Warnock faces early 2022 attack with ad slamming COVID-19 relief vote

Rev. Raphael Warnock (front) campaigns with Stacey Abrams (back) on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – The 2022 election cycle has come early.

National Republican groups are already targeting Georgia Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s seat, less than two months after he took office following a historic win in January.

On Thursday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) — a premier fundraising arm backed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — launched an ad campaign condemning Warnock’s support for the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan Congress passed this week.

Warnock, who is Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator, declined to respond to the GOP-led ad on Thursday. He has framed the latest aid package as a boon for Georgians across the state who have struggled for a year to cope with the tough economic and social troubles wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Help is on the way,” Warnock said on Twitter Thursday shortly after President Joe Biden signed the relief package. “I’ll say it again: ‘Thank God for Georgia.’ ”

Warnock also noted the federal package includes aid for Black farmers in Georgia, following up on a pledge he made to minority agriculture workers during his 2020 campaign for Senate.

The ad marks a gearing-up for Republican operatives aiming to seize back the Senate seat held by Warnock, who must seek reelection in 2022 to a full six-year term.

Warnock ousted Republican former Sen. Kelly Loeffler in January to serve out the remaining two years of retired Sen. Johnny Isakson’s six-year term. Isakson stepped down at the end of 2019 as he battled cancer and Parkinson’s disease.

Electoral wins on Jan. 5, 2020 by Warnock and his Democratic co-campaigner, Sen. Jon Ossoff, flipped both of Georgia’s Senate seats to the Democrats for the first time in nearly two decades.

Their upset wins also handed Democrats control of both chambers in Congress and the White House, paving the way for another round of COVID-19 relief pushed by the Biden administration to gain final passage.

Biden, a Democrat who defeated former Republican President Donald Trump by 11,779 votes in Georgia during the 2020 general election, is scheduled to visit Atlanta next Friday (March 19) for a so-called “Help Is Here” tour to promote the newly enacted COVID-19 relief package he signed shortly after it passed in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Before I took office, I promised you that help was on the way,” Biden said on Twitter after the signing. “Today, I signed the American Rescue Plan into law, and can officially say: help is here.”

Republican lawmakers say the bill is bloated with a Democratic wish-list of financial relief benefiting undocumented persons, an abortion-rights agenda and aid to state governments run by Democratic governors.

“The people of Georgia did not expect the Democrats to respond to COVID by shipping billions of dollars to illegal immigrants, violent criminals and [New York] Governor [Andrew] Cuomo,” said the NRSC’s chairman, GOP Sen. Rick Scott of Florida. “Sadly, that’s exactly what Senator Warnock did.”

Democratic backers of the plan point out $300 billion will be sent directly to city and county governments, including public schools, marking a new payment round that skirts state oversight, unlike previous packages passed since March of 2020.

They highlight Georgia’s share of the new relief funds will hand the state more than $8 billion in COVID-19 aid, of which a large chunk would go straight to struggling city and county governments and give them more flexibility to shore up their pandemic-struck budgets.

“With the final passage of the American Rescue Plan in the House of Representatives today, Georgians are one step closer to getting the help they need to overcome the unprecedented public health and economic crises we face,” said Scott Hogan, executive director of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

“Georgia’s Democratic congressional delegation has been at the forefront of the fight to deliver big, bold relief to Americans, and with this bill’s passage, Democrats are fulfilling the promises made to Georgians to send direct payments, aid small businesses, ramp up vaccinations, and help schools reopen.”

The national criticism of Warnock’s vote in favor of the COVID-19 relief comes as Georgia’s top Republican leadership also slammed the aid plan’s details, even as they eye bids to shore up state political power in 2022.

Gov. Brian Kemp, who is seeking re-election in 2022, has called Georgia’s share of the latest relief round too paltry compared to the money pots for New York and California.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has also savaged the relief package, on grounds that it would restrict state and local governments from cutting taxes and backfilling funding gaps with federal dollars.

Meanwhile, the field is wide open in 2022 for Georgia Republican candidates to challenge Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Already, his opponent in the last election, Loeffler, has announced plans to run a grassroots group meant to motivate conservative Georgians, akin to successful Democratic mobilization efforts overseen by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who will likely wage a second campaign fight for governor against Kemp in 2022.

