by Robin Kemp

BREAKING: HB 531 PASSES

The Georgia House of Representatives voted 97-72 to pass an omnibus bill that critics say would turn Georgia voting access back to the days of Jim Crow.

House Bill 531 passed 97-72. It heads to the Senate
and will come back to the House later.

The bill now goes to the Georgia Senate and likely will come back before the House before final passage for Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature or veto.

Demonstrators showed up outside the Gold Dome at 5:31 a.m., a reference to the bill’s number. They also protested a Georgia State Trooper’s putting his hands on Rep. Park Cannon as she stood on the steps leading up to the House gallery on Feb. 26.

After the vote, House Democrats packed the staircase for a press conference as their Republican counterparts walked down one side of the stairs to a meeting with Secretary of State Brian Raffensperger. The Democrats say that they have not heard one word from Raffensperger, a Republican, about any of the voting legislation this session.


WATCH:

As members of the Georgia Assembly prepared to vote on key bills that critics say will limit access to voting, about two dozen protestors stood outside in the early morning drizzle vowing to stand up and fight back.

Demonstrators outside the Gold Dome on March 1 protest HB 531 and SB 241, two bills they say would disenfranchise black and brown voters. Photo: Robin Kemp

Outside, Clayton County resident Alvin Farmer and others opposed to House Bill 531 and Senate Bill 241 listened as Democratic legislators addressed the protestors.

Alaina Reeves, delegate to the Democratic National Convention, decried the restrictions HB 531 would impose on voters of color, while Rep. Sandra Scott(D-76, Rex) said her Republican colleagues were “scared shitless” because they’ve had a Black president and now have a Black woman as vice-president:

The two omnibus bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, contain a raft of provisions that would remove absentee ballot drop boxes, shorten the time to request absentee ballots, require voters to submit photocopies of their ID with their absentee ballot requests, and ban elections superintendents and boards of registrars from receiving private grant money to defray elections costs, among other changes.

Backers of the legislation say they want to prevent election fraud. However, Raffensperger and others have said that there is no evidence of widespread election fraud in Georgia, and both Raffensperger and House Democrats have decried numerous false claims of fraud during the 2020 Presidential election and the January Senate runoffs.

Gov. Brian Kemp (left) enters the Georgia State Capitol March 1 as lawmakers prepare to vote on House Bill 531. Photo: Robin Kemp

Rep. Kim Schofield (D-60, Atlanta) called the effort to pass HB 531 “racist.”

“It’s a good day to be a soldier!” Scott shouted as she and Schofield entered the Capitol building Monday morning.

Rep. Angelika Kausche (D-50, Johns Creek) told demonstrators that she came from West Germany and warned that Georgia should not go down the road of making elections more difficult.


The House reconvened at 12:45 p.m. and took up HB 531. Rep. Barry Fleming (R-121, Harlem), who chairs the Special Committee on Election Integrity, is taking questions from the well. He says the bill would not prevent local elections superintendents from receiving grants and that it also would not prevent “line-warmers” from handing out food and drink, as long as they do it outside the 150-foot electioneering boundary. However, line 1277 prohibits handing out food and drink “(W)ithin 25 feet of any voter standing in line to vote at any polling place.” If the line were to extend more than 150 feet from the polling place, this wording would appear to prohibit anyone in line from receiving food or drink.

House Speaker David Ralston gave each side one hour to debate. Some highlights:

OPPOSED:

  • Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-135): “On more than one occasion, I have stated that voting is a precious right. Many sacrifices have been made and many people have died for that right to vote.” Smyre said the HB3 committee substitute will confuse voters as to when they can vote on weekends because it allows counties to choose any weekend day alongside the mandatory second Saturday. He added the substitute cuts absentee voting from three weeks to one week, which will cause problems over Thanksgiving weekend. He said his constituents say HB 531 “takes us in the wrong direction….I stand for democracy by voting against House Bill 531.”
  • Rep. Kimberly Alexander (D-66, Hiram): “Voter suppression is a byproduct of white supremacy.” Alexander said Georgia Republicans wrote the current election laws and only want to change them because they lost the Presidential and Senate races. She said HB 531 would cost $57.2 million in new election taxes per election cycle and decried the unfunded mandate it would place on counties. She pointed out that every drop box in Georgia requires 24/7 security and she said HB 531 will cost another $1.1 million for what she said was unnecessary additional security. She added that there had been no evidence of voter fraud during the last election cycle.
  • Rep. Angelika Kausche (D-50, Johns Creek): “I am an immigrant, I am a naturalized citizen, I am an American.” She pointed to Secretary of State Brad blamed “months of relentless propaganda” from the Republican Party; as a result,”House Bill 531 has nothing to do with reality….Let’s stop weaponizig the vote and vote no on House Bill 531.”
  • Rep. Jasmine Clark (D-108, Lilburn): “Men lie. Women lie. The numbers don’t.” She said HB 531 is “textbook voter suppression,” cutting absentee voting time by 62% and 86% of the hours that absentee ballot boxes are available, “holding them hostage” to the less-reliable U.S. Post Office. She said the bill is “cutting off your nose to spite your face” and that “a yes vote on this bill will come back to bite you.”
  • Rep. Renitta Shannon (D-84, Decatur): “House Bill 531 creates new felonies…usurps local control, and dictates to counties how they must conduct elections.” Shannon said the bill attacks the cultural staple of Souls to the Polls. “Republicans know this, and that’s exactly why they’re attacking absentee voting.” She se.aid voting by mail was never an issue until black and brown voters used it to their advantage. “House Bill is just another excuse to silence these voters….we see your white supremacy.”
  • Rep. Shea Roberts (D-52, Atlanta): “The truth is in November and January, we saw record-breaking civic engagement, during a pandemic, no less.” She said members of the state Senate swapped votes with another state and that “many of the provisions in this bill actually make voters less secure”–such as forcing absentee voters to use unmonitored U.S. Post Office mailboxes. “If y’all vote yes today, y’all need to be ready to own your stuff….Were your elections insecure? Should your voters question whether you should be sitting here?”
  • Rep. Roger Bruce (D-61, Atlanta): “This bill will take us back 70 or 80 years in time…will you be remembered for suppressing a vote or for depriving voters of a fundamental civil right?”
  • Rep. Sam Park (D-101, Lawrenceville): “This bill strikes at the heart of our Constitution….power emanates from the people through the vote, and that is why our right to vote is precious….countless patriots have fought and died to protect and expand” that right. Park said the story of America is the expansion of the vote. “By attacking the right of your own citizens to vote…based on a lie that led to an insurrection,” he added, “you cede ground to the rise of authoritarianism at home and abroad.”
  • Rep. Donna McLeod (D-105, Lawrenceville): “predicated on a big, fat lie by the former twice-impeached president….my Republican colleagues don’t have the guts to tell the cult-like followers the truth”–that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the election. She decried the #StopTheSteal hashtag. McLeod said she was naturalized in 2012 and noted that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. “I would personally like to live one day in a country where we fulfill the promise of one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
  • Rep. Mike Wilensky (D-79, Dunwoody): “This bill would cause religious Jewish people not to have the ability to vote at all” due to the Saturday voting provision.
  • Rep. Karen Bennett (D-94, Stone Mountain) quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. at length.
  • Rep. David Dreyer (D-54, Atlanta): “Some member of the GA have said that not everyone should be voting, which is the premise of this bill HB 531….we don’t get to decide who gets to vote. Voting is for every American.” Dreyer said he’s done voter protection work for 18 years. He said the claim that voting outside of one’s precinct strips their down-ballot vote ignored the fact that prohibiting such voting strips the voter’s entire ballot. “Slave owners said that: I know what’s better for these people….and how did that go for Georgia?….Voter suppression is racist, voter suppression is white supremacy….you have a choice today. Listen to the people outside. All they are saying is no justice, no peace. And we are going to be fighting until there is justice.”
  • Rep. Al Williams (D-168, Midway): “This election didn’t fire me up like that because I became, as a young man in 1970, the first African-American to run for office in rural Georgia. I could tell you something about fraud….I’ve seen fraud, seen ballot box stuffed.” He urged people to read Melissa Faye Green’s Praying for Sheetrock to learn something about south Georgia coastal politics. “I’ve lived enough change to know when I see it….of the 17 times I went to jail, 15 of them were protesting trying to get the right to vote. I got the lumps….(I’ve) alived long enough to drink out of a colored water fountain in the Liberty County courthouse and to see a black President.” He added that he’s had to recite the Constitution and say how many bubbles in a bar of soap in order to vote. “Hey, we’ll learn to play the game….as soon as (the bill) passes, we’ll learn how to play that, too.”

