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Voting rights advocates decry 'devastating' Georgia measure limiting ballot access

(Reuters) - Democrats and voting rights groups condemned on Friday a broad proposal by Georgia Republicans to limit absentee and in-person voting in the state, the latest salvo in a national fight over efforts to place new restrictions on casting a ballot.

FILE PHOTO: A sign is seen as voters line up for the U.S. Senate run-off election, at a polling location in Marietta, Georgia, U.S., January 5, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Republicans said the sweeping measure was needed to bolster confidence in election integrity after former President Donald Trump disputed November’s results that saw Joe Biden become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state in 28 years.

The legislation, one of dozens of restrictive voting measures pending in Georgia, would have “devastating consequences” for voters, a coalition of voting rights groups said in an open letter to Republican state legislators. They said it was designed to reduce the influence of Black voters, whose heavy turnout helped propel Biden to victory and delivered Democrats two U.S. Senate wins in January.

The bill includes new ID requirements for absentee voting, a shorter window to seek an absentee ballot, limits on the use of drop boxes and the elimination of early voting on Sundays - a provision that would curtail traditional “Souls to the Polls” voter turnout programs in Black churches.

“Georgia Republicans saw what happens when Black voters are empowered and show up at the polls, and now they’re launching a concerted effort to suppress the votes and voices of Black Georgians,” said Nse Ufot, founder of the advocacy group New South Super PAC.

State Representative Barry Fleming, a Republican who authored the bill, said at a state House of Representatives hearing on Friday that provisions such as the voter ID requirement should not be a burden.

“We’re simply asking for what is already approved and required for the federal law,” Fleming said.

Trump battled with Republican state leaders and elections officials in Georgia for weeks after his narrow defeat, making baseless claims of election fraud that were disproved by a hand and machine recount and rejected by the courts and investigators.

But Republicans angry about the election outcome have seized on Trump’s voter fraud claims to push a new wave of voting limitations in Georgia and across the country.

More than 150 bills proposing new voting restrictions have been introduced in state legislatures since the November election, according to Sylvia Albert, voting and elections director for good-government watchdog Common Cause.

“What we saw in this election was record turnout, and Republican legislators have responded by saying, ‘We didn’t actually want you to come vote,’” Albert said.

UNWINDING COVID-19 VOTING RULES

A record 158 million people voted in November’s elections, in part thanks to new rules that made voting easier during the worst public health crisis in a century. New York University’s nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice found 29 states and the District of Columbia passed laws and changed procedures to expand voting access during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Republican proposals in Georgia and other battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Arizona and Wisconsin would impose new limitations and unwind many of those rules that eased restrictions on voting by mail and extended early voting.

Albert said her group is particularly concerned about new restrictions in states where Republicans control the governorship and both houses of the legislature, such as Georgia, giving Democrats less chance to block them.

Republican backers of the Georgia legislation portrayed their proposal as a common-sense measure to ensure safe and accurate voting.

“We all want the same thing at the end of the day, that the elections are fair, honest, and that everyone votes their conscience, and no one is manipulated (or) threatened,” state Representative Rick Williams, a co-author of the bill, said at Friday’s hearing.

Georgia is likely to be one of the biggest battlegrounds in the 2022 elections, with a U.S. Senate seat and the governor’s office on the ballot.

Democrat Stacey Abrams, whose Fair Fight Action group helped bolster Black voter turnout last year after she narrowly lost her bid for governor in 2018, is considering another run for governor. Fair Fight Action signed a letter on Thursday warning of the consequences of the new measure.

Reporting by Julia Harte and John Whitesides; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Aurora Ellis

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