Former Sen. David Perdue, who lost to Ossoff in the Jan. 5 runoff, toyed with the idea of running for his old seat but declared last month he would not do so.

The federal “American Rescue Plan Act of 2021” gained final passage in Congress on Wednesday by a vote of 220-211, with all but one Democrat supporting it and all of the Republicans voting “no.”

The relief plan includes $1,400 economic stimulus checks for Americans earning up to $75,000 a year and couples earning up to $150,000 annually, an extension of $300-per-week in unemployment benefits, aid to state and local governments, funds to help schools reopen safely and an expanded federal child tax credit.

It also provides new funding for small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program and additional funding to administer COVID-19 vaccines and expand testing and contact tracing.

Georgia’s six U.S. House Democrats voted in favor of the legislation. The state’s eight House Republicans opposed it.

Broad bill to end no-excuse mail-in votes, boost voter ID clears Georgia Senate

The Georgia Senate convened to vote on several major bills on voting and elections on March 8, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – A major overhaul of Georgia’s absentee voting system and other election changes brought by Republican lawmakers passed in the state Senate Monday by a party-line vote, sparking cries of voter suppression from Democratic leaders.

The wide-ranging bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, was one of 12 measures focused on election changes up for debate on the Senate floor Monday, marking a swell of proposals to change voting procedures after the 2020 election cycle.

Dugan’s bill contains some of the most sweeping and controversial election changes pitched so far in the legislative session, including provisions to require a driver’s license or state identification card number to request an absentee ballot and do away with Georgians’ ability to vote by mail without giving a reason.

The bill passed by a 29-20 vote along party lines after more than three hours of debate. It now heads to the state House of Representatives.

Among about two dozen proposals, the bill also calls for prohibiting the use of mobile voting units unless a regular polling place is damaged, requiring outside groups to post disclaimers when sending voters absentee-ballot request forms and giving state elections officials power to assume control of poor-performing county election boards.

The proposals in Dugan’s bill overlap with several other Republican-backed measures that were set to be voted on Monday in the Senate, including a measure by Senate Rules Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, to end no-excuse absentee voting that was ultimately shelved.

Two other controversial measures – both of which did not face votes Monday – would end the practice of automatically registering Georgians to vote when they obtain or renew their driver’s licenses and prohibit state and local elections officials from sending voters absentee-ballot application forms unless the voter requests one first.

Monday saw the Senate jam-packed on the last day for bills to cross out of one chamber and still be considered before the legislative session ends on March 31, with nearly one-fourth of the 45 bills dedicated to election changes.

Georgia Republican lawmakers argue the proposed changes are needed to shore up confidence in the state’s election system after the 2020 election cycle drew claims of voter fraud from former President Donald Trump, who lost the general election in Georgia to President Joe Biden by 11,779 votes. State election officials and federal courts have rejected those fraud claims.

Democratic leaders have blasted the GOP-brought bills, framing their opponents’ focus on election integrity as a smokescreen for wooing conservatives still loyal to Trump and to halt Democrats’ momentum after the party’s historic wins in the recent presidential and U.S. Senate contests.

Dugan, speaking from the floor on Monday, traced the intent of his bill’s more controversial proposals to the lack of confidence many Georgians have in the state’s process for verifying signatures on mail-in ballots, as well as to ease burdens for local election workers who were overwhelmed by huge numbers of absentee ballots in the 2020 elections.

He also argued many Georgians would still be eligible to vote by mail even by restricting absentee voting to physically disabled persons, voters required to be at work or those ages 65 and older.

“This is not preventing anyone from voting by mail-in absentee,” Dugan said. “All this is doing is laying the groundwork for relieving the stresses that we continue to see moving forward.”

Several Democrats shouted down Dugan’s bill from the floor, saying it would shrink opportunities for Georgians to vote by mail and at mobile polling places in predominantly Black and other minority communities in an attempt at voter suppression.

Sen. Harold Jones II, D-Augusta, noted there has been little proven voter fraud in Georgia and across the U.S., arguing far more voters would be disenfranchised by the proposals in Dugan’s bill than any instances of fraud.

“If our concern is just one vote could be lost, then doggone it, we ought to make sure we expand the franchise, not restrict it,” Jones said.

