Georgia lawmakers make it easier to challenge a voter’s registration

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Georgia legislators changed state election laws in the midnight hours of Friday, widening the criteria to challenge a voter’s registration, removing bar codes from printed ballots and increasing the documentation local elections officials must produce to certify elections.

The proposals will take effect 1 July, assuming the Georgia governor, Brian Kemp, signs the legislation into law.

Voting rights groups expressed their highest concern about how Senate Bill 189 potentially expands challenges to voter registrations. Conservative advocates have been issuing large-scale systematic challenges to voters – dozens or hundreds at a time in some districts, like Atlanta’s Fulton and DeKalb counties. Each challenge under existing law has to be considered on its individual merits under current law, which can exhaust the resources of local election officials, voting rights advocates argue.

“In past cycles, we have seen ordinary people who would come in and challenge hundreds of voters because of different lists,” said Andrea Young, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. “In 2022 there was kind of sort of a gray area. Now with this, it is almost encouraging … really anti-democratic vigilantes to come in and challenge your right to be on the voting list.”

The legislation defines new conditions under which a challenge to a voter’s registration would have probable cause, including a subsequent registration in another state or jurisdiction, using a different residence to obtain a homestead tax exemption, registration at a nonresidential address. Challenges would not be permitted within 45 days of an election.

In the 2022 Senate election, questions dogged the Republican candidate, Herschel Walker, about his residency, after news reporters unearthed his Texas homestead exemption.

The legislation also bars the use of post office boxes as a mailing address for a voting registration. Notably, some small towns in Georgia, like Pine Lake in DeKalb county, have too few residents in their zip code for the post office to deliver mail to home addresses, necessitating the use of post office boxes for its residents.

The bill requires people experiencing homelessness to use the county registrar’s office as a mailing address to register to vote, a move that anti-homelessness advocates argued would complicate the lives of both the homeless and of county registrars. Requiring homeless voters to register at an elections office may also violate the National Voter Registration Act, advocates said.

“What we’re saying is that it should be easy for every citizen to vote,” Young said. “That’s what makes this a democracy. And all of these tricks to try to create barriers for Georgia citizens to have a voice in their government is anti-democracy.”

The legislation passed largely along a Republican party line vote despite objections raised by Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, arguing that major changes to election law should not be made so close to the 2024 election.

“We know there is a national coordinated movement to challenge voters, to go and talk about how the voter lists are outdated and bloated,” said Kristin Nabors, state director for All Voting Is Local. “They’re just not. We have extremely clean voter rolls in Georgia. This is not a bill that we need, and particularly not in an election year.”

Senate Bill 189 also requires election officials to use the printed text on a ballot to count votes, rather than use bar code scanning tools built into current election processes. It additionally requires elections offices to tabulate absentee votes and advanced voting totals within one hour of polls closing on election day. It also requires every person who is in physical control of ballots or key elections equipment to sign a tracking document showing chain of custody and the use of tamper-proof containers.

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“This quantifies the fact that as ballots move through the process, they are properly documented and properly controlled,” said state senator Max Burns, a sponsor of the bill.

Two Republican-appointed members of the Fulton county board of registration and elections voted against certification of the March presidential primary two weeks ago, citing their inability to access chain-of-custody documentation ahead of the vote.

But opponents of the bill suggested that the chain of custody provision is a pretext meant to allow elections board members to reject future elections for technical defects without bearing on the actual vote tally.

Other changes include the removal of the secretary of state as an ex officio member of the state elections board, and to require officials to provide high-resolution copies of ballots.

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