The Republican-led state House of Representatives on Thursday passed the legislation, known as Election Integrity Act of 2021, in a 100-75 vote.
The Georgia bill — SB 202 — would limit drop boxes to the inside of early voting locations during voting hours, make giving food or drinks to a voter a misdemeanor, allow for unlimited challenges to voter registrations and eligibility, and grant state officials broad rights, including the ability to replace local election officials. It would also shorten the runoff cycle from the current nine weeks to just four weeks and remove the elected secretary of state as chair of the state election board.
The bill was amended in the House and will need to pass each chamber again after conference. Final passage had been expected next week, right before the legislative session is set to end, but could come as soon as Thursday, according to Kaleb McMichen, director of communications for House Speaker David Ralston.
“The Senate could take action as early as this afternoon but it could be done at any time in the remainder of the session,” he said in an email statement to CNN.
During Thursday’s floor debate, Republican state Rep. Barry Fleming argued the bill would provide “more accountability” to the election process in the state.
Democrats sharply criticized the GOP proposal. “We cannot undermine free and fair elections in Georgia because of baseless and unproven claims of fraud,” said Democratic state Rep. Kimberly Alexander.
Voting rights groups have slammed the far-reaching bill, particularly for its provisions aimed at the secretary of state and local election officials. They argue that granting the state new powers over county elections bucks the tradition of local control and could lead to a scenario in which state officials swoop in to prevent a county from certifying its election results.
“It will make what we all lived through in 2020, child’s play,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo — CEO of Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group founded by Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams — in a news conference on Tuesday, as the bill was approved to head to the full House for a vote.
House Speaker David Ralston supported the legislation on Monday, following the passage of the bill out of a key committee, saying that it made “voting more accessible and improves election security.”
The legislation that passed out of committee removed a provision that would have restricted weekend voting — it only allowed early voting on two weekend days. Voting rights activists had criticized as attacking “Souls to the Polls” — programs that help drive turnout among Black churchgoers on Sunday, a key Democratic constituency.
The current version now requires weekend voting on both Saturdays and makes it optional on both Sundays during the three weeks of early voting in Georgia.
The bill comes as Georgia’s changing demographics have made the longtime Republican stronghold a key political battleground.
Last November, President Joe Biden became the first Democrat in nearly three decades to win the state. And strong voter turnout in January helped send two Democrats to the US Senate, flipping control of the chamber to their party. One of those new senators, Raphael Warnock, captured his seat in a special election and will be on the ballot again in 2022.
The preamble to the bill said changes are needed to address the “lack of elector confidence in the election system.”
The bill makes broad changes to how elections are administered and how and when voters can receive and cast their ballots. Under the proposal, for instance, voters would have to request absentee ballots 11 days before an election, rather than the Friday before Election Day as currently allowed.
Additionally, voters who seek absentee ballots would have to provide a copy of their identification or the number of their Georgia driver’s license or state ID to both apply for and return the ballot. It also would prohibit the secretary of state’s office from sending unsolicited absentee ballot applications, as it did before the 2020 primaries due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A similar bill, HB 531, is currently advancing in the Georgia Senate and is expected to be up for a floor vote in the coming days. The bill, roughly half the length of SB 202, is far less comprehensive and has some marked differences, including a provision that would allow counties to purchase their own voting machines as long as they meet the minimum requirements set by the state election board and certified by the secretary of state.
CNN’s Fredreka Schouten contributed to this report.