Republicans on the committee argued the invoice, which tackles multiple areas of election legislation, would help restore faith in Georgia's elections, but Democrats and voting rights advocates blasted it as a"voter suppression bill" and contested the rationale behind the hurry to make it before the committee just hours after it had been released.
"This bill seems to provide solutions for a lot of problems that don't exist. It's purportedly to enhance security and integrity, but... many of these provisions don't do that," Saira Draper, the voter protection manager for the Democratic Party of Georgia, explained in an interview. "It imposes restrictions on all our forms of voting in Georgia... however, the brunt of the effect is felt mostly by our Black and brown voters."
During hearings on Thursday and Friday, Republicans defended the bill, HB 531, as critical to restoring public confidence in elections and strengthening security. As per a January poll, just under 40% of Georgia voters think there was widespread fraud in the last presidential election; one of Republicans alone, it's 75 percent.
"We try as best we can to make sure that our unemployment is secure, and that someone's vote can't be stolen," Republican state Rep. Barry Fleming, '' the chairman of the Special Committee on Election Integrity, stated Friday. "Our due diligence in this legislature [is] to constantly update our laws to try to protect the sanctity of their vote. The reason people do not rob banks every day is because banks set in place provisions to prevent that from occurring."
The law and policy organization asserts that these bills are"an unmistakable reply to the unfounded and dangerous lies about fraud which followed the 2020 election"
Those untrue fraud asserts were spearheaded by former President Donald Trump, and disproportionately directed at battleground states he dropped, including Georgia.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has repeatedly said that although there are individual instances of fraud in every election, there is no evidence prevalent or systematic fraud happened in November.
Amber McReynolds, an election administration expert and the CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, told ABC News the Georgia's elections are more accessible than many other nations, but it does not mean they are perfect.
"There is ways to improve on what they have been doing that simultaneously improve the process for the voters, decrease costs and produce some efficiencies, and also enhance security -- and there is a way to do all those things at the same time," she said. "Sometimes the laws does not look at matters in an extensive way, which is sort of an instance of that."
While there are parts of the bill that election administrators forecasted, the segments linked to premature peer-to-peer and absentee-by-mail voting are becoming significant pushback from advocates.
The legislation would bar counties from holding voting on the two Sundays that fall inside the early three-week period and just allow it on one Saturday. Currently, counties need to get places open weekdays, plus one Saturday, but they can elect to add more times if they fall within the established period, which ends the Friday before an election.
"Uniformity is not equity," Draper said. "There are various requirements in Fulton County... than you will find in small, rural counties with small quantities of voters, and initially, that's why there was flexibility in this law"
She noted"Souls to the Polls" events, held by Dark churches in the large metro regions, are an"effective get-out-the-vote mechanism," but eliminating Sunday early voting would also curtail these.
Throughout the 2020 cycle, the State Election Board passed an emergency rule allowing counties to implement drop boxes, but while this bill would be the first knowingly sanctioning drop boxes, it would also add restrictions to their use going forward, requiring they're in early voting places and only accessible when these places are open.
Richmond County Elections Director Lynn Bailey testified Friday that if the drop boxes have to be at these locations, they need to at least be outside, so they are easier to access.
McReynolds said that voters across the political spectrum such as drop boxes, cautioning against restricting their availability.
"Many men and women prefer to hand their ballot straight to a drop box or an election estimate since it gets there quicker," she said. "There is ways to boost security... but just limiting access into the boxes does not really improve safety. It actually hurts it."
Under this bill, voters would not be able to use drop boxes on Election Day, or even the three days prior to it. Placing ballots in the mail during this time, though, is insecure, as they have to be received by 7 p.m. on Election Day. In Georgia, the biggest proportion of rejected absentee ballots would be the ones that arrive late.
Voters are currently required to show a photo ID when voting in person, but perhaps not by mail. HB 531 would need absentee voters to provide their driver's license or state identification number in their applications along with the oath envelopes that contain the ballot. If a voter doesn't have this type of identification, however, they need to include a photocopy of the following kind of accepted identification together with the program.
Fleming said 97% of Georgia voters have a driver's license or state ID, even though it's unclear where that figure is from.
But even if it's just 3 percent of Republicans lacking this, additional hurdles facing a small amount of Republicans issue"if we're really wanting everyone to have the ability to vote," explained Poy Winichakul, a staff lawyer testifying on behalf of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund.
"You are telling these demands when it is not essential," Winichakul additional, speaking directly to the chairman. "There's no evidence of widespread voter fraud"
But Ryan Germany, the general counsel in Raffensperger's office, said if the state doesn't switch from a subjective to an objective method of verifying absentee ballots, election officials could become targets, as some were later November.
"They wish to only be impartial arbiters," he said.
The bottom line, based on McReynolds, is that election legislation must hit multiple priorities, such as equity, availability, protection, transparency and equitability.
"those values matter both," she explained. "It feels like we will need to work on equilibrium with all those values to get it right for this particular laws and any subsequent bills."
Friday's hearing ended without a movement on the bill, and another hearing will be held Monday.