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Stricter absentee voter ID rules advance to Georgia Senate

Georgia senators sent legislation to boost identification requirements for absentee voters to the state Senate floor Thursday in a committee vote along party lines.

A bill sponsored by state Sen. Larry Walker III, R-Perry, would require voters seeking to request and cast absentee ballots to provide their driver’s license or other valid ID such as passports, employee ID cards, utility bills or bank statements. The measure was among a slate of bills to clear the Senate Ethics Committee Thursday and head to the Senate floor for votes as early as next week. Other bills that passed included legislation to create a new state elections supervisor, allow county officials to count absentee ballots before Election Day and tighten reporting requirements for voting results. They are among a legislative package backed by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the Senate. He has called for tightening absentee voter ID requirements but opposed efforts by some Republican leaders to restrict who in Georgia can vote by mail. Walker’s bill is among the more controversial absentee-voting changes Republican lawmakers are seeking after the 2020 election cycle caused distrust in Georgia’s election system for supporters of former President Donald Trump, who lost the general election in Georgia to President Joe Biden by 11,779 votes. “It is an attempt to provide an easily verified way to confirm that the person requesting the ballot is indeed who they say they are and that live ballots are only issued to legal voters,” Walker said Thursday.

“There is nothing in here that makes it harder to vote or [that] obstructs voting by absentee.” The bill would require registered Georgia voters to provide their date of birth and driver’s license number, or the number on their personal ID cards if they do not have a driver’s license, in order to request an absentee ballot. Without a driver’s license or personal ID card, voters would have to submit photocopies of a different form of valid ID such as a passport or utility bill to their local elections board or registrar. The bill would also make permanent an online portal to request absentee ballots that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office set up for last year’s elections, which drew millions of mail-in ballot requests amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The stricter absentee ID rules in Walker’s bill would do away with the state’s current system of verifying signatures on mail-in ballot request forms and envelopes, eliminating a focal point for attacks by Trump and his allies who alleged absentee voter fraud and called for deeper audits of the 2020 election results. Raffensperger, whose office repeatedly rejected Trump’s fraud claims, has backed increasing the absentee ID requirements during this legislative session, as have other top state Republicans including Gov. Brian Kemp, Duncan, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and the Georgia Senate Republican Caucus.

Democrats, meanwhile, are opposing Walker’s measure and others on absentee voting that they view as attempts at voter suppression meant to curb Democratic momentum after the party seized the presidency and both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats in the 2020 elections. Several Democrats on the Republican-controlled committee argued Thursday the bill could disenfranchise voters who do not have driver’s licenses, and possibly raise the chances for identity theft with more people sending out sensitive personal information and documents in the mail. “I think you’re trying to cure a problem in your mind,” said Sen. Ed Harbison, D-Columbus, the Senate’s longest-serving member. “But the truth is, it opens the privacy door.”

Walker dismissed those concerns, acknowledging some voters are “going to have to make an effort” to verify their identities without a driver’s license, but that the benefits of tightening absentee voter ID verification would outweigh the privacy risks.

“I’m not saying identity theft can’t happen,” Walker said. “I think the value of this is way higher than any potential risk of it happening.” Other Republicans on the committee pointed out Georgians already have to show their ID’s to vote in person, as well as for many other activities such as boarding an airplane or interacting with police officers during traffic stops.

“We are a nation of laws,” said Senate Majority Whip Steve Gooch, RDahlonega. “We’re used to having identification cards on us. “I just can’t understand anybody opposing requiring some kind of identification to present to an elections office to prove who you say you are.” Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, countered that sending personal information in the mail is different from flashing an ID to a police officer or clerk at a liquor store — and should face tighter protections against identity theft. “There’s a huge difference in mailing something in, filing it away and keeping it, than it is me just having it and showing it and the person looking at it and leaving,” Butler said. “So I think we need to stop confusing that [since] it’s not a correct statement.”

The bill passed by a 7-4 vote and now heads to the Senate floor. A separate measure to end no-excuse absentee voting in Georgia is expected to come up for consideration in the committee early next week after clearing a subcommittee on Wednesday. That bill, sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Mullis, RChickamauga, would only allow registered Georgia voters who are age 75 and older, physically disabled, out-of-state or facing other limited circumstances to vote by mail. State law since 2005 has let any Georgian registered to vote who wants to cast an absentee ballot do so without having to provide a reason for seeking the mail-in route. The committee on Thursday also passed a bill by Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, that would create a new state elections supervisor tasked with training local election workers and punishing low-performing county officials. It passed by a partyline vote.

Also passing along party lines were two bills by state Sen. Bill Cowsert, RAthens, that would shorten the time limit for local registrars to enter voting data into the state’s voterhistory system and boost reporting requirements for the state’s election-results website, including the number of absentee and provisional ballots issued, cast and rejected. A bill brought by Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, was the only measure to pass unanimously on Thursday. It would let counties begin processing absentee ballots on the Monday before Election Day, helping ease pressure on local elections officials to count mail-in ballots. Other Republicansponsored bills still awaiting consideration are measures to ban absenteeballot drop boxes, end automatic voter registration for Georgians who receive new or renewed driver’s licenses, prohibit anyone except state and local elections officials and candidates from sending voters applications for mail-in ballots, and allow poll watchers to monitor vote tabulations more closely.

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