Georgia lawmakers follow Florida to advance Republican-backed bill to police elections

March 15 (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers in Georgia on Tuesday advanced a bill expanding law enforcement's power to investigate election fraud, adding to the push by U.S. conservatives for more restrictive voting laws after former President Donald Trump's false claims that the 2020 election was rigged.

Georgia's House of Representatives approved the legislation on a largely party-line vote of 98-73, sending it to the state Senate, less than a week after Florida's Republican-controlled legislature passed a measure to create a first-of-its-kind election police force in that state.

Voting rights groups and Democrats in both states say the legislation is intended to appease Trump and his supporters despite the fact that election fraud is exceedingly rare in the United States.

They also say the new laws will intimidate voters, particularly people of color, while providing a pretense for politicians to undermine confidence in election outcomes.

"It's just finding a new way to stop people from voting in the same way that has always been done in this country," said Stephanie Ali, policy director for the New Georgia Project Action Fund, a voting rights group.

A coalition of organizations, including Fair Fight Action, the voting group founded by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, announced a nearly $1.5 million campaign on Tuesday opposing the Georgia bill.

Georgia and Florida had already passed sweeping voting restrictions last year, part of a wave of such legislation among Republican-controlled states.

Georgia's new measure would grant the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) statutory authority, and subpoena power, to investigate election fraud. Under current law, claims of voting irregularities are initially investigated by the state elections board or the secretary of state's office.

Trump has attacked Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Governor Brian Kemp, both Republicans, for failing to overturn the state's 2020 election results, which Trump falsely says were tainted by fraud. Both incumbents face Republican challengers endorsed by Trump as they seek re-election this year.

Senate approval of Georgia's House-passed bill - both chambers are majority-Republican - would send it to Kemp for his signature or veto. A spokesperson for Kemp said he does not comment on pending legislation.

The chief sponsor of the Georgia bill, Representative James Burchett, insisted the measure was designed mainly to bolster the "chain of custody" for ballots and codify safeguards already in place, thus strengthening election integrity.

He added that the GBI "has been investigating elections for years," and that the bill merely allows the agency to open voter fraud inquiries on its own, without a request by the elections board or secretary of state.


The new Florida bill creates an Office of Election Crimes and Security under the auspices of the Department of State, part of the executive branch of Republican Governor Ron DeSantis' administration.

In addition, the legislation calls for the governor to appoint sworn officers at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement as special agents dedicated to investigating election crimes.

The measure would allow the department to examine a range of potential illegal activities, a Department of State spokesman said, including threats to election officials, forged signatures on petitions, fraudulent registration forms and misuse of mail ballots.

DeSantis, a Trump ally widely seen as a leading presidential contender in 2024, has said the bill would improve public trust in elections.

"Allocating sufficient resources to deter fraud and ensure our election laws are enforced should not be controversial or politicized," said DeSantis' press secretary Christina Pushaw. She said the governor plans to sign the bill.

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley, the incoming president of the state's association of elections supervisors, said the legislation gives credence to the false notion that voter fraud is a serious problem.

"The context is clear – there's a massive disinformation campaign across the nation, and this bill plays right into that," Earley said.

Dozens of courts and election officials around the country have concluded that Trump's fraud allegations have no factual basis. But the former president continues to assert that President Joe Biden's 2020 victory was illegitimate, and polls show a significant number of Republicans believe him.

Lawmakers in a handful of other states also have introduced bills to increase investigations of alleged election fraud, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, though prospects for their passage is uncertain.

In Arizona, a Republican lawmaker's proposal to create an election crimes investigatory agency failed to win committee support in time for this year's legislative session.

Some states, such as Texas, have increased prosecution resources for election cases in the absence of new legislation, said Wendy Weiser, who directs the Brennan Center's democracy program.

Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Tim Ahmann and Raju Gopalakrishnan

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