Advocates warn GOP bills in Ga., Ariz. could restrict voter access

QUINN SCANLAN and MEG CUNNINGHAM
·7 min read

Hundreds of bills proposing changes to voting and election laws have been introduced in state legislatures across the country, and in Arizona and Georgia -- two former Republican strongholds that turned blue the last election cycle -- GOP lawmakers are seeking to change election laws in ways that have prompted voting rights advocates to sound the alarm over their potential to restrict voter access.

Amber McReynolds, the CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute (NVAHI), a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for voter-centric policies, singled out the Peach State and the Grand Canyon State during a press call on Wednesday.

"Those two stand out as being concerning given the false narratives around vote-by-mail that were perpetuated at the national level, and the -- frankly -- conspiracies and other lies about the election process broadly. Those states are particularly concerning," McReynolds told ABC News on the call.

PHOTO: Voters line up to cast their election ballot at a Cobb County polling station during early voting in Marietta, Ga., Oct. 13, 2020. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters, FILE)
PHOTO: Voters line up to cast their election ballot at a Cobb County polling station during early voting in Marietta, Ga., Oct. 13, 2020. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters, FILE)

When the coronavirus upended life at the start of 2020, state officials faced pressure to modify election laws in ways that made it easier for voters to cast ballots safely.

In both Arizona and Georgia, every voter already had three options for casting a ballot: by mail, in person during an early voting period or at their polling precinct on Election Day. As far as pandemic-specific changes go, there were very few: Arizona extended the voter registration deadline by 10 days following a court order, and Georgia's State Election Board passed emergency rules allowing county election offices to install ballot drop boxes and to pre-process, but not tabulate, returned absentee ballots ahead of Election Day.

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Former President Donald Trump's relentless post-election misinformation campaign and attempts to overturn legitimate outcomes paid special attention to Arizona and Georgia, where he suffered his narrowest losses. President Joe Biden won by just 10,457 votes and 11,779 votes, respectively, marking the first time a Democratic presidential candidate captured the states' electoral votes since the 1990s. And the GOP's losses in these states weren't just at the presidential level -- both states now have two Democratic senators.

But while Democrats dominated in federal races, Republicans were able to maintain their majorities in both states' legislatures, and both governors -- who would be tasked with signing into law any election-related legislation that makes it to their desk -- are Republicans.

On Monday, Republican state senators in Georgia introduced multiple election-related bills, mostly related to absentee-by-mail voting.

PHOTO: A voter deposits their mail-in ballot for the presidential election at a ballot collection box in Phoenix, Oct. 18, 2020. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: A voter deposits their mail-in ballot for the presidential election at a ballot collection box in Phoenix, Oct. 18, 2020. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images, FILE)

One piece of legislation looks to add an ID requirement for absentee-by-mail voters. Another looks to ban the use of ballot drop boxes, which allow voters to avoid the sometimes unreliable U.S. Postal Service when returning their ballots to election officials.

But the most restrictive proposal is likely the one seeking to revert Georgia back to an excuse-based system for absentee-by-mail voting, which it hasn't had since the General Assembly passed legislation in 2005 eliminating the excuse requirement. Until 2020, only about 5% of voters chose to vote this way in any given election, but in the November election and January runoff, about 25% of voters cast ballots this way.

"I would not want to see anything rolled back for absentee by mail. I think it's become a valuable tool not only for us in Georgia, but for other elections administrators to use that to make elections run smoother," Rick Barron, the elections director in Georgia's largest county, said on the NVAHI press call, adding that he was especially concerned about attempts to ban ballot drop boxes.

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Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Gov. Brian Kemp and state House Speaker David Ralston -- all Republicans -- have all expressed support for adding an ID requirement for absentee-by-mail voters, and about three quarters of voters in Georgia support this, too, according to a recent poll from the Atlanta Journal Constitution. While Raffensperger has also said he supports requiring an excuse to vote absentee, Kemp told the AJC that he is "reserving judgment" on that issue and Ralston said in early January that "somebody's going to have to make a real strong case to convince" him to support ending no-excuse absentee voting.

