WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Election officials in conservative and liberal parts of Georgia say a new law allowing a Republican-controlled state agency to take over local voting operations could make the process too partisan.
Voting rights advocates have also warned that the provision, part of sweeping voting restrictions signed into law last week by Governor Brian Kemp, targets Democratic bastions such as Atlanta’s Fulton County that helped deliver the party control of the White House and Congress in recent elections.
The new law has mostly gained attention for its measures to strengthen absentee ballot identification requirements, curtail ballot drop box use and penalize members of the public who offer food and water to voters in line.
Months after former Republican President Donald Trump falsely claimed voter fraud in the 2020 elections, Republican backers say Georgia’s law is needed to restore confidence in election integrity. Civil rights groups have filed three lawsuits asserting the law illegally restricts voting rights, particularly for minority voters.
The legislation authorizes the Republican-majority legislature to appoint the state election board’s majority while demoting the elected secretary of state, Georgia’s top election official, to a non-voting position.
It also allows the state board to remove local supervisors it deems derelict and replace them with individuals of its choosing.
That power has alarmed Democrats and civil rights organizations in light of Trump’s unprecedented pressure campaign to overturn the results in key Democratic counties.
But even some election officials from Republican-leaning counties said they opposed allowing the state board to take over local elections, a Reuters survey of the state’s 159 counties found.
Of the 55 that responded, officials in 11 counties of varying sizes and political leanings - Bartow, Macon-Bibb, Cobb, DeKalb, Floyd, Heard, Jones, Murray, Paulding, Quitman and Tattnall - said the law gave the state too much control over election administration. Traditionally, locally appointed nonpartisan or bipartisan boards and judges oversee issues such as voter eligibility, polling place locations and vote certification.
“If we don’t rely on and hire smart people with institutional knowledge, and the process becomes politicized, then we go down a very dangerous path,” said Baoky Vu, a Republican on the DeKalb County elections board.
Election officials in 12 other counties did not express concerns with the law, while 32 officials declined to comment.
Georgia is among several battleground states, including Florida and Arizona, where Republican lawmakers have pushed new voting restrictions they say will curb voting fraud, despite research showing such instances are rare in the United States.
Voting rights advocates say some efforts are intended to punish election officials who, like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, rebuffed Trump’s demand to change the election outcome.
Asked for comment, Kemp’s spokeswoman pointed to a Fox News column the Republican governor published on Wednesday, arguing that the law “makes it easy to vote by expanding access to the polls and harder to cheat.”
The bill’s main Republican sponsors in the legislature did not respond to requests for comment.
The law underscores how deeply Trump’s fraud assertions have penetrated his party. A Reuters/Ipsos poll in February found 62% of Republicans were “very concerned” that elections were tainted by ineligible voters.
Some election officials said that far from improving trust in elections, the law could diminish local oversight.
Joseph Kirk, the elections supervisor in Bartow County, which Trump won by 50 percentage points in 2020, said he found it “frankly scary” the state would replace a bipartisan local board with a political appointee.
“You’re basically allowing the general assembly to appoint people who may not know anything about running elections,” said Deidre Holden, the elections supervisor in heavily Republican Paulding County.
But in rural Lowndes County, elections supervisor Deb Cox told Reuters the new measure would improve upon the current oversight procedures for election mismanagement.
Aklima Khondoker, Georgia state director of All Voting is Local, a voting rights group, said she has heard from election officials that some are afraid to criticize a measure that effectively allows state lawmakers to remove them from their jobs.
The law, she said, is “holding our counties hostage.”
Amy Steigerwalt, a political science professor at Georgia State University, said unproven voter fraud allegations could theoretically serve as the basis for suspending a local official. The law cites long lines as a reason for possible intervention, though its other provisions will likely worsen waits in populous counties, she added.
“The question is, how are these decisions going to be made?” Steigerwalt said. “What type of ‘malfeasance’ or ‘nonfeasance’ might someone be accused of?”
Reporting by Julia Harte and Joseph Ax; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Aurora Ellis
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