Republicans in the Georgia Senate have narrowly approved an omnibus voting bill that would end no-excuse absentee voting 16 years after Republicans first enacted it.
The legislation, SB 241, would make a number of sweeping changes to Georgia's election code, most notably cracking down on who is eligible to vote by mail.
Instead of allowing anyone to request an absentee ballot, the bill would limit it to people who are over 65, are physically disabled, are required to be outside their voting precinct during the three-week in-person early voting period and Election Day, have a religious holiday that falls on Election Day, work in elections or qualify as a military or overseas absentee voter.
Despite the Senate passage Monday, some of the state's top Republicans have indicated they oppose curbing mail-in voting.
One of those Republicans, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, is opposed to removing no-excuse absentee voting and some other measures proposed by fellow Republicans and opted not to preside over the debate. Three vulnerable Republican senators from swing districts — John Albers, Kay Kirkpatrick and Brian Strickland — were the only ones who did not co-sponsor the bill and opted to be excused from the vote. Republican Sen. Chuck Hufstetler was excused from the vote as well.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan sponsored the bill and misleadingly said his proposal would not limit mail-in voting options for Georgians — estimating that more than 2.7 million of 7.7 million registered Georgians would still be eligible to vote that way.
"This is not preventing anyone from voting by mail-in absentee," he said. "All this is doing is laying the groundwork for relieving the stresses as we continue to see moving forward."
Some Republicans, including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, say they support cutting back on vote by mail to help county elections officials who were overwhelmed in the 2020 cycle by record turnout, an unprecedented number of absentee ballots and in-person voting constraints because of the coronavirus pandemic.
However, Gov. Brian Kemp, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston and Duncan — all Republicans — have indicated they do not support curbing mail-in voting.
Debate for the bill stretched nearly three and a half hours Monday, with Democrats blasting the GOP-backed measure as modern-day voter suppression after Democrats flipped the state's presidential contest and both of its U.S. Senate seats.
Democratic Sen. Jen Jordan has emerged as one of the fiercest critics of Republican-backed voting changes, speaking out on the floor against the lack of transparency involved in the 32-page measure, including discrepancies in the bill that Republicans said would be fixed down the road.
"That's sloppy, y'all," she said. "Especially when you're talking about a bill that's going to impact people's lives, that's going to impact the fundamental right to vote. ... Actually, it's pretty shameful."
Sen. Sheikh Rahman, another Democrat, said Republicans should focus less on laws restricting voting and more on talking to voters about their policies.
"Why not try to reach out all the voters in Georgia, like people that look like me?" he said. "Georgia is changing. Georgia's already changed. ... If you reach out to folks like me, that looks like me, talks like me, you might be able to hold on to power."
The House has passed its own 66-page omnibus bill that would add additional ID requirements for absentee ballots, strip some power from the secretary of state's office and standardize early voting hours, making most counties add additional days and hours but limit larger, more diverse and Democratic-leaning counties.
Voting rights groups and Democrats point to election data that show weekend voting, Sundays in particular, is disproportionately used by Black voters — especially Black churches that hold "souls to the polls" events.
A number of elections-related bills are still slated to be discussed in the Senate on Monday, including a proposal that would end Georgia's automatic voter registration provision, which is responsible for capturing more than two-thirds of Georgia's 7.7 million registered voters.