Senate committee unanimously supports absentee ballot opening requirement for counties

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ATLANTA — A state Senate committee gave full support to a bill that would require counties to begin opening — but not counting — absentee ballots ahead of Election Day.

Senate Bill 40, sponsored by Atlanta Democrat Jen Jordan, passed out of the Senate Ethics committee Thursday morning after a bipartisan vote.

The legislation would require counties to begin opening absentee ballot envelopes the Monday before Election Day to speed up the counting process. The legislation originally would have allowed counties to open absentees early if they wished. But the committee amended the bill to require it.

Counties handled a massive increase in absentee ballots during the 2020 election cycle largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The increase in paper absentee ballots slowed tabulating results. Former President Donald Trump and his supporters falsely claimed the lag was due to election fraud in Georgia and other states.

State election officials expected the counting delay, and repeatedly warned that mail-in ballots would change how and when results were reported in Georgia and across the nation. The time it would take to reach final results would be much longer, officials said ahead of the Nov. 3 general election.

An emergency order before the general election authorized counties to begin processing absentee ballots the Monday ahead of Election Day. Before the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia, the secretary of state issued another order that required it.

“We saw a very smooth process after that. All this bill does is try to get in line with that so that counties can pre-process — not tabulate absentee ballots — so that we can get results to people sooner,” Jordan said Thursday. “So that people can feel like the process is working, and it also takes a significant burden off the counties and local election officials with respect to Election Day.”

The bipartisan agreement comes as many pundits and lawmakers suspect partisan election reform battles are on the way. After Georgia voters backed a Democratic presidential candidate and sent two Democrats to the U.S. Senate, Republican lawmakers have eyed instituting various absentee ballot restrictions.

In the same meeting Thursday, a handful of bills passed in a split vote with Democrats against and Republicans in favor. They include a bill that would require voters to submit a photocopy of their ID, a driver's license number or another form of accepted ID when requesting an absentee ballot.

"There is nothing in here that is an attempt to make it harder to vote or to obstruct people from being able to vote by absentee,” Sen. Larry Walker, R-Perry, said. "It is simply a measure to kind of bring our code up to what is currently being practiced. Practices have changed over time and especially in this past election cycle, due to COVID.”

A bill that would end no-excuse absentee voting altogether passed out of subcommittee earlier this week but was not heard in full committee Thursday. Senate Bill 71 would restrict absentee voting to people who are over 75 years of age, have a physical disability or are out of town on Election Day.

Riley Bunch covers the Georgia statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites.

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