Protesters call on Georgia lawmakers to reject further changes to state voting laws on Tuesday, March 15, 2022, outside the state capitol in Atlanta. House members later approved a bill making numerous changes, sending it to the state Senate for more debate. (Jeff Amy/AP)

House Republicans pushed through a bill to make further changes to Georgia’s voting rules late Tuesday over Democratic objections that the GOP was feeding an insatiable monster — Donald Trump’s “big lie” that Georgia’s 2020 election was stolen from the former president, despite no evidence.

The House voted 98-73 along party lines to pass House Bill 1464, which would give the Georgia Bureau of Investigation the ability to investigate election fraud without an invitation from other officials, would create extensive new chain-of-custody requirements for handling ballots, would allow only the State Election Board to accept private donations for election administration and would let people inspect paper ballots after an election.

The measure moves to the Senate for more debate.

The bill has raised alarms among voting rights group still angry over last year’s restrictive law, which reduced the time to request an absentee ballot, stripped power from Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and severely rolled back the pandemic-driven expansion of absentee ballot drop boxes.

Republicans characterized Tuesday’s bill as a series of mostly minor changes.

“It does not affect invidividuals’ ability to vote and for the most part, it’s a cleanup bill,” said Stan Gunter, a Blairsville Republican who chairs the House Special Committee on Election Integrity.

House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, had pushed to let GBI investigate election complaints without an invitation, a move that will duplicate the elections investigation division of Raffensperger’s office, another attack on his authority over elections. Lawmakers have included $579,000 in next year’s budget for four GBI positions.

But Democrats said Republican demands for more paperwork to track ballot movements, control over grant money by the Republican-majority State Election Board, and provisions granting poll watchers “meaningful” access to vote counting all sprang out of conspiracy theories that disgruntled Trump supporters have hatched to explain how their candidate lost.

Rep. Bee Nguyen, an Atlanta Democrat running for secretary of state, said nothing short of overturning the 2020 election will satisfy the Republican voters who showed up to testify that House Bill 1464 doesn’t go far enough.

“These are the consequences of what happens when members of this body allowed and continue to allow lies and conspiracy theories to go unchecked because instead of being honest about the security of our election system, this lie festered,” Nguyen said. “And now it is uncontrollable.”

The 39-page bill has a number of different provisions. It would make it a felony to threaten violence against poll workers and election officials, require forms and ballot box seals after handling ballots and allow counties to reduce the number of required voting machines at an election-day polling place to account for people who voted early. It would also require employers to not only give time off on election day for workers to vote, but also to give them time off to vote early in-person.

“They reduce the number by those that already voted, so it makes it easier for election officials so they don’t have to go through and set up all of those machines.”

Republicans lauded the chain of custody provisions, saying it would help restore confidence in elections.

“The only way we can do away with it is to put absolute irrefutable truth in how elections are being run, so that everybody, no matter your political party, so that you can see and verify that things are being done and reported accurately,” said Rep. Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican, who said the idea had been suggested to him by a constituent.

Democrats worry that the ballot inspection provisions, which would allow people to request to see paper ballots, as long as they were handled by a county employee, would encourage Arizona-style citizen audits of election results. Last year’s law already makes electronic ballot images available, but some activists want to see the actual paper ballots.

“The wants of conspiracy theorists are also not a valid motivation to change the rules,” said Rep. Miriam Paris, a Macon Democrat.

But Rep. James Burchett, a Waycross Republican who sponsored the bill, said having GBI in charge would discourage citizen audits.

“Do you want to have Cyber Ninjas come in here and work on your elections?” Burchett asked, referring to the firm that led the disputed Arizona audit. “Is that what you want?

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