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Georgia lawmakers pass bill giving GBI power to investigate voter fraud

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Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks about the COVID-19 virus during a news conference at the Georgia state Capitol on Wednesday, April 8, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson) Brynn Anderson/AP

Georgia lawmakers pass bill giving GBI power to investigate voter fraud

April 05, 04:51 PM April 05, 04:51 PM

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation could be empowered to investigate claims of voter fraud and subpoena records under a bill passed by lawmakers Monday night.

Under S.B. 441, the independent agency would have the authority to conduct voter fraud investigations without a request from a local law enforcement branch. The measure was added by Republicans, who control both chambers, to a bill addressing criminal data processing in the hours before the legislative session ended at midnight, prompting opposition from some Democratic lawmakers and voting rights advocates who say the bill is undergirded by conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

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“What we’re looking for is GBI to investigate conspiracy to commit election fraud, if it is necessary, and giving them the investigatory discretion to do so,” said Republican state Rep. James Burchett. “I think these are germane in subject matter, and that’s why this bill was picked.”

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The provision was initially part of a 39-page elections overhaul bill that included other measures such as limiting private funding, empowering poll-watchers as they supervise Election Day, and establishing new protocols for tracking absentee ballots. However, local election officials pushed back against the bill, arguing it would make poll workers’ jobs more difficult and increase voter intimidation.

“You’re going to waste time, and you’re going to cause me to lose poll workers,” Joel Natt, a local election official, told lawmakers, according to the New York Times. “I have 400 poll workers that work for our board. That is 400 people that I could see telling me after May, ‘Have a nice life,’ and it’s hard enough to keep them right now.”

Georgia leaders stripped down the bill to include only one element of its original proposal, which increases the amount of time voters can take off work to cast their ballot during the early voting period. That version of the election bill passed Monday night.

However, lawmakers revived the proposal that gives GBI jurisdiction over voter fraud claims in the separate bill that passed the House and Senate just before the midnight deadline. Under the bill, GBI could subpoena voting records for its own independent investigations so long as the attorney general’s office gives the green light. It also would allow the agency to conduct any audit it sees fit.

Under current law, voter fraud investigations are handled by the elections division in the office of the Secretary of State. That position is currently held by Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who has become a target among Trump-aligned Republicans, particularly after his January 2021 call with former President Donald Trump, in which he pushed back on the suggestion that he “find” enough votes to flip 2020 election results out of favor for now-President Joe Biden. The Fulton County district attorney is now investigating Trump’s efforts to overturn Georgia’s 2020 presidential election.

Despite all this, Raffensperger expressed support for empowering GBI.

“I have and will continue to work to ensure Georgia’s elections are secure and reliable,” Raffensperger told the Washington Examiner. “I worked with Governor Brian Kemp to get the GBI to help with election investigations after the November election, brought the GBI in to help with the Cobb County signature match audit, which found no fraud, and look forward to partnering with the GBI to build trust, confidence, and security in our elections.”

The bill’s passage was met with outcry from Democrats and voting rights advocates, who are now calling on Gov. Brian Kemp to veto the legislation.

“Tonight’s rushed passage of SB 441 is the clearest sign yet that Georgia Republicans care more about appeasing conspiracy theorists and perpetuating the Big Lie than they do about upholding our democratic institutions,” said Cianti Stewart-Reid, executive director of Fair Fight Action, in a statement. “Any Georgia leader who claims to care about protecting our democracy — and ensuring that all Georgia voters can cast their votes free from intimidation — must stand with election workers and voting rights advocates by calling on Kemp to veto this legislation.”

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The measure follows a similar bill passed in Florida last month that established the creation of a police force dedicated to investigating election crimes. That bill passed largely along party lines and was approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The Georgia bill now heads to Kemp’s desk for his signature, and he has 40 days to decide whether to approve or veto it. Kemp is expected to sign the bill. His office told the Washington Examiner the governor is “consistently supportive of commonsense measures that strengthen election integrity in Georgia — making it easy to vote and hard to cheat.”

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