GOP-led Georgia Senate panel approves ID for mail voting

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ATLANTA (AP) – Republicans on a Georgia Senate committee approved a wide overhaul of the state’s election system Tuesday that would require an ID for absentee voting, after a surge in mail ballots helped secure victories for Democrats in the presidential contest and twin U.S. Senate runoffs.

House Bill 531 was approved by the Senate Ethics Committee in a party-line vote and could soon receive a Senate floor vote.

The committee action comes a day after a House panel approved its own sweeping election bill, which would limit the use of absentee ballot drop boxes and make it a crime to hand out food or water to voters standing in line.

One of the two bills is likely to end up in a House-Senate conference committee, where the two chambers hash out their differences on the issue. Republicans need to move quickly, as the legislative session is set to end March 31.

Two provisions that garnered widespread criticism from Democrats and voting rights groups have been removed from the bills. A proposal that narrowly passed the state Senate would have limited who can vote absentee by mail, after more than 1.3 million voters used that option during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s out. So is a House proposal that would have limited Sunday early voting, a popular day for black churchgoers to vote in “souls to the polls” events.

Democrats and voting rights groups say the proposals still hamper voting access.

Democratic Rep. Calvin Smyre, the longest-serving member of the state House, said during a news conference Tuesday that the bills haven’t fundamentally improved.

“Putting a Band-Aid on it is not helping it,” Smyre said of the bill the full House could consider later this week. He called the proposal “an affront to the voting rights of all Georgians.”

Many of the GOP proposals are a direct response to falsehoods pushed by former President Donald Trump and his allies, including some GOP members of the state legislature, who repeatedly made baseless claims that fraud swayed the November election.

The bill approved by the Senate Ethics Committee Tuesday would ban the secretary of state from entering into consent agreements, after Trump falsely claimed that a consent agreement prohibited election officials from properly scrutinizing signatures on absentee ballot envelopes. It would also give the legislature the ability to overturn emergency rules adopted by the state election board, among other provisions.

Democratic state Sen. Sally Harrell called the legislation “reactionary” and said she feared it would “bring with it unintended consequences and undue expenses for local governments.”

“As most of the voting bills this session have done, elements of the bill before us do make voting harder,” Harrell said.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan denied that the legislation would make voting harder and denounced rhetoric likening the GOP voting proposals to a modern version of Jim Crow laws.

“The hyperbole is unfortunate,” Dugan said.

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AP writer Jeff Amy contributed to this report.

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