IN FAVOR

  • Rep. Rick Williams (R-145, Milledgeville): “I was the chief registrar in Baldwin County for 16 years.” He pointed to Section 5 for an alternate in case the probate judge is incapacitated. “This happened this time because of COVID.” Section 6, he said, allows elections workers from an adjoining county to cross the line to work: “We’ve had a lot of elderly people who worked the polls for years. They were scared because of COVID.” Section 7: “What happens when somebody dies before the election?” Section 9: “Wait times. I would turn on the TV and see people standing in line for a couple of blocks waiting to vote,” he said. “Section 20 requires political parties to train their poll watchers…. I’d ask ’em, ‘What are you going to watch for?’ And they’d say, ‘I don’t know.’….let’s set some parameters so people know what they’re looming at. Section 21: “so you can’t give anyone anything to vote….a lot of these things are not new, they’re being clarified, they’re being tightened up.” He added, “This is just a lot of common sense. A lot of these provisions have been endorsed by ACCG.”
  • Speaker Pro Tem Rep. Jan Jones (R-47, Milton) said the bill is about “transparency, uniformity, and competence,” saying it would “increase confidence in the elections system by eliminating undue partisan influence” and that mobile voting units, such as those used in Fulton, prevent transparency. Jones added that public notices must make clear that the public can watch voting machine testing. (State Election Board Rule 183-1-12-.08 (1)(c) already requires this.) She added that “very few counties” want to offer Sunday voting, and blamed political advertisements from former Rep. Stacey Abrams‘ group, Fair Fight, for making it an issue. She also stated that, while poll watchers are mandated, what they are supposed to watch is not, and that HB 531 would change this.
  • Rep. Alan Powell (R-32, Hartwell): “You know, the anger is something that is systematically creating problems in this country today. You know, this is a process, this isn’t an event….we’re here to do things that are in the best interest of this state.” He added “our system was broke this year because, bless its heart, the voter suppression idea went right out the door….the problems that I saw during this election is that the system was inundated. Inundated! Boards of election couldn’t keep up.” Powell said he’d like to abolish counties running elections and have a “uniform state process.” He said this year’s election system was “the most confusing system we’ve ever seen.” He said he was one of the few lawmakers who voted against expanding absentee voting in 2005. “I will support anybody’s right to vote…but I also think everybody has a responsibility to do it right, to be sure everyone does it legally” and that no one votes “multiple times.” He added, “I think most everything in [HB 531] is constitutional.” He said he was bothered by “people out there with my name on a sign saying I’m trying to suppress the vote” and blamed fellow committee members for not speaking up in committee meetings but asking questions on the House floor. (Rep. Rhonda Burnough had complained early in the session that the Republican-majority committee reneged on a promise to debate, instead pushing through a stack of elections-related bills.) He accused opponents of “whipping people up into a frenzy” over voter suppression. “At the end of the day, you can talk about race, you can talk about gender, but at the end of the day, there’s only one color, and that’s the color of the blood we all share.”
  • House Governmental Affairs Chairman Rep. Blackmon (R-146, Bonaire): “We have a moral obligation” to ensure election security.

Rep. Rhonda Burnough after giving her minority report on HB 531.

Burnough took the well to call out the special committee for stifling debate on elections. She rattled off a long list of counties that received private grants for elections. She finished with a promise: “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.”

In the hallway, she told The Clayton Crescent, “I’m sure they’ll transmit it very quickly over to the Senate.” She added that voters should “continue to call and express their views” because “now we’re going to start to get those Senate bills, and the Senate bills are horrible. They’re worse than this one is and so they (voters) still have to keep that pressure on. They do not let it go to sine die.”

Sine die is the last day for a bill to pass both the House and Senate if it is going to make it to the governor’s desk this session. Gov. Kemp then has 40 days to sign the bill into law, to let it take effect without his signature, or to veto it. A bill that doesn’t make it out of the General Assembly can always come back next session.

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