House passed “Elections Bill Sequel” late at night – Senate failed to pass campaign finance bill but did pass problematic First Amendment bill
At about 11pm Tuesday night, the Georgia House passed a substitute version of HB 1464, the apparent “sequel” bill to last year’s SB 202. The bill would make changes to a variety of election laws, including making it difficult for local elections offices to accept private gifts and grants, and creating a new responsibility for the Georgia Bureau of Investigations to “investigate election fraud and election crimes.”
In the other chamber, the Senate failed to pass a bill that would have prohibited political fundraising by new “leadership committees” during legislative sessions. The new type of political committees was created by legislation passed last year; they can accept unlimited amounts of money.
However, the Senate did pass a bill that could undermine Georgians’ rights of assembly and free speech – freedoms that are a cherished part of our nation’s history. The bill would also waive “sovereign immunity” for counties and municipalities in some circumstances, which would encourage lawsuits and impact insurance costs.
Statement of Aunna Dennis, Executive Director of Common Cause Georgia
‘Crossover Day’ is all about priorities – and the priorities on display Tuesday night were about legislators’ political statements and not about the needs of everyday Georgians.
The First Amendment bill seems modeled on one of Florida Governor DeSantis’s legislative priorities, that passed last year. An economist projected that their version of the bill would cost Sunshine State taxpayers millions of dollars a year — but Georgia’s bill is being considered without any inkling of its cost to the state, and no assessment of how the waiver of ‘sovereign immunity’ will affect municipal budgets.
Even worse, there has been no accounting for how this could affect our cherished rights to demonstrate, our rights of assembly and free speech. Georgia has a deep and painful history of communities using nonviolent protest to seek equal treatment – and this bill dishonors that history.
We hope the House engages in a more careful deliberation of the ramifications of this bill, and does not advance it.
Georgians deserve to be able to have confidence that our laws aren’t being bought and sold to benefit political committees. But unfortunately, the Senate failed to act on a bill that would have limited donations to leadership committees while the legislature is in session.
That means that leadership committees of the party caucuses in both the House and the Senate can continue to solicit and accept unlimited donations even while the Legislature is acting on bills affecting the donors’ interests.
The appearance of ‘pay-to-play’ is undeniable.
By failing to rein in this donation scheme, the Senate has sent a clear message that donors’ money is more important than voters’ confidence.
We hope the General Assembly will reconsider – and pass – this proposal next session.
Georgia’s voters broke turnout record after record, in November 2020 and January 2021 – and rather than celebrating, our Legislature retaliated by passing a bill making it more difficult for certain communities to vote.
Now, apparently, we’re on round two – only this time, the focus is more on “investigating” voters. Again, this seems to be an idea borrowed from Florida, where the Legislature just created an “Election Police” bureaucracy that’s going to cost Sunshine State taxpayers $3.7 million a year – and will undoubtedly chill participation by already-marginalized voters.
Georgia’s Secretary of State’s office already has authority to investigate alleged violations of election law. And they’ve done so, with hyped-up headlines but only “a handful of isolated cases verified by investigators” looking into double voting in the November 2020 election. Now, though, the Legislature proposes another law enforcement agency to pursue even more investigations.
The bill would also make it much more difficult for local elections jurisdictions to accept private gifts and grants, which is troubling on two fronts. First, there’s the question of whether the Legislature is willing to step up and properly fund our elections. In 2020, more than $45 million in private grants were distributed to Georgia counties, ranging from “red” to “blue.” Is the Legislature planning to make up the funding gap? Also, when SB 202 was passed last year, private organizations were prohibited from giving food and water to voters who were waiting in line. Reportedly, the idea was that the organizations should give food and water donations to local elections offices – and the elections officials would give them to voters standing in line. Except now, this year’s bill would prohibit such “gifts” to local elections offices – which means either local taxpayers will be buying the food and water, or the voters will be standing in line without it.
There are good parts to this bill, and we would like to see the bill amended so that only those provisions remain. The bill provides time off for voting during the early voting period. It improves language around “third party ballot application” distribution, including clarifying the disclaimer to make it less confusing to voters. And it improves language around election night reports, ease some of the burden on overworked elections officials and providing them with more time to reach ballot totals.
But as the bill stands now, it is more a partisan political statement than a piece of legislation intended to benefit voters. It’s also a testament to the principle that a rushed legislative process rarely makes for good public policy. If House leadership had been proud of this bill, they would not have scheduled the vote on it to happen during the middle of the night.
Voters are not being well-served by this year’s legislative process. Now that Crossover Day is behind us, we urge the Legislature to focus the rest of the session on the needs of everyday Georgians.