By Tanveer Kaur
On Thursday, March 25, Georgia House Republicans and Governor Brian Kemp passed legislation enacting more restrictions on absentee ballots and limiting the weekend early voting hours allowed by larger counties. The bill survived despite objections from Georgia Democrats.
This legislation eliminates the need for Georgia’s secretary of state to serve as chair of the state’s Election Board. Additionally, it prevents county election offices from receiving state grants and requiring counties to hire more election personnel. Most notably, it shortens the Georgia run-off election period. Georgia State House Republican Barry Fleming, who sponsored the bill, says the legislation "is designed to begin to bring back the confidence of our voters back into our election system.”
HB 531 comes after a historic voter turnout that elected two Democratic senators, making the state go blue for the first time in nearly three decades. This specific bill has sparked outrage amongst voting and civil rights activists, labeling the bill as an attempt to push voters of color from the electorate. This controversy stems from the part of the bill mandating each states’ counties to have the same early voting dates and times: three weeks of Monday-through-Friday voting, one mandatory Saturday, and then one additional Saturday or Sunday during the first weekend.
The Georgia State Senate has made its own revisions to the legislation. Under SB 241, voters would need to be 65 years old or older, absent from their precinct, observing a religious holiday, required to provide constant care for someone with a physical disability, or required to work “for the protection of the health, life, or safety of the public during the entire time the polls are open.” This aims to reverse a 2005 Republican-backed legislation allowing no-excuse absentee voting.
Georgia State House Democrat Calvin Smyre, the longest-serving member in the chamber, said Fleming's logic was discriminatory against Black voters who use the second Sunday for "souls to the polls" events during the election period. "It takes away the ability to have uniformity in every county," he said. "For example, if a county chooses the first Sunday, the situation will be extremely confusing for county residents with voting closed on that Saturday. An avalanche of misinformation will follow regarding when voting happens on weekends. Confusion deters voting, which brings about voter suppression."
While the White House has indicated expanding voter registration as a priority by issuing an executive order on March 7, HR 1, the voting reform that advocates are anticipating, will likely be stalled within the Senate. This voting bill has left the future of our nation’s voting rights unclear.