Senators End Second Day of Hearings on Elections Reform Bill

Cindy Morley

Thursday, March 18th, 2021

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Members of the Senate Ethics Committee have spent the past two days listening to testimony for and against the House version of an omnibus elections reform bill. And they are planning  at least two more days of the same before even considering a vote on House Bill 531.

Most of the testimony Monday came from the bill’s primary sponsor Rep. Barry Fleming (R-Harlem) who fielded questions from committee members for more than an hour. On Tuesday, the committee met again, this time listening to comments for and against the proposed bill, before voting to table the legislation again. Chairman Max Burns (R-Sylvania) closed Tuesday’s meeting by stating that the committee would be back today (Wednesday) and Thursday morning to hear more comments. It is not clear when a vote will be taken.

“Thank you all for your passion and commitment, and for taking the time to come in and speak about this bill,” Burns said at the close of Tuesday’s meeting.

Both the House and the Senate have their own versions of an omnibus elections bill that has cleared their own Chambers. The Senate recently passed its own version — SB 241 — in dramatic fashion with Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan refusing to preside over the hearing. That bill passed out of the Senate by a slim 29-20 margin. It has been assigned to the House Special Committee on Election Integrity.

HB 531, which passed out of the House by a 97-72 vote, would create tighter restrictions on in-person voting, vote counting and absentee balloting. It adds an ID requirement for absentee ballot requests and requires a copy of other identifying info like a utility bill, if the voter lacks a government ID. It also limits the number of absentee ballot drop boxes, and requires drop boxes to be kept indoors.

Much of the discussion the past two days has centered around drop boxes, required IDs for absentee ballots and weekend voting.

Fleming disputed claims that HB 531 would decrease voting hours during early voting. “This bill actually adds more weekend hours than ever before,” said Fleming during Monday’s hearing. We are attempting to have a balanced approach and allow for flexibility.” He added that this bill would probably set longer weekend hours for voting in many of Georgia’s counties.

Some opponents of the bill claim that mandating drop boxes be kept inside early-voting facilities will “defeat the purpose of drop boxes.”  One point out that the new requirements in HB 531 cuts the number of drop boxes in the state by 194. Fleming countered that the requirements on drop boxes will “ensure the security of the ballots.”

Chairman Burns limited testimony to two minutes in hopes of getting as many speakers to the podium as possible. In a twist, one presenter sang a short ballad, on voter integrity and transparency adding “the truth will set us free.”

To read all of InsiderAdvantage Georgia’s daily news, SUBSCRIBE HERE. *Subscription includes a complimentary subscription to JAMES Magazine.