Georgia lawmakers could still tinker with election rules in waning days of 2024 legislative session

Georgia legislators have one last week in March 2024 to pass bills that would change voter eligibility challenge rules, ballot security measures and the way votes are tabulated in elections. John McCosh/Georgia Record (file photo)

Georgia’s lawmakers head into the final week of the 2024 legislative session with pending legislation designed to add a new security feature to paper ballots, provide online access to ballots, change the way votes are tabulated and a bill intended to provide more clarity on voter eligibility challenges.

Local election supervisors across Georgia have been keeping an eye out for proposed changes that could be in place in time for the November presidential election and the months to follow if runoffs are required. Election bills that could be passed ahead of the Legislature’s adjournment Thursday would add watermark security requirements to paper ballots, require the secretary of state develop an online system for the public to inspect ballots after elections and also require that text portions of ballots be used to tabulate votes instead of QR codes.

The proposal includes new statewide rules for voters’ registration status and the probable cause needed to sustain voter eligibility challenges that have become much more commonplace in the last couple of years following Georgia’s hotly contested 2020 presidential election. 

The Senate is expected to vote on House Bill 976, which states that a local registrar can uphold an eligibility challenge for reasons such as a voter is registered in a different jurisdiction, the voter lists a nonresidential address like a post office box, or is they obtain a homestead exemption in a different county. 

Georgia’s election laws allow a local voter to formally challenge another person’s eligibility if they suspect the person no longer lives in that county. State lawmakers later clarified through the controversial 2021 election law that there is no limit to the number of voter eligibility challenges allowed in Georgia.

The mass voter challenges emerged in the wake of the 2020 presidential election after former President Donald Trump’s reelection defeat.

Under the latest version of HB 976, anyone who is homeless or without a permanent address will list the local registrar’s office as their voter registration address.

Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Max Burns, a Sylvania Republican, told committee members last Tuesday that his proposed rewrite of the legislation would add some standards for county election boards to uphold challenges and remove voters from rolls.

Burns said the election bills he supports are part of his mission to ensure every legal vote is counted in Georgia, that all counties follow the same voting laws and that voters are confident in the election process.

Georgia voting rights groups have tracked over 100,000 voter challenges filed across the state since the election law overhaul in 2021. Several voting rights organizations are concerned that although the changes will improve clarity in the process, they are not confident that fewer registered voters will face challenges to their eligibility.

If a local election staff finds probable cause, the election office would contact the contested voter who would have a chance to provide proof of their eligibility. 

Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch, a Dahlonega Republican, said he does not understand why someone would have a problem taking the time to respond to anyone challenging their voting status.

“If I’ve lived in my hometown, which I have my entire life, and someone challenged my eligibility to vote in Lumpkin County, I’d be happy to provide documentation,” Gooch said.

Democratic Sen. Jason Esteves of Atlanta criticized the suggestion that tens of thousands of voters across Georgia should be glad to take time to respond anytime someone questions if they are voting illegally. 

Esteves also said it’s unfair for someone who lives at the same address where they work to be subject to a challenge to their voting status. 

“When you’re met with the fact that you’ve been challenged at the ballot box, that is not the opportunity to be joyful about the democratic process,” he said.

The legislation allows that there are insufficient grounds to challenge a voter’s registration based solely on the national change of address database operated by the U.S. Postal Service unless there is other evidence that the voter has changed their permanent residence. That database has been used in recent years as evidence that ineligible voters cast ballots. A post office box or a private mailbox service address is not sufficient to confirm a voter’s eligibility to vote.

Another provision in the proposal would protect people serving in the military and college students from having their residency challenged, and filings within 45 days of the election will not be considered until after votes are cast.

Representatives of the Georgia Republican Party and VoterGa praised the expanded definition of voter challenges.

Since 2021, VoterGa’s members filed thousands of voter challenges on behalf of vote-monitoring organization True the Vote, which earned a federal court victory in January when a judge ruled its mass challenges in Georgia did not amount to voter intimidation prohibited by the Voting Rights Act.

Georgia Republican Party District 5 Chairman Brad Carver contends that voter challenges are intended to address the issue where there are more registered voters in Georgia’s counties than are currently eligible. He said that the majority of voting eligibility challenges are based on inaccurate information on the voting rolls, which are often corrected following the challenges.

“We  don’t want anyone taken off the rolls that is an appropriate voter,” Carver said at last week’s committee meeting. 

Anne Gray Herring, a policy analyst for Common Cause Georgia, said requiring eligible voters to go through this burden of proving their residency is not a trivial thing. 

“I do appreciate that the bill attempts to clarify what is probable because that was something that is needed through this new mass challenge landscape,” she said.

Legislation proposes ballot security features, opens up ballot inspections

Another measure, House Bill 974, that could make its way to the Senate floor this week would require the secretary of state to set up and maintain an online system where scanned paper ballots could be viewed by the public following an election.  

The bill proposes to allow the public to observe the scanning of physical ballots by the local election office under an open records request. Anyone who requests a copy of a ballot after an election will pay a fee determined by the local elections office.

“A garden variety type of issue would be if the original (scanned online) image is at a lower resolution that raised some question,” said Bonaire Republican Rep. Shaw Blackmon. “You could follow up and access those through the open records request.”

Secretary of state’s office staff members warned about the time-consuming task that will be required of local elections workers if they are forced to rescan thousands of ballots in response to individual requests.

Valdosta GOP Rep. John LaHood’s legislation requires new security watermarks for all paper ballots. If approved this week by the state Senate, the visible watermarks could be printed on millions of ballots in time for the November general election.

The watermark is intended to function like an official seal that confirms the ballot’s authenticity with a visible specially designed pattern or image.

The state House chamber has until Thursday’s Sine Die to vote on a bill removing the controversial QR code used to count votes in Georgia’s elections. Instead of voting machines confirming votes embedded in QR codes, Senate Bill 189 would require ballots with readable text be used to tally votes. 


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