Others urged Republicans to abandon doubt in Georgia’s elections sowed by Trump allies that has battered electoral confidence among conservative voters, saying their perceptions have been fueled by the former president’s “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

“The foundation for every one of the elections bills introduced today is a lie,” said Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta. “This is weaponization of Trump’s lies and it is a willingness and embrace of damage to American democracy.”

The Senate’s Republican leadership dismissed arguments from Democrats that Dugan’s bill would suppress voters to the GOP’s advantage, sticking with the refrain that the measure’s aim is to bolster flagging confidence in Georgia’s election system among conservative voters.

“We want every person to vote,” said the Georgia Senate Republican Caucus. “We want elections to be secure. We are open to solutions, but Georgia will not be vulnerable to voter fraud.”

Several Republicans soured at the proposal to scrap no-excuse absentee voting including Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who recused himself from presiding over the Senate during Monday’s debate. Duncan has long opposed ending no-excuse absentee voting as has the House’s top lawmaker, Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

“The lieutenant governor has been clear from day one that the repeal of no-excuse absentee voting – a measure passed by Republicans in 2005 – is a non-starter,” said Duncan’s chief of staff, John Porter.

Some Republican lawmakers including Sens. John Albers, R-Roswell, Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta and Brian Strickland, R-McDonough – all Republicans in contested districts – excused themselves from the vote. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, also excused himself.

Georgia senators could next take up a separate 66-page omnibus elections bill that passed in the House late last month, which contains many of the same proposals in Dugan’s bill but nixes the ban on no-excuse absentee voting.

That measure, sponsored by Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, includes dozens of changes to add stricter absentee voter ID rules, set a deadline for voters to request an absentee ballot at 11 days before an election and forbid people from giving food or drinks to voters waiting in line outside polling places.

Senate lawmakers also passed measures to require county elections officials to get monthly reports on dead residents to clean the voter rolls; allow poll watchers access to view ballot counting; require new security paper to track ballots for auditing purposes; curb changes for voters to receive more than one absentee-ballot application; and post signs 7 days ahead of an election if a polling place has moved.

Big changes to vote-by-mail in Georgia clear state House

State Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, pitches his bill proposing broad changes to Georgia’s voting system, particularly for absentee voting, on March 1, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Republican state lawmakers took a major step Monday toward overhauling voting by mail and other election procedures in Georgia with passage of an omnibus bill by the state House of Representatives along party lines.

Sponsored by Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, the 66-page bill contains more than two dozen provisions including proposals to impose stricter identification requirements on absentee voters, a change the state Senate approved last week.

Fleming’s bill would scrap Georgia’s current signature-verification process for absentee ballots and force voters seeking mail-in ballots to provide the number on their driver’s license or state identification card, or photocopies of other valid ID forms.

Democratic lawmakers and voting-rights groups have condemned the tightened absentee voter ID rule, likening it to an attempt at voter suppression seeking to blunt Democrats’ momentum after the party flipped the presidency and both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats in the 2020 elections.

Republicans have argued the change is needed to shore up confidence in the state’s election system, which drew claims of fraud from former President Donald Trump after his loss to now-President Joe Biden by 11,779 votes in Georgia. Election officials and federal courts rejected all claims of widespread fraud.

Beyond absentee voting, Fleming’s bill would tweak rules for early voting on Sunday, instead requiring counties to pick either one Saturday or one Sunday ahead of Election Day for their precincts to be open.

It would also require absentee-ballot drop boxes to be located inside polling places or local elections officials during early voting, and scrap Georgia’s free-for-all “jungle primary” format for special elections that places all candidates on the same ballot.

Fleming chairs the House Special Committee on Election Integrity, where his bill passed last week. He said the measure aims to both boost voter confidence in Georgia’s elections and ease burdens on local elections officials who were taxed with tallying millions of mail-in ballots during the recent elections.

“The way we begin to restore confidence in our voting system is by passing this bill,” Fleming said from the House floor. “There are many common-sense measures here to begin that process.”

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, speaks from the House floor to oppose Republican-led voting changes on March 1, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Democrats scoffed at that notion Monday, calling it a smokescreen for Republican moves in Georgia to upend the elections playing field after last year’s historic statewide wins by Democrats.

“This is a step in the wrong direction,” said Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, the General Assembly’s longest-serving member. “I strongly believe it’s time that we encourage every citizen to participate in the purest sense of citizenship, and that’s voting.”

