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Politics & Government

Georgia Republicans Pledge To Crack Down On Voting Laws

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Georgia now, where a record number of voters participated in this year's election. About 25% of those ballots were absentee by mail. And those ballots helped give Democrat Joe Biden the state in the presidential race. Now, as Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler reports, Republican lawmakers in that state have pledged to crack down on voting laws next year.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: For the last 15 years, Georgians have been able to request an absentee ballot with no excuse needed, thanks to a bill pushed by GOP lawmakers to give voters more options. Just a small percentage of people ever used mail-in ballots, and the ones who did were older and likely to vote Republican. But this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and a competitive general election, more than 1.3 million absentee ballots were returned, and most of them came from Democrats. One-time gubernatorial nominee, Stacey Abrams, spearheaded that campaign.

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STACEY ABRAMS: The last time we talked, I said we need to send in our mail-in in ballots, return them in your drop boxes or in your mailboxes. But we need to do it again.

FOWLER: Ahead of January runoffs for two Senate seats, that doesn't sit right with some Georgia Republican lawmakers, who have claimed - without evidence - there is widespread fraud with absentee voting that needs to be addressed.

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BILL HEATH: Well, good morning. We have convened this meeting of the Senate Government Oversight Committee after a number of alleged improprieties have - were brought to our attention following the general election on November 3.

FOWLER: Despite casting its electoral votes for a Democrat, Georgia's government is still controlled by Republicans. So GOP state senators say they want to get rid of no excuse absentee voting, add more photo ID requirements for those who do vote by mail and eliminate secure drop boxes as an option to return. It's unclear if any of these changes will pass, especially as Democrats questioned the sudden change of heart. One Democrat, Representative Renitta Shannon, says this push to curb voting smacks of something other than just preventing fraud.

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RENITTA SHANNON: I just don't remember from other Republicans there being such an attack against absentee voting when it was mostly Republicans using it. So it seems to me that this new kind of upspring about Democrats, largely Black and brown voters, who are using mail-in voting as of this year so much - it just really seems interesting.

FOWLER: Another target of Republicans' ire is the state's top election official - also a Republican - who has been a vocal critic of President Trump's attempts to overturn the election. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger skipped a hearing where Trump's legal team spread misinformation and conspiracies about the election. So House Speaker David Ralston then suggested Raffensperger needed reining in, too.

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DAVID RALSTON: I don't ever remember, in my time serving in this General Assembly, a constitutional officer refusing to come before a House or a Senate committee to offer up information that might be helpful to the people's representatives.

FOWLER: Ralston suggests that the legislature should try to remove power from that office and potentially make the secretary of state elected by lawmakers instead of the public. Some of the rhetoric around voting changes could depend on the outcome of those January 5 runoffs, where two Republican U.S. senators face reelection. In the meantime, for the runoffs, the Republicans have filed several lawsuits seeking to severely restrict the use of absentee drop boxes; that's even though the election is underway and nearly a million ballots have been cast so far.

For NPR News, I'm Stephen Fowler. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.