Georgia House lawmakers moved legislation Wednesday that would prohibit the Secretary of State and local elections officials from sending out absentee ballot request forms unless a voter asks for one.
The House Governmental Affairs Committee tacked the proposal onto a measure, Senate Bill 463, that aims to curb wait times at polling places by splitting up large precincts into smaller ones and establishing less restrictive rules for signatures to match what is shown on a voter’s ID card.
The bill was also amended Wednesday to allow poll workers to work in precincts outside the county in which they live and raise the age for moving elderly voters to the front of the line at polling places from 70 to 75 years old.
State lawmakers have been mulling ways to avoid a repeat of the June 9 primary election that drew long lines in several counties largely in the Atlanta area and overwhelmed elections workers struggling to process tens of thousands of absentee ballots in some counties.
An amendment to Senate Bill 463 brought in the House committee would prevent elections officials from sending out “unsolicited absentee ballot applications.”
State law allows any registered voter to request an absentee ballot via an application that can be returned by mail or in person to their county registrar’s office. It is silent on whether elections officials can send out those applications on their own initiative.
But as concerns mounted over coronavirus in March, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger took steps to proactively send absentee request forms to all of Georgia’s nearly 7 million registered voters ahead of the primary. That led to more than 1 million votes cast by mail in the primary, smashing previous state records on absentee voting.
The amendment brought Wednesday would eliminate chances of a repeat scenario in which every Georgian receives an absentee application from the state, though Raffensperger has already said he does not plan to issue those forms again for the Aug. 11 primary runoffs.
Republican lawmakers, who control both chambers in the General Assembly, framed the proposal as needed to curb problems seen in processing huge numbers of absentee ballot request forms during the June 9 primary.
“It is in no way an attempt to remove the ability to vote or request in any manner,” said Rep. Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, who chairs the committee. “It is just a capacity issue.”
But Democratic lawmakers argued the ban would strip the ability of local elections officials to send out mail-in request forms on their own if they wished to do so, particularly as a tool to reduce in-person voting as fears continue over coronavirus.
“This ties the hands of local governments if they want to do that,” said Rep. Renitta Shannon, D-Decatur. “And all we’ve heard in the last couple days is the counties need to get it together.”
Lawmakers on the committee also approved changes to the bill that call for the Secretary of State’s office to set up an online portal for voters to request absentee ballots.
The bill, sponsored Sen. John Kennedy, R-Macon, passed out of the committee by a party-line vote Wednesday and now heads to the full House for a vote.