Democrats also warned passing Fleming’s bill could prompt costly lawsuits and cost counties millions of dollars to put in place changes like new security paper for ballots. They also argued the bill would limit opportunities for counties to secure grant funding for elections.

“Republicans in the Georgia General Assembly are trying to change the rules of the election here in Georgia – rules that you wrote – because you were handed defeat [in recent elections],” said Rep. Kimberly Alexander, D-Hiram.

“And you know your only chance at winning future elections is to prevent eligible Georgians from casting their ballots and having their voices heard.”

Republicans doubled down in touting Fleming’s bill Monday, framing it as a way to clean up confusion among voters and election workers and bolster faith in the integrity of voting by mail by tossing Georgia’s controversial signature-match process.

“Everybody’s got a right to vote and that subjective signature match is a tough one,” said state Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell. “This is an objective way of verifying who someone is.”

Republicans also highlighted less-testy aspects of the bill such as revising precinct boundaries to curb long lines, blocking outside groups from sending absentee-ballot applications to cut down confusing mailers sent to voters and boosting training for poll watchers.

“Our goals in regulating elections should be to assure voting is fair, accessible, understandable, convenient and trustworthy,” said House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones, R-Milton.

The bill passed by a 97-72 vote along party lines and now heads to the state Senate, where it will join a host of other elections-focused measures now winding through the General Assembly.

While Fleming’s bill is the most wide-ranging measure on election changes, it is similar to a separate omnibus bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton.

Senators advanced other contentious measures last week that have split Republicans, including a bill sponsored by Senate Rules Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, that would end Georgians’ ability to vote by mail for any reason and limit absentee voting to elderly, disabled and overseas voters.

That measure, which Democrats have blasted as an attack on voter access, has drawn opposition from key state Republican leaders including Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

However, those top Republican leaders have also supported proposals such as Fleming’s bill to tighten absentee voter ID laws, all but guaranteeing passage later this month in the Republican-controlled state legislature.

Other Republican-brought bills on election changes currently in play include measures to end automatic voter registration when Georgians obtain or renew their driver’s licenses, empower state elections officials to assume temporary control over local poor-performing elections boards and let county officials start processing absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

Protesters oppose state Rep. Barry Fleming’s, R-Harlem, bill to clamp down on absentee voting and other elections changes outside the state Capitol on March 1, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Campaign donations bill slammed by transparency critics clears Georgia Senate

A bill to create new fundraising committees for political campaigns in Georgia that critics say could increase the influence of “dark money” passed in the state Senate on Friday.

Sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, the bill would create so-called “leadership committees” run by the governor, lieutenant governor and their opponents – plus top leaders in the General Assembly – to collect campaign donations ahead of statewide and legislative elections.

Those leadership committees would have to disclose the names of donors but would not be subject to candidate contribution limits ranging from $14,000 to $22,200 for statewide seats and $5,600 to $8,600 per donor, depending on whether a candidate is forced into primary or general-election runoffs.

Mullis, who chairs the powerful Senate Rules Committee, framed the leadership committees proposed in his bill as avenues for promoting transparency in political spending that both Republicans and Democrats could use.

“This helps each side equally,” Mullis said from the Senate floor Friday. “The main emphasis on this bill is transparency – to make sure every expenditure is disclosed [and] every dollar that comes into this campaign … is disclosed.”

Critics argue allowing leadership committees in Georgia could serve as a workaround for candidates to receive campaign funds from dark-money groups not bound by contribution limits and from special interests that could steer money to state lawmakers during the legislative session.

Currently, Georgia law forbids members of the General Assembly from campaigning or accepting donations during the session due to the influence special-interest groups could wield to push through their favored policies.

Nothing in the bill that passed the Senate Friday would prevent dark-money groups from maintaining a foothold in Georgia politics, said state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta. She called Mullis’ characterization that leadership committees boost transparency as “laughable”.

“If you think this is good for the people we represent, then you might want to do a double-take,” Jordan said. “This is what makes people not trust the system and not trust us.”

The bill cleared the Senate by a nearly party-line vote, with Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, the lone Republican to vote against. It now heads to the Georgia House of Representatives.

