Georgia voting rights advocates are pushing back on the state legislature’s attempt to limit absentee ballot use. Citing “capacity issues,” Republican legislators want to prevent the secretary of state and county boards of election from proactively mailing out absentee ballot applications, as was done ahead of the June 9 primary.
Originally proposed as a way to “fix” several issues not addressed by an election reform bill that passed last year, in its new form, Senate Bill 463 is purportedly going to address the challenges voters faced in the primary including hours-long lines, malfunctioning voting machines, and requested absentee ballots never arriving. SB 463 was initially rushed through the Senate with little public input prior to the three-month hiatus the legislature took due to the pandemic. Despite the alleged improvements to the electoral process in SB 463, advocates have expressed concerns with the newly amended bill—particularly the amendment to restrict election officials from sending out absentee ballot applications.
Helen Butler, executive director of the Coalition for the People’s Agenda, said the legislature’s focus should be on easing access to voting by mail given the ongoing problems posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. “The proposed amendment in SB 463 falls far short of this goal—it prevents any election official from distributing or sending out absentee ballot (vote by mail) applications,” said Butler, who leads the Election Protection Coalition convened by the ProGeorgia State Table. “Georgia voters need solutions that will help them safely exercise their right to vote and elevate their voices, both during the runoff elections in August and the general elections this fall.”
As reported by the Associated Press, Republican state Rep. Shaw Blackmon, chair of the House Governmental Affairs Committee, claimed that the amendment to SB 463 was a necessary step to help county boards of election from being overwhelmed with ballot applications ahead of upcoming elections.
“If we’re going to talk about capacity, let’s really get at [the] capacity problems here,” said Aklima Khondoker, Georgia state director for All Voting is Local. Directly challenging alleged concerns around capacity, Khondoker pointed to a lack of infrastructure and support to help boards of elections process the influx of absentee ballot applications.
“What we actually need is to have streamlined and standard protocols for processing absentee ballot applications that should come from the secretary of state and state election board. As it is now, county officials are doing this in a very piecemeal fashion.”
Earlier this month, a similar bill passed the Iowa Senate requiring the secretary of state to seek permission from the legislative council before sending out absentee ballot applications to registered voters. Meanwhile, the secretary of state in Minnesota has taken steps to make absentee ballot use easier by waiving the witness requirement ahead of the Aug. 11 primary. The witness requirement was a source of confusion for some voters during the April primary since many people were following social distancing precautions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those precautions may still be necessary in August as COVID-19 numbers explode in the South and Midwest.
Georgia’s primary, which combined the postponed March presidential preference primary and May state primary, was an avoidable disaster. Georgia received $11 million in election funding from the first round of COVID-19 pandemic relief funding. Per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, counties would have the ability to request reimbursement for purchases made, such as drop boxes for absentee ballots and security cameras to monitor the boxes.
Over 1 million voters cast ballots in the Georgia primary, and thousands reported issues ranging from not receiving requested absentee ballots, such as voters in Fulton County, to issues with voting machines onsite. Some election officials pointed to issues where tabulation machines inaccurately counted ballots. Like several other states, Georgia officials closed an overwhelming majority of polling locations ahead of the primary due to a combination of safety considerations and lack of poll workers. These changes have not followed the usual notice procedures. A newly drafted provision in SB 463 would provide specifications for notice when polling locations are closed or consolidated ahead of an election.
While the revised SB 463 isn’t the only bad bill advocates are fighting at the end of the legislative session, advocates see the changes as hindering access to the ballot during a precarious moment for public health.
“This is more about politicizing elections, which is something we should not be doing,” said Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, referring to the proposed amendment limiting the ability to mail out absentee ballot applications. “We should be extending access for everyone, but right now it seems as if the legislature is playing political ping pong with the voters, [their] experience, and their ballot at this point in time—and it is very unfair to the voters.”