By Joseph Ax
Republican lawmakers in Georgia were poised on Tuesday to advance a bill expanding law enforcement’s power to investigate election fraud, adding to a broader push by U.S. conservatives for more restrictive voting laws after former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged.
Tuesday’s expected vote in Georgia’s House of Representatives comes less than a week after Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature approved a law creating a new election police force, the first of its kind in the nation.
Voting rights groups and Democrats in both states say the legislation is intended to appease Trump and his supporters despite the fact that election fraud is exceedingly rare in the United States.
They also say the new laws will result in voter intimidation, particularly for people of color, while providing a pretense for politicians to undermine confidence in the outcome of elections.
“It doesn’t have to be billy clubs,” said Stephanie Ali, policy director for the New Georgia Project Action Fund, a voting rights group. “It’s just finding a new way to stop people from voting in the same way that has always been done in this country.”
A coalition of voting rights organizations, including the New Georgia Project Action Fund and Fair Fight Action, both founded by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, announced a nearly $1.5 million campaign on Tuesday opposing the Georgia bill.
Georgia and Florida had already passed sweeping voting restrictions last year, part of a wave of such legislation among Republican-controlled states.
Georgia’s new measure would grant the Georgia Bureau of Investigation the statutory authority, and subpoena power, to investigate election fraud. Under current law, claims of election and voting irregularities are initially investigated by the state elections board or the secretary of state’s office.
Trump has attacked Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Governor Brian Kemp, both Republicans, for failing to overturn the state’s election results, which Trump falsely says were tainted by fraud. Both incumbents face Republican challengers endorsed by Trump as they seek re-election this year.
If both the Georgia House and Senate, each of which is controlled by Republicans, pass the bill, it would go to Kemp for his signature or veto.
A spokesperson for Kemp said he does not comment on pending legislation. The sponsor of the Georgia bill, Representative James Burchett, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The new Florida bill creates an Office of Election Crimes and Security under the auspices of the Department of State, part of the executive branch of Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’ administration.
In addition, the legislation calls for the governor to appoint sworn agents at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement as special agents dedicated to investigating election crimes.
The measure will allow the department to examine a range of potential illegal activities, a Department of State spokesman said in a statement, including threats to election officials, forged signatures on petitions, fraudulent registration forms and misuse of mail ballots.
DeSantis, a Trump ally who is widely seen as a top presidential candidate in 2024, has said the law will improve public trust in elections.
“Allocating sufficient resources to deter fraud and ensure our election laws are enforced should not be controversial or politicized,” said DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw, who added that the governor plans to sign the bill.
But Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley, the incoming president of the state’s association of elections supervisors, said the legislation gives credence to the false notion that voter fraud is a serious problem.
“Senate Bill 524 doesn’t serve a whole lot of purpose in furthering the needs of Florida voters,” Earley said. “The context is clear – there’s a massive disinformation campaign across the nation, and this bill plays right into that.”
Dozens of courts, as well as election officials around the country, have concluded that Trump’s fraud allegations have no factual basis. But the former president continues to assert that President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory was not legitimate, and polls show a significant number of Republican voters believe him.
Lawmakers in a handful of other states also have introduced bills that would boost investigations into alleged election fraud, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, though their prospects for passage is uncertain.
In Arizona, for instance, a Republican lawmaker’s proposal to create a new agency to investigate election crimes failed to pass out of committee in time for this year’s legislative session.
Some states, such as Texas, have devoted increased resources to prosecuting election cases in the absence of new legislation, said Wendy Weiser, who directs the Brennan Center’s democracy program.