Republican Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday signed into law a sweeping voting measure that proponents said is necessary to shore up confidence in the state’s elections but that critics countered will lead to longer lines, partisan control of elections and more difficult procedures for voters trying to cast their ballots by mail.
The measure is one of the first major voting bills to pass as dozens of state legislatures consider restrictions on how ballots are cast and counted in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, when President Donald Trump attacked without evidence the integrity of election results in six states he lost, including Georgia.
The new law imposes new identification requirements for those casting ballots by mail; curtails the use of drop boxes for absentee ballots; allows electors to challenge the eligibility of an unlimited number of voters and requires counties to hold hearings on such challenges within 10 days; makes it a crime for third-party groups to hand out food and water to voters standing in line; blocks the use of mobile voting vans, as Fulton County did last year after purchasing two vehicles at a cost of more than $700,000; and prevents local governments from directly accepting grants from the private sector.
The 95-page law also strips authority from the secretary of state, making him a nonvoting member of the State Election Board, and allows lawmakers to initiate takeovers of local election boards — measures that critics said could allow partisan appointees to slow down or block election certification or target heavily Democratic jurisdictions, many of which are in the Atlanta area and are home to the state’s highest concentrations of Black and Brown voters.
The measure, backed by Republicans, sailed out of the state House and Senate on party-line votes in a single afternoon.
Kemp signed it shortly afterward, saying at a news conference that with the new law, “Georgia will take another step toward ensuring our elections are secure, accessible and fair.”
“Contrary to the hyper-partisan rhetoric you may have heard inside and outside this gold dome, the facts are that this new law will expand voting access in the Peach State,” the governor added, noting that every county in Georgia will now have expanded early voting on the weekends.
But Democrats and voting-rights advocates condemned the bill as a flagrant effort to make it harder for some voters to cast their ballots — particularly those in larger, minority-heavy counties that have a long history of insufficient polling locations and long lines.
“It is like the Christmas tree of goodies in terms of voter suppression,” Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat, said on the Senate floor Thursday.
“‘We want to provide opportunities for people to vote,’ ” she said, echoing Republican descriptions of the measure. “This bill is absolutely about opportunities — but it ain’t about the opportunity to vote. It’s about the opportunity to keep control and keep power at any cost.”
Later Thursday, Democratic state Rep. Park Cannon was arrested by state troopers as she knocked on the governor’s door to observe the bill signing, cutting short Kemp’s news conference — a moment captured by other others at the capitol in videos posted on social media.
In 43 states across the country, GOP lawmakers have proposed at least 250 laws that would limit mail, early in-person and Election Day voting with such constraints as stricter ID requirements, limited hours or narrower eligibility to vote absentee, according to data compiled as of Feb. 19 by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. Even more proposals have been introduced since then.
In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) signed a voting law earlier this month that reduces early and Election Day voting hours and moves up the deadline for mail ballots to arrive at local election offices.
President Biden on Thursday blasted efforts by Republican-led state legislatures across the country to restrict voting rights, saying he was worried about “how un-American this whole initiative is.”
“This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle,” Biden said, emphasizing he would do “everything in my power” to pass legislation to protect voting rights.
During the Senate debate in Georgia on Thursday, State Sen. Gloria Butler, a Black Democrat who represents suburban Atlanta, called the measure “an unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we’ve seen since the Jim Crow era.”
“Make no mistake, this is democracy in reverse,” she said. “Some politicians did not approve of the choice made by voters in our hard-fought election.”
Republicans noted that the final bill did not include a prior proposal to limit mail voting only to those with a reason such as age, illness or travel. The new law also increases required early-voting hours across Georgia after an uproar about a proposal to bar Sunday voting, a ban that would have hindered “souls to the polls,” the long-standing effort to encourage Black voters to vote after Sunday church services.
“Our goal is to ensure election integrity and to restore confidence in the election process,” said Sen. Max Burns (R), calling the measure a “well thought-out bill.”
Another Republican, Sen. John Albers, maintained that the measure “expands voting access in Georgia.” He accused critics of “sensationalizing and misrepresenting the truth.”
In signing the bill, Kemp sought to align himself with Trump, saying he “joined many others, including President Trump, in urging the Secretary of State’s office to quickly and fully investigate any and all fraud irregularities” in the 2020 election.
In fact, Georgia election officials did not find any significant fraud in the November vote, despite Trump’s repeated false claims of problems with the election and his attempts to get Kemp and other officials to halt the certification of Biden’s win.
On Thursday, multiple Democrats stood to speak against the bill in both House and Senate, many expressing astonishment at the Republican argument that the measure would improve the voter experience. They took particular aim at how the bill will undermine local control of election administration, and said it was hard to view the restriction on providing food and water to voters in line as anything other than an effort to making it unpleasant to vote.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story imprecisely described how the new law affects challenges to voter eligibility. Such challenges were previously allowed, but the new law allows electors to challenge the eligibility of an unlimited number of voters and requires counties to hold hearings on such challenges within 10 days. This story has been updated.