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Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp Signs Controversial Election Overhaul Into Law

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Georgia voters will have to follow new election rules. State Republicans there passed a sweeping elections bill that limits mail-in voting and changes absentee and early voting. Governor Brian Kemp signed the legislation into law last night.

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BRIAN KEMP: Putting hardworking Georgians first starts with ensuring that your voice is heard and restoring each and every citizen's confidence in their vote.

MARTIN: Georgia has been the epicenter of the battle over election laws after Democrats flipped both Senate seats and President Biden won Georgia last fall. Emma Hurt of member station WABE in Atlanta has been following this and joins us now. Emma, thanks for being here.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Let's start with what's in this final version of this sweeping election law.

HURT: Yeah. It's nearly 100 pages worth of changes, mostly Republican-proposed ideas all combined together in this overhaul of absentee and early voting rules. And the headlines are that it adds an ID requirement for mail-in voting, replacing the signature match process. It bans anyone from giving food or drink to a voter waiting in line at a polling place. It limits where absentee ballot drop boxes can go. It adds new powers for the state election board to intervene in county election management. And it replaces the secretary of state on that election board with someone elected by the General Assembly.

MARTIN: And Democrats really see this as a restriction of overall voting in the state. I mean, just tell me more about the reaction there.

HURT: Yeah. The reaction has been intense from Democrats, calling it Jim Crow 2.0. And tensions are high. One Democratic state representative, Park Cannon, was actually arrested last night. She opposes the bill and was knocking on the governor's door because he signed it in private, says she was trying to witness it. She was released from jail but charged with willful obstruction of law enforcement. And, you know, a Republican representative earlier in the day said this was the most divisive political issue he'd seen in three decades in Georgia. So there's just a lot of emotion.

MARTIN: But as I understand it, some of the most controversial proposals ultimately were scrapped from this final bill, right?

HURT: Absolutely. Republicans responded to pressure on some of these controversial ideas, like a proposal to get rid of automatic voter registration, a proposal to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting. There was an effort to curtail Sunday early voting, which the Black community in particular protested given the tradition of voters attending church and going to law.

MARTIN: Going to vote, yeah.

HURT: None of these became law because the bill was signed - the bill that was signed actually expands access to weekend early voting. And so Republicans have really rejected the criticism because they say it strikes a balance.

MARTIN: What are the larger effects in Georgia going forward, especially as you look towards 2022, right?

HURT: Right. I mean, politically, it's hard to see this getting any better going into 2022. There's an argument that can be made that the voting law and even these bills that didn't pass give both Democrats and Republicans what they need to run on in the next election. So for Republicans, they can go back to their voters who are questioning the system and say, look; we've added absentee voting security. Come back and vote. And for Democrats, even though this isn't as devastating to voting access as some of the other proposals might have been, it's still proof in their mind that Republicans are, quote, "vote suppressors." And they've already been fundraising with that argument in mind.

MARTIN: WABE's Emma Hurt in Atlanta. Emma, thank you for your context and reporting on this. We appreciate it.

HURT: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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