by Robin Kemp
12:33 a.m. 2/26: UPDATES with video from Senate Ethics hearing
A bill in the Georgia Senate that would restrict absentee voting may drop a provision that would require a photocopy of the voter’s ID and a witness’ signature to be submitted with each absentee ballot.
Senate Bill 241 is an omnibus bill that contains multiple changes to existing state election law. The bill, which has 31 sponsors, is in the Senate Ethics Committee, which is where most of the election-related bills are coming from.
Several proposed changes would insert legislators into the elections process itself by requiring elections officials to get permission from the Gold Dome–for example, for the Secretary of State’s office to enter into a consent agreement, or to remove and appoint a new county or municipal elections superintendent if the State Elections Board finds that superintendent did not do their job.
As of press time Thursday evening, these are the sections of the draft bill (LC 28 0244) to watch:
- Section 1 would require the state attorney general to set up a voter fraud hotline. The Secretary of State already has such a hotline, where complaints are investigated, then referred to the State Elections Board, which then decides whether to send each case to the state attorney general. The bill would allow for anonymous complaints and give the attorney general’s office three days to decide whether to investigate or prosecute each complaint.
- Section 2 would prevent the Secretary of State and State Elections Board from entering into any consent agreement without joint approval by both houses of the Georgia Assembly: “The State Election Board, the members thereof, the Secretary of State, and any of their attorneys or staff shall not have any authority to enter into any consent agreement with any other person that limits, alters, or interprets any provision of this chapter without obtaining the approval of the General Assembly through a joint resolution.”
- Section 3 (a) would give state legislators the power to remove elections superintendents after a State Election Board hearing: “Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, the State Election Board, after due notice to the affected person or persons and the opportunity for a hearing before the State Election Board, may recommend in writing to the legislative delegation representing the jurisdiction involved that a county or municipal election superintendent be temporarily removed from exercising the duties of election superintendent on the basis of malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, incompetence, or inability to perform the duties of election superintendent for the duration of the period from the time of the removal until January 1 following the next election in such county or municipality and the conclusion of any run-off election from such election, if any.”
- Section 3(b) would give a legislative delegation 15 days to remove an elections superintendent and reappoint a temporary replacement: “Within 15 days after receiving a recommendation of the superintendent’s removal from office from the State Election Board in accordance with subsection (a) of this Code section, the legislative delegation by majority vote may temporarily remove such election superintendent from exercising his or her duties in accordance with this Code section. The duties of such election superintendent shall be filled for the period of suspension by the legislative delegation’s appointment of a temporary election superintendent. In making such appointment, the legislative delegation by majority vote shall select a person or persons who have experience or training in managing and conducting elections to serve as temporary election superintendent.”
- Section 3(c) would allow the temporary elections superintendent to come from anywhere in Georgia, not just the county in question: “In making the temporary appointment under subsection (b) of this Code section, the legislative delegation shall be authorized to appoint any qualified elector of this state, regardless of the county of residence of such elector.”
- Section 4 would require the Secretary of State’s office to join a multistate voter registration system to cross-check voter registration information across state lines. The Secretary of State’s office already belongs to such a system: “The Secretary of State shall participate in a multistate voter registration system. The Secretary of State shall use the data bases maintained by such organizations to cross-check registration information with other states that participate in such multistate voter registration system.”
- Section 5 would regulate the use of buses or trailers as polling places. It requires “the superintendent of a county or the governing authority of a municipality” to buy and provide “movable polling facilities of adequate size” only for use in an emergency:
- the city or county would have to hire a licensed commercial building inspector to declare the existing polling place “unsafe for human occupation”
- a water or electricity outage would count as an emergency
- the movable polling place must be within 2,640 feet (half a mile) of the existing polling place
- a superior court judge in the circuit would have to approve any emergency use before it happens
- the county superintendent or municipality would be responsible for making sure the movable polling place meets all safety and licensing for commercial vehicles, as well as state, county, and municipal safety and accessibility codes that apply to portable and temporary structures
- Section 6 would limit who is allowed to vote absentee. Only people who are required to be away from their precinct during voting hours, elections workers, people with a physical disability, those who are “required to give constant care” to someone with a disability, people observing a religious holiday that falls on the primary, election, or runoff day, someone who has to stay on duty at work the entire time the polls are open “when such place of employment is within the precinct in which the elector resides,” and people who are 65 or older. If someone goes in person to cast an absentee ballot, they do not need a reason to do so. However, the whole point of an absentee ballot is not having to go in person to vote.
- Section 7 would require voters to swear an oath as to why they need an absentee ballot, include the voter’s birthdate and Georgia driver’s license or ID number. First-time voters who register by mail would have to include a photocopy of their ID. Critics say this amounts to an illegal poll tax and that mailing photocopies and personally identifying information could lead to identity theft. Proponents say nearly every voter has a driver’s license or ID number and that people who can’t afford an ID can get one for free at the Department of Driver Services.
- Section 8 would prevent the Secretary of State or elections officials from sending out an absentee ballot to any ineligible voter.
- Section 9 would require elections offices to vet anyone who asks for an absentee ballot application and requires the registrar or absentee ballot clerk to “advise the elector promptly” if the enclosed ID photocopy is not legible. It also allows qualified voters whose application eight days before the election has missing information to vote a provisional ballot.
