An early voting line outside South Cobb Regional Library in Mableton (Photo: Beau Evans)

An early voting line outside South Cobb Regional Library in Mableton (Photo: Beau Evans)

by Dave Williams
Capitol Beat News Service

President Joe Biden put the spotlight on Georgia when he traveled to Atlanta Jan. 11 to pitch federal voting rights legislation stalled in the U.S. Senate.

But to the Peach State’s Republican leaders, it was unwelcome attention. They bristled at the Democratic president’s portrayal of the Peach State as ground zero for a GOP-led voter suppression movement aimed at reversing Republican losses in 2020.

“We’re the number-one state in the nation for election integrity,” Georgia House Speaker David Ralston said the day after Biden’s visit. “More Georgians are voting now than ever before.”

Indeed, record voter turnout in November 2020 helped Biden become the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Georgia since Bill Clinton in 1992. Two months later, another huge turnout lifted Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to victory over two incumbent Republican senators in runoff elections.

Georgia Republicans reacted by passing sweeping election overhaul legislation last March.

Among other things, the bill requires voters casting absentee ballots to present ID. It also limits the number of absentee-ballot drop boxes, which became a popular method of voting in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic raged and vaccines weren’t yet available.

While Republicans argued such steps promote election integrity, Democrats charged they were part of an effort by the GOP to make it harder for voters – particularly voters of color – to cast ballots. Minority voters historically have supported Democratic candidates.

Warnock made a business case against the new state law and in favor of federal voting rights legislation Jan. 12 when he spoke at the annual Eggs and Issues breakfast sponsored by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. He said Georgia’s new restrictions on voting have cost the state business investment, notably Major League Baseball’s decision to pull last summer’s All-Star Game out of Georgia.

“Voter suppression is not good for business,” Warnock said. “Opening up [voter] access is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.”

But in an election year, some Georgia Republicans are looking to double down on the election-law changes the General Assembly adopted last year.

State Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, who is running for lieutenant governor, has introduced legislation to abolish drop boxes altogether and a constitutional amendment prohibiting non-U.S. citizens from voting.

Warnock said the General Assembly should not consider getting rid of drop boxes while COVID-19 is still a threat.

But Miller, R-Gainesville, noted there was no provision in state law for the boxes until the virus hit Georgia in March 2020.

“Drop boxes were introduced as an emergency measure during the pandemic, but many counties did not follow the security guidelines in place, such as the requirement for camera surveillance on every drop box,” he said last fall when he pre-filed his bill. “Moving forward, we can return to a pre-pandemic normal of voting in person.”

Miller’s constitutional amendment banning non-citizen voting won approval in the state Senate Ethics Committee last Thursday largely along party lines over objections from opponents who pointed out such a ban already exists in both state and federal law.

But the measure could be headed for trouble when it reaches the full Senate. Constitutional changes require support from a two-thirds majority in each legislative chamber, and the Senate doesn’t have enough Republicans to attain that margin without help from Democrats.

Even if Miller’s proposals make it through the Senate, their prospects in the House appear slim.

Ralston (R-7, Blue Ridge) said the legislature has too many important priorities to tackle to get caught up in election-year politics.

“I refuse to allow this state to be used by those who would change longstanding rules for political gain,” he said.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation

Dave Williams is Capitol Beat bureau chief.

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