ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia’s state Senate narrowly passed a Republican-backed bill that would end no-excuse absentee voting Monday, the deadline that bills must generally pass out of one chamber to remain alive for the session.
Senate Bill 241 would limit absentee voting to people 65 and older, those with a physical disability and people who will be out of town on Election Day — ending broad no-excuse absentee voting introduced by the Republican-led legislature in 2005. It would also require an ID for those who are able to vote absentee, among many other changes.
The bill passed by a vote of 29-20 and now goes to the House for more debate. Bills must get at least 29 votes for a majority in the 56-member Senate.
Several Republicans who could face tough reelection battles in quickly changing metro Atlanta districts were excused from the vote, including Sens. John Albers, Kay Kirkpatrick and Brian Strickland. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who has denounced efforts to limit who can vote absentee, refused to preside over the debate.
The bills are part of a push by Republicans to roll back voting access in Georgia after Democrats scored victories in the presidential election and two U.S. Senate runoffs. Many of the proposals being floated target absentee voting after former President Donald Trump repeatedly made false claims about fraud in mail voting.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, the chief sponsor of the bill, said a surge in absentee ballots during the last election cycle caused a burden on county election offices. More than a million Georgians used the option in November as the coronavirus pandemic raged.
“The increasing burden on local election offices and the increased cost to each of our counties has risen significantly,” Dugan said. "In recent years the number of mail-in absentee ballots has increased to the point where counties are in essence running three elections simultaneously.”
Dugan said about 2.7 million Georgians would still be eligible to vote absentee under the specific excuses outlined in the bill.
Democrats in the chamber said the bill is a direct reaction to Trump's false claims about fraud and would disproportionately affect voters of color.
“The purpose of 241 and all of the vote-limiting bills that we have before us is to validate a lie,” Democratic Sen. Nikki Merritt said. "It is to prevent massive voter turnout from happening again, especially in minority communities, our new voters who are turning 18 and hard-working Georgians.”
Democratic Sen. Lester Jackson said the bill harks back to Georgia's dark history of racist voting policies.
“It smells like Jim Crow laws of the past. This smells like poll taxing. This smells like voter suppression," Jackson said.
The chamber is also set to vote on a separate bill that would end automatic voter registration when a person gets a driver’s license, as well as several other voting measures.
The votes come as a task force convened by Georgia’s secretary of state issued a statement expressing concern that the legislation is being rushed.
The state House has already passed a wide-ranging election bill backed by Republicans. The House bill would require a photo ID for absentee voting, limit the amount of time voters have to request an absentee ballot, restrict where ballot drop boxes could be located and when they could be accessed, and limit early voting hours on weekends.
The latter provision has raised concerns among voting rights groups who say the proposal seems targeted at hampering Sunday voting — a popular day for Black churchgoers to vote in “souls to the polls” events.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has endorsed the idea of requiring a photo ID for absentee voting but has yet to back any specific proposals. GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger says he favors ending no-excuse absentee voting as well as requiring an ID for mail voting.
Monday is crossover day in the Georgia legislature. Bills must generally be passed out of one chamber or the other to remain in play for the session, though there are procedural ways to resurrect a bill even if it doesn’t receive passage.
Also Monday, members of an elections task force formed by Raffensperger released a statement expressing concern that “the legislative process is proceeding at a pace that does not allow full examination of all factors that must be considered.”
“There is a need for responsible elections policymaking to be deliberate and evidence-based, not rushed,” the statement continues. “When we see proposals that properly balance voter access with integrity, we will voice support.”
Twelve members of the task force signed off on the statement, which specifically noted that three other members were not included.
AP writer Kate Brumback contributed to this report.