- Section 10 would require a disclaimer on any absentee ballot application sent out by any individual or organization stating, “This is NOT an official government publication and was NOT provided to you by any governmental entity,” along with the name and address of whoever sent it. Section 10 also specifies the disclaimer must be “prominently display(ed)…in at least 20 point type which occupies at least 25 percent of the area on the front and back.”
- Section 11 specifies the government buildings where voters can get and cast absentee ballots, including during advance voting. Voting would be allowed in:
- a branch of the county courthouse
- a courthouse annex
- a government service center providing general government services
- another government building generally accessible to the public
- a building that is used as an election day polling place, notwithstanding that such building is not a government building
- In counties of 550,000 or more since the 1990 Census, “any building that is a branch of the county courthouse or courthouse annex established within any county shall be an additional registrar’s or absentee ballot clerk’s office or place of registration for the purpose of receiving absentee ballots…and for the purpose of voting absentee ballots.”
- Section 12 would require a witness signature and a photocopy of the voter’s ID submitted with an absentee ballot. Witness signatures would not be required for disabled voters, their caregivers, or military or overseas voters.
- Advance voting in person would start on the fourth Monday before:
- any primary, election, general primary runoff, general election runoff “in which there are candidates for a federal office on the ballot in the runoff”
- “as soon as possible prior to a runoff from any other general election in which there are only state or county candidates on the ballot in the runoff but no later than the second Monday immediately prior to such runoff and shall end on the Friday immediately prior to each primary, election or runoff” during “normal business hours” Monday through Friday, and the second Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the second Saturday before the primary or election.
- If no federal or state candidates are on the ballot, Saturday voting would not be required.
- Advance voting would only be allowed in the main office of the Board of Elections and Registration or Board of Registrars (in Clayton County, that means at the Historic Courthouse) or “a building authorized pursuant to Code Section 21-2-382.”
- At 10 a.m. on each absentee voting day, county or municipal elections officials would have to post a list on their website and of how many people got or returned absentee ballots, how many absentee ballots were rejected, how many ballots were rejected, and how many people have voted at advance sites in the county or municipality.
- At 10 a.m. on each absentee voting day and for three days after each primary, election, or runoff, county or municipal elections officials would have to post to their website how many people had voted provisional ballots, how many ballots were accepted, and how many rejected.
- Section 13 would require the registrar or clerk to open an absentee ballot “and verify the identity of the elector with the enclosed photocopy [of state-approved ID].” It would give voters whose information is incomplete the chance to vote a provisional ballot, which each voter would then have to come in and cure in person. It also requires that:
- when the polls closed, the board of registrars notify the elections superintendent of the total number of certified absentee ballots received by that time
- the elections superintendent “post such information publicly”
- count all absentee ballots without a break: “such count and tabulation shall not cease until all such ballots have been tabulated.” However, it does allow the elections superintendent to start counting before the polls close.
- Section 14 would let the secretary of state to audit an election nearly up to two years after the fact. The bill would give the secretary the state discretionary power to “inspect and audit the information contained in the absentee ballot envelopes at his or her discretion at anytime during the 24 month retention period.” The audit could be statewide or target specific cities or counties, and “may include the auditing of a statistically significant sample of the envelopes or a full audit of all of such envelopes.” In other words, it allows, but does not require, a statistically-significant sample for an envelope audit.
- Section 15 would require a superior court judge’s order to extend a precinct’s polling hours “upon good cause being shown.” If the judge allows extended hours, “only those electors whose names appear on the electors list for such precinct and no others” would be allowed to vote during that time.
(MORE TO COME)
Keep in mind that the above proposed changes are likely to change again by Monday. You can see the latest versions of SB 241 at https://www.legis.ga.gov/legislation/60009 by clicking on the dark blue “Current Version ” button under the bill’s title, “Elections and Voting; revise comprehensively.”
Also before the Senate Ethics Committee early Thursday was a substitute for SB 62.
SB 62 would require each ballot to include precinct name and number at the top, as well as an embedded “holographic security device or seal….[that] shall not be capable of identifying the elector who cast the ballot but shall be designed to prevent fraud.” This device would be required on every ballot “used in primaries and elections in this state, including paper ballots, ballots used in optical scanning voting systems, and ballots produced by electronic ballot markers.”
“In the original bill, I had a provision for the authenticity of the ballot,” Tippins (R-37) said. “It was specifically designated to have a hologram. In discussion with experts in the security field, they said that there’s better language to use that can offer a more current science and an array of ballot security.”
Tippins said, “This bill is about the validity, the authenticity, and the security of ballots. It does not limit anyone or restrict any legal voter from exercising their right to vote. This should have a bipartisan appeal, because both parties at times in the past, in 2016, 2018, and 2020 have said, ‘We think the election may be flawed.” This is an attempt to go to the hear of how elections are determined and that is by the ballot and by ballot security. The sole purpose is to ensure the integrity of our voting process.”
SB 62 also would require county elections officials to provide a publicly available, “up-to-date master list” of absentee voters by precinct, showing:
- the name and address of every voter who has been sent an absentee ballot
- the date the ballot was sent
- whether the voter has returned the absentee ballot
- whether the ballot has been accepted
- “the current status of such ballot”
SB 62 also would require ballots to be sorted and stored by precinct in sealed containers and the chain of custody maintained “until such ballots can be legally disposed of.” Ballot envelopes also would have to be stored and subject to a chain of custody. Duplicate ballots, which are made when a ballot won’t process through a scanner, for example–would be matched to the original using the same tracking number, then stored with the original ballot.