Several GOP leaders in the Senate are among the bill’s cosponsors, including President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, R-Gainesville; Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, and Majority Whip Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega. Other cosponsors include Sens. John Kennedy, R-Macon; Larry Walker III, R-Perry; Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge; and Bill Cowsert, R-Athens.

Major changes to absentee voting in Georgia elections advance in state House

Lines were sparse outside the Cobb County Regional Library voter precinct through noon on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – A wide-ranging bill clamping down on absentee voting in Georgia that has split Republicans and Democrats moved in the state House of Representatives on Wednesday.

The roughly 60-page bill, sponsored by Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, contains more than two dozen proposals including a controversial change requiring voters seeking mail-in ballots to provide the number on their driver’s license or state identification card, or photocopies of other valid ID forms.

Fleming’s bill would also restrict ballot-casting on weekends during the three-week early-voting period, scrapping rules for polls to be open on Sundays and instead requiring counties to pick either one Saturday or one Sunday ahead of Election Day for the precincts to be open.

The bill passed the state House Special Committee on Election Integrity, which Fleming chairs, on a party-line vote Wednesday and now heads to the full House for approval.

Fleming’s bill has been panned by Georgia Democrats who call it a measure aimed at suppressing votes after the party’s historic 2020 election wins. Democrat Joe Biden carried Georgia in the Nov. 3 presidential race, and the party won both of the Peach State’s U.S. Senate seats.

Republicans are going all-in to change Georgia’s rules for voting by mail this legislative session, having filed bills in both chambers that would require at least a driver’s license number or other legally-accepted ID to request an absentee ballot – and in some cases, a printed copy of one’s valid ID as well.

The Georgia Senate passed a measure this week by Sen. Larry Walker, R-Perry, that would require absentee-ballot seekers to provide their driver’s license or state ID number, or if they don’t have those ID forms, then alternatively a copy of their passport, employee ID card, utility bill or bank statement.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, introduced a 25-page bill with nearly two dozen election-focused proposals, including a mandate for Georgia voters to obtain a witness signature and a photo ID copy in the envelopes for absentee ballots mailed back to county elections officials.

That bill, which all but three Republicans in the Senate are co-sponsoring the bill, entails the most dramatic changes for mailing votes in Georgia that stand the best changes of passing this year in the state legislature.

“Recently, many of our citizens have expressed a lack of faith and integrity in our current election systems,” read a statement from the Senate Republican Caucus. “We have heard these concerns voiced by many – and addressing these concerns has been at the forefront of our legislative efforts this year to promote the good of the state.”

Democratic leaders have blasted the GOP-brought bills, framing their opponents’ focus on election integrity as a smokescreen for wooing conservatives still loyal to former President Donald Trump, who unleashed popular – but fundamentally unproven – claims of voter fraud after losing Georgia’s presidential election in November to Biden by 11,779 votes.

“[The] Georgia GOP is hell-bent on suppressing the vote because they can’t win when Georgians vote,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia. “If they wanted to restore confidence in elections, they would work with Democrats to pass common-sense legislation, not help fuel the far-right’s false election fraud narratives.”

Some local Democratic leaders have also pointed out the costs county elections officials could incur by implementing the changes in Fleming’s bill, noting a recent report from the nonpartisan Voting Rights Lab that estimates Georgia counties could be forced to spend around $57 million on the changes in the next election cycle.

“Counties should not be held responsible for dangerous unfunded mandates that do nothing to make elections ‘secure’ but instead limit access to democracy for Georgians statewide,” read a letter penned this week by local leaders in Albany, Columbus and Augusta.

Fleming’s bill passed out of his committee after four separate hearings in which several county elections officials testified about the financial impacts of the proposed changes, expressing support for some provision like tighter ID verification but opposing others such as requiring drop boxes for absentee ballots to be placed only inside polling places.

Fleming, who is heading up this year’s debate on election bills in the Republican-controlled House, has made clear he believes the proposed changes would only create challenges for about 3% of Georgia voters who lack driver’s licenses – while boosting security for millions more voters.

At the first hearing to consider his bill on Feb. 18, Fleming said his bill stemmed not only from Republican voter grievances in the 2020 elections, but also Democratic voter grievances in the 2018 election for Georgia governor when then-Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams lost to current Republican Gov. Brian Kemp amid a flurry of voter-suppression charges.

