UPDATE: S.B. 221 failed to receive a vote in the Georgia Senate before the Legislature’s crossover deadline on March 6, the date bills have to be voted on in order to go to the other chamber for approval. However, the language in S.B. 221 could still be revived and added to a bill that did make the deadline, so the anti-voting omnibus could still be enacted this year. Lawmakers could also vote on the proposal in a special session.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Tuesday, Feb. 28, Republican lawmakers on the Georgia Senate Ethics Committee advanced a major piece of anti-voting legislation, a substitute bill text to Senate Bill 221 that among other provisions bans drop boxes and eases voters’ ability to challenge other voters’ eligibility. The original version of S.B. 221 would have tweaked the language on mail-in ballots and clarified that no early voting is permitted on a Saturday after a holiday, including during a runoff election (the centerfold of litigation last fall).
However, late on Monday evening, Georgia Republicans revealed a 20-page substitute to S.B. 221, an omnibus bill to add onerous restrictions on election officials while encouraging voter intimidation that could violate federal law. On Tuesday, the Senate Ethics Committee voted 5 to 3 to advance this substitute version, after approving multiple last-minute amendments, including one that bans drop boxes completely.
The central problematic portion in this recently advanced bill builds upon a provision in the 2021 voter suppression law Senate Bill 202, which empowers individuals to make an unlimited number of voter challenges. Voter challenges take place when an individual questions the eligibility of another voter and puts their registration at risk. According to a recent report in NBC News, amateur voter fraud hunters challenged 92,000 Georgia voter registrations last year. In advance of the 2021 U.S. Senate runoff election, Texas-based True the Vote challenged the registration of over 364,000 Georgians, sparking a three-year-long voter intimidation lawsuit.
S.B. 221 would make these efforts even easier to initiate or sustain. It adds the U.S. Postal Service’s national change of address database as sufficient evidence for a challenge. It’s impossible to know, when solely using this database, if someone has moved from Georgia permanently or if they’re still an eligible voter who asked for their mail to be forwarded for a myriad of other reasons. Georgia’s state election director even testified that this section of the bill could violate the National Voter Registration Act.
S.B. 221 originally required election or law enforcement officials who surveille the drop boxes to “allow only one ballot at a time to be deposited in the drop box.” In a potentially dangerous move in the context of discriminatory mass challenges, S.B. 221 also required a live stream of drop boxes available online so “the faces of each person using the drop box are visible.” However, Republicans approved a last-minute amendment to the bill that instead bans drop boxes completely.
Among other provisions, S.B. 221 would:
- Require county officials to retain election documents for a certain amount of time and at a certain electronic resolution. According to Georgia Public Broadcasting News reporter Stephen Fowler, this “stems from 2020 conspiracies about Fulton County.”
- Ban noncitizens from being hired as local elections employees or to “undertake any election related duties.”
- Require homeless voters to use a local courthouse as their address for voter registration purposes while restricting other options for voters without a stable address.
- Allow some elections to be conducted on hand-marked paper ballots instead of ballot-marking devices.
The bill now heads to the Senate floor for consideration.