As Georgians grappled with the fallout from the 2020 election, one thing became clear: In 2021, lawmakers would work to reform how Georgians vote and how administrators manage elections.
Staying true to form, legislators have since introduced a gaggle of related bills intent on addressing various elections issues. In fact, more than 40 House bills have been assigned to the House Special Committee on Election Integrity and 30-plus Senate voting bills have been sent to the Senate Committee on Ethics.
With so many proposals floating around the statehouse, it can feel overwhelming for individuals who attempt to parse through the numerous measures and predict what the legislature will settle on. Even so, there are some bills that are moving and receiving special consideration, which provides clues to legislative leadership’s thinking.
The Senate recently passed a bipartisan package of bills, which appears designed to ensure that elections are settled in a timely and more transparent manner and to implement further absentee ballot protections. Within the package are two particular bills that caught my eye. Sen. Jen Jordan’s (D-6) SB 40 would empower elections officials to begin opening and tabulating absentee ballots before election day—thereby speeding up the process, which is what some other states already do. And SB 67 by Sen. Larry Walker (R-20) aims to require voters to include their date of birth and personal identification card number (or a photocopy of their ID) along with their absentee ballot application. This would be done to help elections officials presumably verify the identity of voters.
The latter sparked some impassioned debate from the opposition, but to be fair, identification is currently required for in-person voting. So, it seems as though SB 67 would be merely extending an already existing policy to absentee voting. Whatever the case, the Senate’s package cleared a major hurdle and now waits on the House to give it consideration.
Meanwhile, over in the House, Chairman of the House Special Committee on Election Integrity Rep. Barry Fleming (R-121) introduced an omnibus voting bill that covers a host of election components within its nearly 50 pages. These include mandating ID verification for absentee voting and interestingly, rolling out a ranked-choice voting system for members of the military and overseas voters.
Ranked-choice voting saves time and money by providing instant run-offs in elections in which candidates do not receive the majority of the votes. In such a system, voters list their candidates in order of preference during the general primary and general elections. “The candidate who did the worst is eliminated, and that candidate’s voters’ ballots are redistributed to their second-choice pick. In other words, if you ranked a losing candidate as your first choice, and the candidate is eliminated, then your vote still counts: it just moves to your second-choice candidate,” a Time Magazine article explains. This process can automatically continue until a candidate receives a majority of the votes—avoiding a traditional run-off.
Despite the Senate package and Rep. Fleming’s bill appearing as though most of leadership has blessed them, not everyone is entirely pleased with the measures. In fact, others are still filing elections reform bills that range in scope greatly. However, in response to allegations of voter fraud, there are some lawmakers who appear eager to abolish no-excuse absentee voting—the process by which any legal Georgia voter can cast an absentee ballot without needing to provide an approved excuse. But ditching no-excuse absentee voting would be a mistake.
First of all, Speaker David Ralston, Lieutenant Gov. Geoff Duncan, and Gov. Brian Kemp appear skeptical of repealing no-excuse absentee voting, which means such proposals could be dead on arrival, and in the lead up to the 2020 election, 65 percent of voters supported no-excuse absentee voting. What’s more, efforts to repeal no-excuse absentee voting will do little—if anything—to crack down on supposed voter fraud.
An excuse-only paradigm permits only voters with approved excuses to cast an absentee ballot. However, these models operate essentially on the honor system and assume that voters’ excuses aren’t contrived. Yet if someone is intent on committing voter fraud, then the threat of violating the honor system will not deter them. Rather, this will simply make it harder for honest Georgians to vote, which will probably suppress voter turnout.
As the legislative session trucks along, observers will get a better idea of how voting may ultimately change in Georgia, and it certainly will. But as it currently stands, it appears that there’s an increasing level of consensus around the desire to enact voter ID laws for absentee voting, responsibly speed up the vote-counting process and perhaps even test ranked-choice voting among overseas voters.
Marc Hyden is the director of state government affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.