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Georgia Legislature Revives Election Bill in Final Session Day

The bill gives the state’s Bureau of Investigation authority to investigate potential infractions if they could have put the outcome of an election in doubt and allows the public to review ballots after elections are certified.

(TNS) — Georgia legislators restored key pieces of an elections bill Monday morning, expanding GBI fraud enforcement and unsealing paper ballots for public inspection.

The House Election Integrity Committee voted along party lines to advance the bill on the last day of this year's legislative session, the latest changes to election laws sought by the General Assembly's Republican majority.

The new 11-page bill gives the GBI authority to investigate potential infractions if they could have put the outcome of an election in doubt. It also allows the public to review ballots for themselves after elections are certified.

The legislation, Senate Bill 89, arrived after a state Senate panel had removed every controversial elections proposal from a different bill last week, leaving only a provision requiring companies to give workers up to two hours off to vote either during early voting or on election day. The time-off allowance is also part of SB 89.

The bill stems from complaints about the 2020 election, when Republican Donald Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden by about 12,000 votes in Georgia. Election officials have repeatedly recounted, investigated and upheld the results.

"Hopefully, these chain of custody provisions and GBI involvement and inspection of the ballots give the people confidence that we're having elections that are run well, secure and transparent," said Election Integrity Chairman Stan Gunter, a Republican from Blairsville.

Opponents of the bill said it will create new burdens on strained poll workers during this year's elections.

"We're coming up with a whole lot of requirements for them, but nobody wants to give them any money to either hire extra people or make sure everything runs smoothly," said state Rep. Rhonda Burnough, a Democrat from Riverdale.

Many ideas that were included in prior versions of elections bills haven't resurfaced.

Gone are strict ballot handling rules described by election officials as "security theater" in a committee, but keeping some requirements that ballots be stored in sealed or locked containers with chain-of-custody forms.

The legislation also excludes additional restrictions on nonprofit election funding, a requirement for "meaningful" access for poll watchers, a felony charge for threatening violence against poll workers, and a reduction in the number of required voting machines at election day polling places.

This year's elections bill focuses on election oversight after the General Assembly passed a sweeping measure last year that put more regulations on absentee voting. The law limited ballot drop boxes, added absentee voter ID requirements and allowed state takeovers of county election offices.

Voting rights organizations most strongly object to empowering the GBI to launch fraud investigations, skipping the step in the process where the secretary of state's office investigates allegations of irregularities. Next year's proposed state budget includes nearly $580,000 for four GBI positions to investigate election complaints.

"This year's rushed process looks likely to cost Georgia taxpayers $580,000 a year, which will be spent chasing conspiracy theories if anything and everything that creates 'doubt' about our elections is suddenly up for investigation," said Aunna Dennis, executive director for Common Cause Georgia, a government accountability organization.

State Rep. Alan Powell, a Republican from Hartwell, said the bill improves election security and ballot-handling procedures.

"We can start seeing some assurance and some confidence in the public that no matter where you are, whether it's Hart County or Fulton County or Franklin County or DeKalb County, that elections are going to be on the up and up," said state Rep. Alan Powell, a Republican from Hartwell.

Before SB 89 was rewritten Monday morning, an earlier version of the bill that passed the state Senate last year would have created a state government position to identify and assist low-performing county election offices. The revised bill no longer contains that language.

Lawmakers will next decide which proposals to move through the legislative process.

Both the new SB 89 and the measure approved in a Senate committee last week, House Bill 1464, are pending in the House and Senate. The General Assembly will try to agree on a final version of the bill before this year's legislative session ends today.

(c)2022 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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