Residency Fights Could Snare Many Georgia Voters Under Bill

ATLANTA (AP) -- Georgia Republicans are considering a new wave of election legislation that could make it easier for residency challenges to knock thousands of people from the voter rolls and ban ballot drop boxes, again catering to those who still deny President Joe Biden's 2020 victory, two years after a GOP-driven election law overhaul in the politically competitive state was signed amid widespread outcry.

"Election deniers will never be satisfied…," Kristen Nabers, the Georgia director of voting rights group, All Voting is Local, told the state Senate Ethics Committee on Thursday. "They're just going to keep pushing to perpetuate conspiracy theories in the name of greater transparency."

But the sponsor says the bill would ease voter concerns and stop counties from interpreting existing law in different ways.

"It's a confidence bill," said Georgia Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Max Burns, a Republican from Sylvania. "It's the ability to make sure, as we implement Georgia law, we follow it consistently. There are a lot of counties who are interpreting the law differently."

The bill was rewritten multiple times Monday and Tuesday and passed by the Senate Ethics Committee after limited debate, even though Blake Evans, the state elections director, warned members that a provision allowing the state to automatically remove voters who register in another state is illegal under federal law.

After originally proposing to require counties to record video of every drop box, the Ethics Committee decided on the fly during its Tuesday meeting to ban drop boxes statewide, striking out a method of voting that opponents have claimed, without evidence, allowed a massive fraud that stole the 2020 election from Trump.

Burns pledged further changes later in the process.

The bill would also ban counties from hiring election workers who aren't American citizens and let counties opt out of the state's electronic ballot markers in favor of hand-marked paper ballots.

A separate bill seeks to make it a felony for county officials to take private money to pay for elections, after Republican attacks on a suburban Atlanta county for taking such money.

The new language reacts to the fears of Republican primary voters who still believe that balloting in Georgia is insecure, despite the state's 2022 election being conducted without widespread controversy. It would build on the Georgia's 2021 election law, enacted over bitter opposition, which said every voter in the state could submit an unlimited number of challenges of voter eligibility, shortened the period to request an absentee ballot, and shortened the early voting period before a runoff election

The measure has a long way to go before becoming law, and Tuesday's improvised changes are likely to draw further opposition. But this year's proposal could make it possible for activists who have been challenging tens of thousands of registrations across Georgia to knock those voters off the rolls based only on their names appearing on the address change database maintained by the U.S. Postal Service.

County officials have been rejecting most of those challenges, saying that residence, for voting purposes, is more complicated than appearing on a change-of-address list. Officials have generally ruled that a challenger must have first-hand knowledge of someone being unqualified, instead of picking names off a list. But Burns said that he wants counties to require a hearing and possibly remove someone from the rolls based on the lists.

"The most important thing is to ensure that everyone on our voter rolls is a legitimate, legal voter," Burns said.

Challenges would be thrown out if someone could prove they were in military service, a student attending college away from home, or in federal service in Washington, D.C. But opponents say the list is inaccurate and that the state shouldn't shift the burden of staying on the rolls back onto voters.

"Every single one of those people has to answer to a voter challenge. That's how it's going to work," said Vasu Abhiraman, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. "The conspiracy theorists are going to dig up their names from the change of address registries and they're going to try to disenfranchise them."

The measure also strikes at another target of election deniers -- ballot drop boxes. Georgia first used drop boxes under an emergency rule during the pandemic in 2020. But Republican activists besieged lawmakers in 2021 with claims that Democrats illegally collected and dropped off ballots at unattended outdoor boxes. The 2021 law codified the use of boxes, but sharply limited how many could be used, requiring that they be inside early in-person voting locations and constantly watched.

The bill had originally proposed that all of Georgia's 159 counties to record video of every drop box, including making sure "the faces of each person using the drop box are visible," and make that video freely available online, retaining it for at least four years.

Videos of drop boxes, including some where voters inserted multiple ballots, were a centerpiece of election conspiracy theories, including a movie called "2000 Mules" that suggested Democratic-aligned operatives were supposedly paid to illegally collect and drop off ballots.

A second measure would make it a felony for county officials to accept money beyond their own tax revenue, except from the state or federal government, to run elections. It's an amplification of a provision from the 2021 law that made it illegal for elections officials to accept outside money, after Republicans grew alarmed that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated more than $400 million to election officials nationwide.

Recently, suburban Atlanta's DeKalb County accepted $2 million from the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence to seek improvements and share best practices. The alliance includes the Center for Tech and Civic Life, Zuckerberg's main funding vehicle from 2020. That set off a round of condemnations from Republicans that DeKalb had broken the law.

However, the county commission and not the election office accepted the money, and some have said it is legal for elected county commissioners to take grants.

"Pursuing grant funding to supplement operating budgets is a standard and ethical practice for county governments across this state," DeKalb County Board of Registrations and Elections member Karli Swift told the committee Monday.