Georgia House Approves New Restrictions As GOP War On Voting Rights Intensifies

Since Trump’s loss, Republicans "have made opposing voting rights the central tenet of their party,” one lawyer said.

The Georgia House of Representatives on Monday approved a sweeping election overhaul bill that would place new voter ID requirements on absentee ballots and limit weekend voting ― becoming the latest Republican-controlled state legislative chamber to place additional restrictions on voting in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s loss in November.

Georgia and Arizona, two states where President Joe Biden scored the first victory for a Democratic presidential candidate in three decades last year, have emerged as the epicenters of the GOP’s attempts to curtail voting rights in 2021. Arguing that expanded absentee and early voting programs sowed chaos and confusion during an unprecedented pandemic, Republicans in both states have proposed and begun passing restrictions and election reforms that would make it harder for many voters ― especially Black and Latino voters ― to cast ballots in the future.

The voter ID provision, voting rights advocates argue, would add another onerous requirement to a process that is already secure and protected by more reliable and equitable forms of verification. And the effort to limit weekend voting in Georgia, voting groups argue, is nothing more than a direct attempt to combat “souls to the polls” drives, where predominantly Black churches mobilize voters to go to the polls after Sunday services. In states like Arizona or Georgia, where Biden and Democratic Senate candidates won narrow victories, even small amounts of voter suppression could be enough to swing elections.

But the GOP is not just seeking to implement new voter restrictions in states Trump lost, or in places that feature large and growing populations of color. They are also pushing a raft of changes in states Trump won easily, and where GOP dominance of state and local elections is under no apparent threat. Republicans are attempting to limit or eliminate vote-by-mail and early voting programs that, at least in some states, they themselves implemented, and that their campaigns had historically utilized more effectively and efficiently than Democrats until last year’s election.

Fueled by their own conspiracy theories, Republicans have turned their long-running efforts to curtail voting rights into a total war on American democracy. Even by the GOP’s normal voter suppression standards, it’s a destructive shift. And it’s all based on a total lie that the Republican Party won’t stop repeating.

“This is not the Republican Party that wants to make voting harder at the margins, and that wants to increase barriers to voting at the margins,” Marc Elias, a top Democratic election lawyer, said during a conference call with reporters Monday. “What we’re seeing right now is an all-out assault on voting, where there is no governor on how destructive to voting rights the Republican Party is willing to be.”

“Republicans have made opposing voting rights the central tenet of their party,” Elias said. “And they are currently engaged in a bizarre competition with one another to see who can conceive of, propose and enact the most grotesque restriction on voting rights.”

Protesters gather outside the Georgia state Capitol in Atlanta to protest HB 531, which would place tougher restrictions on voting in the state, March 1, 2021.
Protesters gather outside the Georgia state Capitol in Atlanta to protest HB 531, which would place tougher restrictions on voting in the state, March 1, 2021.
Dustin Chambers/Reuters

Republicans began the year with a clear message that they intended to roll back voting rights nationwide. Lawmakers introduced more than 165 bills in at least 33 states to curtail ballot access, according to a study from the Brennan Center for Justice ― marking a fourfold increase from legislative sessions a year ago.

And the GOP’s efforts to curb voting rights are only intensifying. In the past week, Elias said, lawmakers filed at least 88 new bills to roll back voting rights in at least 10 additional states.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, the party’s state legislative campaign arm, in February formed an election reform commission meant to ensure that the electoral changes states made last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic will not remain in place.

The commission says its goal is to promote reforms that “make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.” But that makes the RSLC’s opposition to the pandemic-driven changes hard to square, since those changes almost universally made it easier to vote, even as the widespread fraud Trump and Republicans cynically predicted never occurred.

Among the commission’s preferred policies are state laws that place new restrictions on access to mail-in ballots, particularly by further strengthening verification methods ― a proposal that runs counter to efforts to make it easier for voters to fix administrative mistakes (like mismatched signatures) that often invalidate otherwise legitimate ballots.

The commission, the Examiner reported, does not favor uniform standards across states, but versions of its ideas have spread like wildfire in Republican-controlled legislatures.

GOP lawmakers in Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Tennessee and other deep-red states have proposed bills that take aim at early and absentee voting, would implement new voter ID laws, or impose other voting restrictions. In Iowa, which has been trending toward the GOP for more than a decade, Republicans are pushing an omnibus election reform bill that includes similar new restrictions. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) last month introduced his own package of proposed reforms that would place new limits on absentee voting in a state that has long utilized the practice. In Texas, already one of the most restrictive states for voters, Republicans have proposed even tougher ballot access requirements.

Georgia has allowed no-excuse absentee voting for more than a decade. But Republicans there have turned against it now, after losing the presidential race for the first time since 1992 and losing two Senate runoff elections in January.

The bill the Georgia House passed Monday will now go to the state Senate, where Republicans have introduced their own legislation that would go even further. The Senate legislation would end no-excuse absentee voting, while requiring voters who are eligible to vote by mail to submit photo IDs and have their ballot signed by a witness in order for it to count. The bills must be reconciled to become law. The photo ID requirement present in both bills would make Georgia one of only three states to have such a law on the books.

A person holds a placard outside the Georgia state Capitol in Atlanta to protest HB 531, March 1, 2021.
A person holds a placard outside the Georgia state Capitol in Atlanta to protest HB 531, March 1, 2021.
Dustin Chambers/Reuters

This may only be an opening salvo against voting rights from Georgia Republicans. Last week, former Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who lost a runoff election to Democrat Raphael Warnock in January, formed a nonprofit organization to advocate for further voting restrictions, in an effort to counter the work by voting rights groups to expand ballot access and turnout among Georgia’s Black, Latino and other minority communities.

“Because we exercised our right, and we’re able to do it, they want to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, a voting rights group, said during a Facebook Live event on Monday.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, repeatedly emphasized last year that the state’s elections were conducted fairly and without issue. Election audits and recounts found no evidence of the sort of fraud or problems that Trump and other Republicans alleged ― there or anywhere else.

And while Republicans insist that expanded absentee and early voting created confusion and a lack of trust last year, polls have found that voters liked the changes, were satisfied with the election process, and would like lawmakers to expand early and absentee voting laws.

“We are legislating on lies,” Democratic state Rep. Bee Nguyen said on the Georgia House floor Monday. “Members of this body aided and abetted a deliberate misinformation campaign to sow seeds of doubt among Georgia voters, with absolutely no facts or evidence.”

At times, it’s clear Republicans know that, and are merely adhering to the new party doctrine in order to please Trump and the base of conservative voters committed to the conspiracies he peddled.

DeSantis, the Florida governor, said in February that his proposed voting restrictions were necessary to increase voters’ confidence in elections. During the same speech, however, he credited his state with running “the most transparent and efficient election” in the country last year.

At other times, some Republicans seem aware that their willingness to stoke conspiracy theories has consequences ― even if that realization occurs only when they’re projecting those concerns on their opponents.

Georgia state Rep. Barry Fleming (R), who drafted legislation to place new restrictions on absentee and early voting, on Monday accused Democrats of sowing misinformation after they’d spent nearly two hours assailing the bill on the floor of the state House. Democrats, he claimed, were accusing Republicans of voter suppression for their own partisan electoral reasons.

“That may get a big turnout in elections, but it harms the state of Georgia and the people who live here,” Fleming said moments before the vote. “Because if you continue to say, over and over again, something that’s not true, it does have a negative effect.”

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