A bill pushing back the deadline when Georgia voters can request absentee ballots before elections has cleared a state House committee, marking the first of many voting-focused bills to face legislative debate after the 2020 election cycle.

Sponsored by state Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, the bill would change the deadline for voters to request absentee ballots from the last Friday before an election to the second-to-last Friday. Counties also would not be able to send voters applications for mail-in ballots during the last week of early voting.

The bill passed on a party-line vote Thursday out of the House Special Committee on Election Integrity, which Fleming chairs. It now heads to the House Rules Committee to schedule a vote of the full House.

Fleming said his bill would ease pressure on county elections officials handling early voting and Election Day preparations on top of processing absentee-ballot applications. Voters would also have peace of mind that their ballots arrived in the mail on time to be processed before the polls close.

“We all know you have to have a deadline whereby you cannot send out absentee ballots,” Fleming said. “You need to push that back to a reasonable amount of time where not only can it be processed and sent to the voter, but also time to be sent back in.”

The bill’s opponents said it had the potential to curb absentee voting in the state and potentially disenfranchise Georgians, particularly Democratic voters who gravitated to absentee ballots amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several Democratic lawmakers on the committee argued the bill could spur longer lines at polling places and harm voters who requested absentee ballots weeks in advance but still had not received them in the mail by the second-to-last Friday deadline.

“We’re going back to the possibility of increasing lines,” said Rep. Rhonda Burnough, D-Riverdale. “If they can’t request an absentee ballot, that means that on the last week of advance voting we’ll probably have longer lines.”

Fleming’s bill is the first of more than a dozen to start facing committee votes early in the 2021 legislative session as Republican lawmakers eye changes to absentee voting and voter ID laws after Democrats gained major statewide victories during the last election cycle.

So far, bills have been filed boosting identification requirements for absentee voting, ending Georgians’ ability to vote by mail for any reason and outlawing mail-in ballot drop boxes.

Democrats are framing those bills as attempts at voter suppression, accusing Republicans of changing the rules of the game to slow Georgia Democrats’ recent elections momentum. Democrats have introduced bills allowing voters to register on Election Day and restoring voting rights for felons.

Joining Fleming as sponsors on the bill are House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones, R-Milton; Rep. Buddy DeLoach, R-Townsend; Rep. Rick Williams, R-Milledgeville; House Regulated Industries Committee Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell; and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire.

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