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Saturday May 15th, 2021 1:41AM

Georgia lawmakers pass GOP election reform bill amid outcry

By The Associated Press
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ATLANTA (AP) — Lawmakers in Georgia gave final passage Thursday to GOP-sponsored legislation that seeks a sweeping overhaul of state election law, including provisions adding new restrictions on voting by mail and giving the legislature greater control over how elections are run.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp said he planned to quickly sign the bill into law Thursday evening.

Democrats and voting rights groups said the bill would disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color. It is part of a wave of GOP-backed election bills introduced in states around the nation after former President Donald Trump stoked false claims that fraud led to his 2020 election defeat.

Republican efforts to change voting laws in Georgia followed record-breaking turnout that led to Democratic victories in the presidential contest and two U.S. Senate runoffs in the once reliably red state.

With Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed, the bill passed the state House 100-75. It then was quickly agreed to by Republicans in the Senate, which voted 34-20 in favor.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler said the bill was filled with “voter suppression tactics.”

“We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we’ve seen since the Jim Crow era,” Butler added.

Democratic Rep. Rhonda Burnough said the bill was based on lies told by Republicans after last November’s election.

“Georgians turned out in record-breaking numbers because they could access the ballot,” Burnough said. “Lies upon lies were told about our elections in response, and now this bill is before us built on those same lies.”

Among highlights, the bill would require a photo ID in order to vote absentee by mail, after more than 1.3 million Georgia voters used that option during the COVID-19 pandemic. It also would cut the time period people have to request an absentee ballot and limit where ballot drop boxes can be placed and when they can be accessed.

Republican Rep. Jan Jones said the provisions cutting the time people have to request an absentee ballot are meant to “increase the likelihood of a voter’s vote being cast successfully,” after concerns were raised in 2020 about mail ballots not being received by counties in time to be counted.

One of the biggest changes would give the GOP-controlled legislature more control over election administration, a change that has raised concerns among voting rights groups that it could lead to greater partisan influence.

The bill would replace the elected secretary of state as the chair of the state election board with a new appointee of the legislature after Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger rebuffed Trump's attempts to overturn Georgia's election results. It also would allow the board to remove and replace county election officials deemed to be underperforming.

That provision is widely seen as something that could be used to target Fulton County, a Democratic stronghold covering most of Atlanta, which came under fire after long lines plagued primary elections over the summer.

Republican Rep. Barry Fleming, a driving force in crafting the bill, said that provision would only be a “temporary fix, so to speak, that ends and the control is turned back over to the locals after the problems are resolved.”

The bill also reduces the timeframe in which runoff elections are held, including the amount of early voting for runoffs. And it would bar outside groups from handing out food or water to people standing in line to vote.

The bill does not contain some of the more contentious proposals floated by Republicans earlier in the session, including limits on early voting on Sundays, a popular day for Black churchgoers to vote in “souls to the polls” events. It would instead mandate two Saturdays of early voting ahead of general elections, when only one is currently mandatory, and leave two Sundays as optional.

But such changes haven't tempered opposition from Democrats or voting rights groups.

About 50 protesters including representatives from the NAACP gathered across from the Capitol building Thursday in opposition to the bill.

During the rally, Bishop Reginald Jackson of the African Methodist Episcopal Church called for a boycott of Coca-Cola Co. products.

Jackson, who leads more than 400 churches across Georgia, said the Atlanta-based soft drink company had failed to live up to the commitments it made last year to support the Black Lives Matter movement by not forcefully opposing the voting bills pushed by Republicans.

“We took them at his word,” he said of Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey. “Now, when they try to pass this racist legislation, we can’t get him to say anything.”

Jackson said boycotts also were possible against other large locally based companies such as Delta Air Lines and Home Depot.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce pushed against some proposals Republicans later dropped, including eliminating no-excuse absentee voting. But the business lobbies and top Atlanta corporations have not vocally opposed all changes.

___

Associated Press writer Jeff Amy contributed to this report.

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