Voters wait in line at a precinct in Cobb County (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Republicans in the General Assembly were forced to settle for a much narrower election reform bill during the last hour of this year’s legislative session.

But GOP lawmakers got the centerpiece of their bill – giving the Georgia Bureau of Investigation the authority to investigate complaints of election fraud – as an 11th-hour rider on a different bill mostly related to the transmission of criminal case data.

Senate Bill 441 got through the state House of Representatives 98-69 along party lines, then passed the Georgia Senate 33-22 in another party-line vote.

The original election reform measure introduced in the House this year, the second year in a row Republicans pushed a major election bill through the General Assembly, included provisions aimed at ensuring ballot security through tighter controls on the transfer and custody of ballots. It also would have prohibited local elections offices from receiving private grants to help carry out their duties without going through the State Election Board.

But the Senate balked at the requirements after local elections officials from across the state descended on the Capitol to complain the bill would be burdensome for offices already suffering from a high turnover of election workers.

The Senate Ethics Committee virtually gutted the bill, leaving only a provision requiring employers to give their workers up to two hours off to cast their ballots during the early voting period prior to an election.

House Republicans didn’t give up and came back on the morning of the session’s last day with a proposal keeping many of the bill’s original provisions, including giving the GBI original jurisdiction to examine allegations of election fraud, so the agency wouldn’t have to wait to be called into a case by elections officials or the attorney general’s office.

When that effort fizzled later in the day, GOP lawmakers agreed to whittle down the bill to just the GBI provision. But Democrats warned giving the GBI – derided by the bill’s opponents as “election police” – the power to issue subpoenas in election-fraud investigations would set a dangerous precedent.

“You’re giving the GBI the power … to grab ballots while they’re being counted,” said Rep. David Dreyer, D-Atlanta. “We are authorizing the executive branch of the state of Georgia to mess with elections.”

Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, who is running for secretary of state, said Republicans are still rehashing the 2020 elections and the disproven allegations of fraud in Georgia by former President Donald Trump.

“Stop passing legislation predicated on the Big Lie,” she said.

But House Speaker David Ralston said the GBI with its resources is the appropriate agency to handle election complaints.

“GBI jurisdiction was something I pushed for,” he said. “It’s not a partisan measure or sour grapes over 2020.”

Senate Bill 441 now moves to the desk of Gov. Brian Kemp, who is expected to sign it.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.