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Newton legislators vote along party lines on state elections overhaul
Voters line up
Newton County advance voters line up Oct. 23, 2020, outside the Newton County Administration Building in downtown Covington. - photo by Tom Spigolon

ATLANTA — Newton County legislators split along party lines Thursday in voting on a sweeping bill that overhauls state laws on how elections will be conducted in Georgia.

Gov. Brian Kemp signed Senate Bill 202 into law Thursday, March 25, about an hour after the state Senate gave final approval on a 34-20 vote, the Capitol Beat News Service reported.

The state House had earlier voted 100-75 for approval, also along party lines.

Among legislators representing Newton County, District 17 State Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, voted yes, and District 43 Sen. Tonya Anderson, D-Lithonia, voted no. 

In the House, Newton County state Reps. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead, and Clint Crowe, R-Jackson, voted yes; and Reps. Sharon Henderson, D-Covington, and Regina Lewis-Ward, D-McDonough, voted no.

Lawmakers have until Wednesday, March 31, the last day of the 2021 General Assembly session, to make any changes.

Among its numerous provisions, the bill sponsored by state Sen. Max Burns, R-Sylvania, would require that registered Georgia voters provide the number on their driver’s license or state ID card to request and cast absentee ballots, Capitol Beat reported.

If they do not have the required IDs, voters instead would have to send in a copy of a passport, employee ID card, utility bill or bank statement, the bill states.

The 95-page bill — which compiled measures from a number of other bills — included the stricter voter ID rules for mail-in ballots, as well as a ban on handing out food and drink to voters waiting in line outside polling places, and absentee ballot applications not being accepted within 11 days of an election.

The bill also would require two Saturdays of early voting and give counties the option to conduct it on two Sundays.

It also would allow state officials to take over county election boards for poor performance.

Democratic leaders and voting-rights advocates argue that allowing state takeovers could give Republicans a back door to influence local election operations in many counties that vote majority Democratic.

Election bills sparked intense debate in the General Assembly this year after former President Donald Trump’s claims of fraud in Georgia despite state officials and federal courts rejecting the claims in recent months.

State Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, who chairs the House Special Committee on Election Integrity, said the bill “greatly expands accessibility of voters in Georgia and greatly improves the process of administration of elections, while at the same time providing more accountability to ensure the integrity that the vote is properly preserved.”

Belton, in his weekly legislative update, said before the Thursday vote that Democrats called for greater election security after the 2018 election for governor that Kemp won narrowly over Stacey Abrams.

“It’s important to remember that Georgia was a leader in requiring a photo ID to vote,” Belton wrote. “Absentee ballots should have an equal measure of security as people voting in person.”

Anderson, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, said supporters of SB 202 say it will “make it easy to vote and hard to cheat.” 

“I disagree. It makes it easy to cheat and hard to vote, the latter being especially true for Blacks, Latinos, Asians, young people and seniors,” Anderson said in a statement after the vote.

She said the bill is “sweeping election reform to remedy concerns that cannot be substantiated and to punish public servants who put our state before partisanship.”

“Under this new law, the Georgia General Assembly will consolidate power and authority over our elections,” Anderson said. 

“The state legislature, at least those in power, will have the ability to appoint the State Election Board chair, remove local election superintendents who commit violations over two election cycles, overrule State Election Board emergency rules, reduce runoff elections to 28 days, all while imposing unfunded mandates upon local governments.”

She also said, “Beyond this power grab, the legislation criminalizes civic engagement.”

“Since 2016, our state witnessed an increase of 500,000 registered voters. In 2020, over 5 million voters went to the polls. This is in no small part to the numerous nonprofits that believe in democracy and exercising our Constitutional rights. SB 202 does not support civic engagement, it demonizes it.” 

A different bill by Fleming awaiting Senate action would allow counties to buy their own voting machines. Trump also helped sow mistrust of new machines manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems that were first used in Georgia during last year’s elections.

Beau Evans of Capitol Beat News Service contributed to this report.