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Georgia lawmakers pass new election rules that could impact 2024 presidential contest

Republican state Rep. John LaHood speaks in favor of election bill SB 189 at the Georgia House of Representatives in Atlanta on Thursday, the last day of the legislative session. LaHood is the sponsor of the bill in the House.
Arvin Temkar
Republican state Rep. John LaHood speaks in favor of election bill SB 189 at the Georgia House of Representatives in Atlanta on Thursday, the last day of the legislative session. LaHood is the sponsor of the bill in the House.

ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers on Thursday approved new rules for challenging voters and qualifying for the state's presidential ballot that could impact the 2024 presidential race in the battleground state.

Senate Bill 189 passed the House by a vote of 101-73 and the Senate by a vote of 33-22, sending it to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature or veto.

Republicans in Georgia have repeatedly floated election changes in the wake of false claims by former President Donald Trump and other Republicans that he lost Georgia's 16 electoral votes in 2020 because of fraud.

The bill would grant access to Georgia's ballot to any political party that has qualified for the presidential ballot in at least 20 states or territories. The change could be a boost to independent candidates such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose campaign has spooked Democrats worried it could draw support away from President Biden.

The bill also spells out what constitutes "probable cause" for upholding challenges to voter eligibility, which could lead to voters being removed from the rolls. Probable cause would exist if someone is dead, has voted or registered to vote in a different jurisdiction, has registered for a homestead exemption on their property taxes in a different jurisdiction, or is registered at a nonresidential address.

"We define probable cause very simply," said Senate Ethics Committee Chair Max Burns, a Sylvania Republican.

Democrats slammed the provision, saying it would enable more baseless attacks on voters that would overwhelm election administrators and disenfranchise people. More than 100,000 voters have been challenged in recent years by Republican activists who say they are rooting out fraudulent registrations, with thousands of challenges submitted at a time in some large Georgia counties.

Rep. Saira Draper, an Atlanta Democrat, said the provision was based on "lies and fearmongering."

"You know the policy of not negotiating with terrorists," she said. "I wish we had a policy of not making laws to placate conspiracy theorists."

Democrat Ruwa Romman of Duluth said the bill and others like it chip away at confidence in the U.S. election system, a bedrock of its democracy.

"We have a responsibility to push back on lies, not turn them into legislation," she said.

Republican Rep. Victor Anderson of Cornelia defended the voter challenge section, pointing to a provision deeming the appearance of someone's name on the U.S. Postal Service's national change of address list insufficient on its own to sustain a challenge. He also noted a provision postponing challenges that occur within 45 days of an election.

"Colleagues, I contend that our bill actually makes the process of challenging more difficult," he said.

House Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman John LaHood, a Valdosta Republican, said the bill increases confidence in elections.

"What this bill does is ensure that your legal vote does matter," he said.

The bill also would require counties to report the results of all absentee ballots by an hour after polls close and let counties use paper ballots in elections where fewer than 5,000 people are registered, though that change would not take effect until 2025.

The measure also says that beginning July 1, 2026, the state could no longer use a kind of barcode, called a QR code, to count ballots created on the state ballot marking devices. That is how votes are counted now, but opponents say voters don't trust QR codes because they can't read them. Instead, the bill says ballots must be read using the text, or human readable marks like filled-in bubbles, made by the machines.

State lawmakers already have sent bills to the governor that would require audits of more than one statewide election, add an additional security feature on ballots, restrict who can serve as poll workers to U.S. citizens, and allow a reduced number of voting machines.

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The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]