“The goal of the bill … is an attempt, to the extent that we can, to begin to remedy some of those [elections] problems … and try to bring the left and the right back to a position where they have confidence overall in our election system,” Fleming said.

Stricter ID rules for vote-by-mail in Georgia pass state Senate

State Sen. Larry Walker III, R-Perry, urges support for his bill on absentee voter ID requirements from the Georgia Senate floor on Feb. 23, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Stricter identification rules for voting by mail in Georgia inched closer to law with the state Senate’s passage of a controversial bill on Tuesday.

Sponsored by state Sen. Larry Walker III, R-Perry, the bill would require absentee voters to provide the number of their driver’s license or official state ID card, or photocopies of a passport, employee ID card, utility bill or bank statement.

It was among three bills that passed the Senate on Tuesday, marking the first election-focused measures to clear a General Assembly chamber in the 2021 legislative session.

The absentee-voting bill passed by a nearly party-line vote, as did two other measures sponsored by state Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, that would shorten the time limit for local registrars to enter voting data into the state’s voter-history system and boost reporting requirements for the state’s election-results website, including the number of absentee and provisional ballots issued, cast and rejected.

A fourth bill by state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, that gained unanimous approval in the Senate Tuesday would let counties begin processing absentee ballots about a week before Election Day, helping ease pressure on local elections officials to count mail-in ballots.

The four bills that passed Tuesday are among a legislative package backed by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the Senate. Gov. Brian Kemp, state House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger also support tightening absentee voter ID rules.

Republicans have set their sights on overhauling Georgia’s current system of verifying signatures on mail-in ballot request forms and envelopes, eliminating a focal point for attacks by former President Donald Trump and his allies who alleged absentee voter fraud and called for deeper audits of the 2020 election results.

Democratic leaders and voting-rights groups oppose the measure, framing it as an attempt at voter suppression to halt Democrats’ momentum after flipping both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats and carrying Georgia for Democrat Joe Biden over Trump in the November presidential election by 11,779 votes.

Speaking from the Senate floor Tuesday, Walker highlighted how vote-by-mail skyrocketed in the 2020 elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic, when Georgia voters cast millions more absentee ballots than normal.

Given mail-in voting is expected to remain popular, Walker said tightening voter ID requirements would create “very common-sense” rules for verifying voters, which would help county elections officials check identities with greater accuracy.

“It’s not about disenfranchising voters,” Walker said. “It’s not about overburdening the electorate.”

“It’s about efficiency and security and election integrity and allowing the Georgia public to have confidence in the vote.”

Democratic senators did not buy that argument Tuesday, voicing opposition from the floor to the bill over privacy concerns and hurdles for voters who do not have driver’s licenses.

Choking back tears, Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, who is one of the legislature’s longest-serving members, called the bill a bald attempt by Georgia Republicans to change the rules of the election game and warned them to expect a legal brawl if their absentee voter ID wish-list passes into law.

“I’m going to tell you, we’re going to fight,” Lucas said. “There’s no question what’s going to happen. And you’re going to spend taxpayer money trying to defend it.”

The bill passed by 35-18 nearly along party lines, with state Sen. Michael “Doc” Rhett, D-Marietta, voting in favor. All four bills now head to the Georgia House of Representatives.

Duncan, who backed the four-bill package, hailed the measures as “common-sense election reforms” that aim to “modernize our election procedures.”

“I am focused on maintaining confidence in our electoral process and making it easy to vote and difficult to cheat,” Duncan said in a statement.

The Georgia Senate Democratic Caucus scoffed at Duncan’s optimism, calling the four bills a product of “disingenuous” efforts by Republicans to create hurdles for voting after their recent statewide election losses.

“We all know none of these measures would have satisfied people who were misled by leaders in their party about election outcomes,” the caucus said.

Walker’s bill mirrors one proposal in a wide-ranging omnibus elections bill moving separately through the House. The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, was set for a fourth hearing Tuesday afternoon in the House Special Committee on Election Integrity, which Fleming chairs.

Other Republican-brought bills are winding through committees in both chambers, including measures to end automatic voter registration when obtaining new or renewed driver’s licenses, provide closer access for poll watchers to view ballot counting and allow state elections officials to take direct control of elections and registration activities from poor-performing county officials.