The Republican-controlled Georgia Legislature on Thursday passed a sweeping bill to limit voting access, putting the state on the verge of becoming the first major battleground to overhaul its electoral process since last year’s election. The bill, which follows Democratic victories that flipped the state at the presidential and Senate levels, will now head to the desk of Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, who is expected to sign it.
Democrats and voting rights groups have condemned the legislation, arguing that it unfairly targets voters of color. They say it particularly seeks to make voting harder for the state’s large Black population, which was crucial to President Biden’s victory in Georgia in November and the success of Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the January runoff elections.
Though the bill is less stringent than its initial iteration was, it introduces a raft of new restrictions for voting and elections in the state, including stricter voter identification requirements, limiting drop boxes, stripping the secretary of state of some of his authority, imposing new oversight of county election boards, restricting who can vote with provisional ballots, and making it a crime to offer food or water to voters waiting in lines. The bill also requires runoff elections to be held four weeks after the original vote, instead of the current nine weeks.
The bill does not include some of the harshest restrictions that had been introduced in its earlier versions, like a ban on Sunday voting that had been seen as an attempt to curtail the role of Black churches in driving turnout. And the legislation now, in fact, expands early voting options in some areas. No-excuse absentee voting, in which voters do not have to provide a rationale for casting a ballot by mail, also remains in place, though new restrictions such as providing a state-issued identification card have been placed on the process.
The bill in Georgia comes amid a national movement among Republican-controlled state legislatures to mount the most sweeping contraction of voting access in generations, seeking to appease a conservative base that remains incensed about the results of the 2020 election. A similar law has already passed in Iowa, and other states including Arizona, Florida and Texas are moving forward with their own efforts.
But Georgia has drawn the most attention. During the contentious months after the November election, the state became a particular obsession of former President Donald J. Trump, who spun falsehoods, lies and conspiracy theories about the election and personally pressured election officials, including the secretary of state, to “find” him votes.
Yet after election officials rebuffed Mr. Trump’s attempts to subvert the election, and multiple audits reaffirmed the results, Republican legislators held hearings on the election, inviting some of the president’s allies like Rudolph W. Giuliani to speak. After the hearings, G.O.P. lawmakers promised to introduce new legislation to help “restore confidence” in elections, even though the last one had been held safely and securely.
Outside the Statehouse in Atlanta on Thursday, a coalition of Black faith leaders assembled a protest, voicing their opposition to the bill and calling for a boycott of major corporations in Georgia that they said had remained silent on the voting push, including Coca-Cola.
The faith leaders also sought a meeting with Mr. Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a fellow Republican. Mr. Duncan met with the group for three minutes; Mr. Kemp did not.
“I told him exactly how I felt: that these bills were not only voter suppression, but they were in fact racist, and they are an attempt to turn back time to Jim Crow,” said Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, who oversees all African Methodist Episcopal churches in the state.
The voting legislation was approved in the House on Thursday morning after an impassioned debate on the floor of the chamber that lasted for just over an hour.
Erica Thomas, a Democratic state representative from outside Atlanta, recalled the memory of former Representative John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights leader who died last year, opening her remarks by quoting an old speech of his before voicing her personal opposition to the bill.
“Why do we rally, why do we protest voter suppression?” she said. “It is because our ancestors are looking down right now on this House floor, praying and believing that our fight, and that their fight, was not in vain. We call on the strength of Congressman John Lewis in this moment. Because right now, history is watching.”
Other Democrats said the bill was rooted in the election falsehoods that have been spread by Mr. Trump and his allies.
“Where is the need for this bill coming from?” said Debbie Buckner, a Democratic representative from near Columbus. “From the former president who wanted the election fixed and thrown out, even when Georgia leadership told him they couldn’t do it if they wanted to.”
Representative Zulma Lopez, who represents a majority-minority district on the outskirts of Atlanta, said the bill would have an outsize impact on voters of color. In her district, she said, the number of drop boxes would be reduced to nine from 33. This was partly the result, she said, of Democrats’ being excluded from discussions.
“Close to 2.5 million Democrats voted in the general election in 2020,” Ms. Lopez said. “Yet Democrats in this House were left out of any meaningful input into the drafting of this bill.”
“I’m convinced that we’ll be able to stop this, because it is the most pernicious thing,” Mr. Biden said at his first formal news conference since taking office. “This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle.”
He vowed to “do everything in my power, along with my friends in the House and the Senate, to keep that from becoming the law.”
Democratic state senators in Georgia sounded similar alarms during an afternoon debate.
“It is like a Christmas tree of goodies for voter suppression,” said Jen Jordan, a Democratic state senator from near Atlanta. “And let’s be clear, some of the most dangerous provisions have to do with the takeover of the local elections boards.”
Alan Powell, a Republican representative from northeastern Georgia, defended the state’s bill, saying it would bring needed uniformity to an electoral system that was pushed to the brink last year.
“The Georgia election system was never made to be able to handle the volume of votes that it handled,” he said. (Multiple audits affirmed the results of Georgia’s elections last year, and there were no credible reports of any fraud or irregularities that would have affected the results.) “What we’ve done in this bill in front of you is we have cleaned up the workings, the mechanics of our election system.”
“Show me the suppression,” Mr. Powell said. “There is no suppression in this bill.”
The bill is likely to be met by some legal challenges from Democratic groups, and voting rights groups have vowed to continue to work against the provisions in the bill.
Bishop Jackson said he would be working with his constituents to make sure that they all had proper identification, registered in time, and knew how to vote under the new rules.
“This is a fight,” he said. “I think we’re probably at halftime. I think we got another half to go.”