run local elections.
County election office directors, Democratic lawmakers, and a coalition of voting rights groups say the most troubling aspect of House Bill 1464 is that it gives the Georgia Bureau of Investigation the ability to initiate election investigations, a significant change that would divert jurisdiction from the Secretary of State’s Office and State Election Board to the crime fighting agency.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed budget for the upcoming year includes $504,000 to pay four GBI staff members plus expenses to investigate election complaints.
The plan endorsed by Blue Ridge Republican House Speaker David Ralston would give the state’s top law enforcement agency the ability to handle complex election cases and quell the rash of voting fraud allegations in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election.
Despite election results holding up under several counts and assurances from the FBI and other federal and state agencies that President Joe Biden fairly beat former President Donald Trump in 2020, unfounded charges of fraud continue to swirl among a large block of voters and elected officials.
Last year, Republican lawmakers pushed through an election overhaul instituting a laundry list of new restrictions reversing some of the accommodations created to ease voting during the pandemic in 2020.
This year’s election overhaul will likely undergo changes in the Ethics Committee before it could head to a Senate floor vote.
Douglas County Election Director Milton Kidd said allowing the GBI to be the first agency to look into election cases could have a ‘chilling effect’ on poll workers and voters who might fear becoming targets of unfounded fraud accusations. Or minor mistakes being treated more seriously than innocent administrative mistakes.
Paulding County Election Supervisor Deidre Holden said she believes the GBI shouldn’t become involved unless there is strong evidence of criminal activity. A better use of resources would be to provide enough funding to the Secretary of State for investigators to handle the caseload, said Holden, the immediate past-president of Georgia Association of Voter Registration and Election Officials.
“I feel that election investigations should only be prompted if there is good reason to have an investigation, not for hearsay or media-driven accusations. Solid evidence,” Holden said. “ I believe that the (secretary of state’s) Investigation Division is doing a great job.”
Under the bill, the GBI can also subpoena election records and electronic devices with the approval of the state attorney general.
In February, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced his endorsement of hiring GBI elections investigators and suggested putting state troopers at polling places and election offices to keep order.
Raffensperger’s refusal to overturn the results of the 2020 election angered Trump and many of his allies. Public criticism of Georgia’s elections prompted Republican lawmakers to overhaul the law and strip power from the state’s top elections chief.
Texas and Florida Republican lawmakers have also tried to expand the scope of election investigations.
Despite spending $2.2 million last year on an election fraud task force established by Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, a fervent Trump supporter, only three cases were resolved in 2021, The largest involved a person who illegally assisted with 10 mail-in ballot applications in 2020 and the other two concerned three illegal votes cast in the 2018 and 2020 elections, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in Florida are considering allocating $3.7 million to create an elections police force and elections crime division backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Election year changes stress system
The proposed new overhaul would layer new rules onto 2021’s Georgia election overhaul, Senate Bill 202, which added a government ID requirement for absentee voting, placed strict limits on absentee drop boxes and allowed the state to take over troubled local election boards.
Kemp and some other high-ranking GOP officials said early this year that sweeping changes to election law were unnecessary this legislative session after creation of the so-called Election Integrity Act 2021.
While not as extensive as the 2021 law, this year’s proposed directives include provisions for making sure ballots are stored in sealed containers, requiring documentation of each time a ballot is handled, and requiring the State Election Board to distribute private donations to local election offices.
The measure also makes it a felony to threaten, intimidate, or prevent election workers from completing their duties.
Some critics say proposed methodical chain of custody requirements for ballots are not necessary, that longer lines at polls could result from the changes, and that restricting outside groups from directly donating gifts to local election offices would likely cost $43 million, or the bulk of donations made in 2020 to supplement cash-strapped county election budgets.
Although the Association County Commissioners of Georgia has not taken an official position on the House bill, Deputy Legislative Director Todd Edward said election officials are hoping to have more time to implement last year’s changes as they gear up for 2020’s busy statewide election cycle.
The constant retraining of poll workers can be especially challenging for smaller or medium-sized communities that are struggling to find enough poll workers, Edwards said.
“The ink is still drying on Senate Bill 202 and we’re still struggling to implement all of those requirements,” he said. “We were hoping this year to step back and take a breath while implementing Senate Bill 202 rather than adding responsibilities in the midst of a primary and general election year.”
“They’re all well-intentioned, but what is the impact going to be on medium and smaller communities,” he said.
Kemp said in January he would not support changes to election law that undermine SB 202.
That likely spells trouble for plans from Sen. Burt Jones to end no- excuse absentee voting and his Republican primary opponents for lieutenant governor, Gainesville Sen. Butch Miller’s legislation calling for a ban on drop boxes.
Aspects of this year’s sweeping bill do have broad support across party lines and among election directors for easing the deadline for completing election night reports and giving employees time off to vote.
Holden said she supports more stringent chain of custody protocols, which include measures her office already follows. The funneling of the donations through the state board can better ensure that gifts are spread out based on the county needs, she said.
Holden also agrees that it’ll be challenging to get poll workers ready if the Legislature approves HB 1464, which would go into effect on July 1.
“It seems like when we get a good slate of poll workers trained and they are conducting elections in their polling locations successfully, we have to re-train them,” Holden said.
“It is our job to conduct all elections with integrity and transparency to the very best of our ability,” she added.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.