Complex Republican maneuvering over the future of election rules and voting rights in Georgia, newly one of the nation's premier battlegrounds, is headed to another level this week.
The first vote could come as soon as Tuesday, on an expansive GOP package designed to make it much harder to cast a ballot — mainly by ending early voting the Sunday before Election Day, limiting drop boxes and requiring proof of identification along with every absentee ballot application.
But while a state House committee prepared to advance the bill along party lines, the leaders of the Republican-run General Assembly signaled their demand for a more modest approach, fearing that making it too difficult to vote would backfire by generating a huge Democratic response ahead of highly competitive elections for governor and senator next year.
One Georgia Republican who was just ousted from the Senate, Kelly Loeffler, decided to take a somewhat different approach Monday by launching a group that will focus on boosting conservative turnout in 2022 along with promoting enhanced "election integrity." The financial services executive said she would spend more than $1 million standing up Greater Georgia, which she described as modeled after — and a counterweight on — Fair Fight Action, which Stacey Abrams started days after her narrow 2018 defeat for governor.
"By registering new voters, broadening our outreach, and rebuilding trust in our election process, we can create better outcomes, strengthen our democracy and lift up more voices in our state," Loeffler said.
She also signaled she may use the new group to help her mount a Senate comeback run next year. The other GOP senator ousted in January, David Perdue, said Tuesday he would not be doing likewise.
Loeffler — who planned to support Donald Trump's challenge to the Electoral College count on Jan. 6 but changed her mind after the insurrection — did not specify what she meant by Greater Georgia pushing "election transparency and uniformity" reforms, beyond saying she supports toughening ID requirements for those wanting to vote by mail. And she asserted that some of the efforts to ease access to the polls last year had driven down public confidence in election integrity.
Abrams, who is likely to be the Democratic candidate for governor again next year, derided the new effort. "It's deeply disheartening that a former U.S. senator would spend her time and her resources to publicly engage in the type of conspiracy theories that say that only certain Americans should be valued," she said.
The sweeping GOP legislation, on course to get to the floor of the House by the end of the week, survived a withering day of criticism Monday from voting rights advocates — who labeled it as voter suppression, particularly of the Black electorate, in the guise of tackling an election security problem that does not exist.
After Joe Biden became the first Democrat since 1992 to carry the state, although by a scant 12,000 votes, Donald Trump focused his campaign of lies about election fraud on Georgia more than any other place. Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both fellow Republicans, said unequivocally that three different tallies revealed no suggestion of widespread cheating. The district attorney in Atlanta is now investigating Trump's efforts to subvert the state's result.
Still, many of Trump's allies at the state capital continue to profess skepticism about Georgia's voting systems — particularly about the integrity of absentee voting. Georgians who voted by mail shattered records because of the pandemic and accounted for more than a quarter of all ballots cast for president in November and almost a quarter cast in the twin Senate runoffs in January, won by Rafael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to give Georgia two Democratic senators for the first time in 15 years.
These Republicans maintain the rules for obtaining and returning envelopes made it too easy for illegitimate votes to get cast. (To be sure, none of those GOP lawmakers have questioned the results of their own races.)
Their bill would require a driver's license number, state ID number or copy of a photo ID with each vote-by-mail application. It would cut off those submissions 11 days before each election. And it would prohibit the use of drop boxes excerpt inside early-voting locations.
Perhaps the most contentious proposal, though, is to end early voting on Sunday, which would smother the longstanding tradition of "souls to the polls," people in Black neighborhoods heading out to vote after church the weekend before the election.
The fate of the package is not as clear as it might at first appear, because the top two Republican legislative leaders have decided sweeping new voting restrictions would not be good politics. House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the Senate, have both announced they will not support any bill that curtails eligibility to vote by mail. Duncan has also taken committee chairmanships away from two Republicans who planned to push sharp restrictions in the Senate, making it tougher to get such bills through that chamber.
Instead, three modest bills were approved Monday by Senate committees. One would compel local officials to continue tabulating ballots until their work is done -- not take any breaks on election night, which happened in several major urban and suburban counties in November and gave rise to a host of conspiracy theories. Another would allow for a special kind of grand jury to investigate election crimes. A third would limit the use of the sorts of mobile polling stations that helped drive up turnout in Atlanta last fall.
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