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"What Republicans appear to be doing is trying to limit the size of the electorate, rather than trying to grow their own base," University of Georgia Professor Charles Bullock, an expert on Southern politics, told ABC News Tuesday.

"What Trump's statements have done is essentially provide a rationale for what is being attempted in the legislature," he added. "Trump's repeated claims that the election was stolen, the system was corrupt, that then gives you cover so that you can say, 'We're not trying to prevent people who should be voting from voting, but because there's so much corruption in the system, we need to put up new barriers.'"

A spokesperson for Fair Fight, the voting rights organization started by Stacey Abrams, who may seek a rematch against Kemp next year, said the group was prepared to "fight every Republican attempt to roll back voting rights," and described the new legislation as an "unhinged set of voter suppression bills from a radical Senate Republican leadership."

PHOTO: Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, left, signs documents to certify the election results for federal, statewide, and legislative offices and statewide ballot measures at the official canvass in the Arizona Capitol, Nov. 30, 2020, in Phoenix. (Ross D. Franklin/Pool via AP, FILE)
PHOTO: Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, left, signs documents to certify the election results for federal, statewide, and legislative offices and statewide ballot measures at the official canvass in the Arizona Capitol, Nov. 30, 2020, in Phoenix. (Ross D. Franklin/Pool via AP, FILE)

Arizona legislators have also presented a wide array of election reform bills following the state's record 80% turnout in the general election. The vast majority of the 3.4 million voters who participated in the election cast their ballots by mail, which was typical in Arizona before the pandemic.

While Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, said Tuesday that her office plans to propose a legislative package that would offer some reforms to the state's already efficient voting process, Republican lawmakers have other ideas.

"Election extremists in Arizona, and other state legislatures across the country, are working overtime to make voting more difficult," Hobbs said Tuesday during a press call hosted by the Voter Protection Program, a nonpartisan election integrity group. "Some of these lawmakers are trying to rehash the debunked theories about the 2020 election as an excuse to limit access to voting and it's shameful."

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In the state Senate, GOP lawmakers introduced a bill that would remove voters from the permanent early voting list (PEVL), which mails voters a ballot before every election, if they do not vote by mail for two consecutive elections. A similar bill passed through the state Senate last session but didn't make it to a vote in the House.

Yavapai County Recorder Leslie Hoffman said on the NVAHI call that she was already having calls with Republican Gov. Doug Ducey about the PEVL bill, noting that 80% of voters in her "very red county" are on this list.

PHOTO: Election workers count Fulton County ballots at State Farm Arena on Nov. 4, 2020, in Atlanta. (Jessica Mcgowan/Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: Election workers count Fulton County ballots at State Farm Arena on Nov. 4, 2020, in Atlanta. (Jessica Mcgowan/Getty Images, FILE)

State Sen. Martín Quezada issued a broad statement on Twitter to his colleagues introducing the litany of bills in the House and Senate.

"It's not broke -- meaning it's bipartisan, collaborative, and efficient. So of course the #AZLeg is trying to 'fix' it -- meaning they want to politicize it and put special interests in charge of it," Quezada, a Democrat, said.

Other legislation in the state Senate targeting vote by mail would allow voters to receive a ballot by mail but would require them to return it in person. Another proposition would require the presentation of a photo identification if a voter returns the mail ballot to a polling place or a notary signature if a voter does not return the ballot this way.

"I mean, the notary -- all they are doing is validating a signature," Hoffman said, defending the state's signature matching process. "They know nothing else about our process of what we're doing. And we have -- all of our staff gets trained by a handwriting forensic laboratory down in the Phoenix area. So we have the qualifications and the notaries, they don't."

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Hobbs said Tuesday that her office is already in contact with Ducey and Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich to monitor the proposed legislation.

"I do anticipate that you will also see Gov. Ducey's team and the attorney general's team working to keep some of those things from getting even to the governor's desk," Hobbs said of some of the bills. "And we've been having conversations with the governor's staff on some of our concerns as well. I mean, I think that some of the things are really far-fetched."

Advocates warn GOP bills in Ga., Ariz. could restrict voter access originally appeared on abcnews.go.com