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Georgia set to enact broad changes to voter access rules

A sweeping bill to change Georgia's election practices awaits Republican Gov. Brian Kemp's expected signature.

It offers some hope for those who say the system failed miserably in the nation's eighth most populous state last fall, when a hotly contested and high-turnout election was marred by allegations that voters were wrongly denied access to the polls, absentee ballots were rejected for questionable reasons and vote counts were shady and incomplete. Kemp was secretary of state, in charge of election administration, at the time. He narrowly defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams, who was bidding to become the nation's first African-American woman governor.

Georgians will get a new generation of voting machines, with touchscreens attached to printers that generate paper ballots. This permits voters to review their choices before their ballots are counted and preserves a written record for use in recounts and a new system of audits, which the state election board has been ordered to put in place in time for the 2020 election.

Once the law is enacted, voter registrations won't be canceled for inactivity for eight or nine years, two years longer than under existing law, and voters will be mailed a notification at least a month before such cancelations. (More than 1.4 million voter registrations were canceled in the state over the past eight years.)

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The new law will also limit Georgia's "exact match" rule, which stalled more than 50,000 registrations last year because of mismatches between applications and other state records on such things as hyphenations of last names and use of maiden names. From now on, applicants will immediately become active voters when they sign up, with such discrepancies flagged for election judges to review when voters show photo IDs at polling places.

Also, the bill prevents polling place relocations or closures within two months of a primary or general election. County officials have closed 214 precincts across Georgia since 2012, according to an analysis conducted last year by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But at the same time the bill will reduce the number of voting machines in each precinct to one for every 250 voters; now, it's one per 200 voters.

The new statute says absentee ballots may not be rejected because of mismatches between voters' signatures on their ballots and their signatures on file. Instead, a system will be created to allow people with signature problems to provide identification. (The AJC found that nearly 7,000 absentee ballots, or 3 percent of the statewide total, were rejected in November.)

Finally, the legislation lowers the threshold for a losing candidate to request an automatic recount to half a percentage point; the standard is now a full percentage point.

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