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No-excuse absentee voting in crosshairs as Georgia lawmakers eye session
Brad Raffensperger
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announces the formation of an advisory group focused on absentee-ballot fraud amid the coronavirus pandemic on April 6, 2020 - photo by Beau Evans

Lawmakers on a state House committee overseeing elections offered a preview Wednesday, Dec. 23, of the heated debate over changing Georgia’s rules on mail-in ballots and verifying voter signatures set to play out during the upcoming legislative session.

The House Governmental Affairs Committee took testimony from Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his top deputies who want to end no-excuse absentee voting in Georgia and shift to stricter voter ID laws after the controversy of last month’s presidential election.

In the latest of several fraud-focused hearings, Raffensperger urged lawmakers to back absentee-voting law changes to both ease pressure on local election officials and boost confidence in the system’s integrity – despite no evidence of widespread fraud in the Nov. 3 election.

He called for ending the ability of voters to request mail-in ballots for any reason in Georgia and requiring stronger ID verification for absentee ballots than signatures on envelopes, such as by using voters’ driver’s licenses instead.

“Blame-shifting is not productive and it doesn’t fix problems,” Raffensperger said. “All of us need to be focused on finding solutions that improve the elections process and make it secure and accessible for voters so there is strong trust and confidence in the system.”

The proposed changes come as Raffensperger faces a storm of criticism from supporters of President Donald Trump, who continues to claim his election loss to President-elect Joe Biden by 11,779 votes in Georgia was rife with fraud. State election officials have said his claims are not true.

Several Republicans on the committee indicated more changes may be needed for mail-in voting than those pitched by Raffensperger, such as clamping down on mobile voting units outside precincts and increasing security for absentee ballot drop boxes – or even outlawing the boxes entirely.

Others agreed with a proposal by Raffensperger to give his office more power to remove poor-performing county elections officials and board members, but added he ought to install more state monitors in local offices to oversee counting procedures on Election Day.

“Perception becomes reality,” said Rep. Darlene Taylor, R-Thomasville. “And with our elections, this has caused a lot of lack of confidence in our election process. … A lot of this is a local issue [and] I think you need to have more oversight over them.”

Meanwhile, suspicions of voter suppression are growing among legislative Democrats worried Raffensperger and Republicans may use the fraud claims as an excuse to overhaul election laws too much during the General Assembly session that starts next month, potentially disenfranchising voters.

Their fears stem from the Republican-controlled state legislature’s ability to revise election rules at a time when Democrats are making gains in Georgia, most recently with Biden’s presidential win, which benefited from huge numbers of mail-in votes cast amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“No-excuse absentee voting has been used safely and effectively by both parties since 2005,” the Georgia Senate Democratic Caucus wrote on Twitter. “Ending the practice in order to try and turn back the tide of Democratic participation in Georgia is voter suppression.”

Raffensperger’s office sought to frame no-excuse absentee voting as a burden on county election officials who were swamped with around 1.3 million mail-in ballots last month and forced to effectively run three separate elections for absentee, early and in-person voting.

Struggles in places like Fulton County to tally thousands of absentee ballots in the intensely close election also worsened many Georgians’ suspicions of fraud, highlighting how ill-equipped the state’s election system is to handle large numbers of mail-in ballots, said Raffensperger’s general counsel, Ryan Germany.

“We’re in a state where you’re going to continue to have close elections, where you’re going to continue to have very spirited responses on both sides,” Germany said. “The processes are designed to promote confidence, and we need to make sure all of our processes are set up that way.”

The 2021 legislative session of the General Assembly starts on Jan. 11, days after the hotly contested U.S. Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5, which are shaping up for similarly tight results as the presidential contest. With control of the federal government hanging in the balance, turnout is expected to be historically high.