Five Republican members of the Senate Ethics committee voted to approve an elections bill that some officials say could violate federal law.

Five Republican members of the Senate Ethics committee voted to approve an elections bill that some officials say could violate federal law.

Credit: Senate Press Office

The Georgia Senate Ethics Committee passed a version of an elections omnibus bill Tuesday night that might violate federal law and includes a last-minute ban on absentee drop boxes.

A Republican majority on the committee approved a substitute to Senate Bill 221 that was only available to lawmakers and the public for about 10 hours before the vote, including several amendments that, in some cases, were crafted in real time or after lawmakers and legal counsel for the committee questioned the need for certain language included in the substitute.

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NOTE: This version of the bill is the underlying version given to lawmakers before Tuesday's meeting and does not include any of the amendments approved or discussed in the meeting such as deleting the entire section dealing with drop boxes from the state code.

Some of the sections of the bill make tweaks to language approved in 2021's 98-page omnibus SB 202 about state and local elections, including: more flexibility in voting machine allocation; a later deadline to provide the total number of ballots cast in an election; and further clarifying third-party absentee application language.

But other changes are rooted in conspiracies and falsehoods about the 2020 election that have been perpetuated by some Republicans who continue to claim that election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. 

Blake Evans, the state election director, testified that a section of the bill expanding challenges to voter registrations could violate the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 by removing people from Georgia's rolls without going through a confirmation process. He expressed concerns about the reliability of using the National Change of Address database as the primary reason to cancel a voter registration.

"We cannot take any adverse action on that voter record to cancel that voter or to require that that voter reapply or re-register without that voter giving us a signature or going through the confirmation notice to be to be canceled," Evans explained about the process, as a group of people who deny the outcome of the 2020 election rolled their eyes behind him. "So I would have some concerns there on that."

Evans touted the state's membership in ERIC, the Electronic Registration Information Center, which is a secure multi-state voter registration database that allows states to more quickly identify both new residents that could register to vote and voters that have moved away or died that should no longer be on the rolls. He also said that while the secretary of state's office was seeking funding to host a statewide repository of ballot images from election, the bill's request that images be available at a quality of 300 DPI is higher than what the scanners Georgia uses are capable of.

The roughly 20-page bill would also ban non-citizens from working in elections, add more risk-limiting audits and would have barred prosecutors from being accused of prosecutorial misconduct for investigating election law violations. But several senators and the legislative counsel for the committee pointed out existing sovereign immunity language covered the intent and the section was removed. 

Another part of the bill could allow some elections to be conducted on hand-marked paper ballots instead of ballot-marking devices, though only after an amendment clarified that such a decision would need State Election Board approval. The language that passed also appears to modify the wrong part of state law, incorrectly applying the change to a section dealing with "voting machines" and not "optical-scanning voting systems" which govern Georgia's current election system.

The hearing process for this particular bill was more rushed and disorganized than other controversial election-related legislation passed in recent years, and the bill's sponsor, Ethics Chairman Sen. Max Burns (R-Sylvania), struggled to answer many questions posed by lawmakers from both parties about the purpose and origins of different sections of the bill.

Burns also limited public comment on the legislation, telling the committee and audience it would not be the last time the bill would be discussed since it still had other chances to be fixed elsewhere in the legislative process.

From adding more drop box surveillance to an outright ban

Heading into the 6 p.m. meeting, another one of the most significant changes proposed would require counties to set up video surveillance of drop boxes that would be publicly available.

This is in addition to the 2021 election law rewrite which severely restricted when and where the boxes could be used, required them to be inside early voting locations and, in turn, led to very little use in recent elections.

An investigation by NPR, WABE and Georgia Public Broadcasting found those changes drastically cut access to drop boxes in counties that used them the most, which also have the highest number of Democrats and voters of color.

One amendment offered in the committee hearing would have changed the law to make drop boxes optional for counties instead of mandating at least one, keeping the new video surveillance requirement if drop boxes were used.

Bartow County elections supervisor Joseph Kirk testified that absentee ballots have been a trustworthy method of voting, and the newest proposal was a safety risk for voters because of harassment and threats spurred by attacks on the 2020 election.

"What used to be a tool for the voters has become a burden on my office, become a burden on a lot of small offices" Kirk said. "It's not often used, they turn the ballots in by hand in my office and, frankly, putting more video surveillance on them poses a safety risk."

Sen. Brian Strickland (R-McDonough) expressed concern about giving counties the option to have drop boxes, which could create inconsistencies with election administration across the state, given differing access to technology and internet capabilities for counties to meet the requirements of the bill.

In the final minutes of the meeting, committee vice chair Sen. Rick Williams (R-Milledgeville) offered a new amendment completely banning drop boxes instead, with no discussion or public comment on the issue. SB 221 and the drop box ban amendment were approved with five Republicans supporting it and Strickland joining the two Democrats in opposition before the meeting abruptly adjourned.

Esosa Osa, director of the voting rights group Fair Fight Action, slammed the bill's passage through committee in a statement Tuesday night.

"SB 221 is conspiracy theory enshrined in policy," she said in part. "It’s a direct result of uplifting the Big Lie and takes its cues from [Lt. Gov.] Burt Jones — a fake elector who sought to overturn the 2020 election and who continues to push disinformation and conspiracy theories surrounding elections in Georgia."

The swift passage of the omnibus out of committee comes ahead of Monday's Crossover Day in the legislature, typically the last day a bill has to clear at least one chamber to be considered during the remaining days in the legislative session. SB 221 is one of several election-related bills both chambers are considering this year and its next step would be a full vote in the Senate.