ATLANTA — Georgia Republicans want to limit early voting so that no county can offer it on both on a Saturday and a Sunday.
Democrats are outraged; they say the plan is designed to help GOP candidates.
"They're targeting likely Democratic voters to stifle the opportunity to cast a ballot," said Sen. Lester Jackson, a Savannah Democrat and the chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus. "Working-class Georgians need opportunities to participate in the governmental process."
Under a bill sponsored by Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan, counties would only be able to offer early voting on weekdays and one weekend day. County officials would get to choose whether the polls would be open on one Saturday or one Sunday, but not both.
In addition to four weeks of weekday early voting opportunities, each of Georgia's 159 counties is currently required to offer early voting on at least one Saturday. Some counties, though, have recently started offering early voting on both Saturdays and Sundays ahead of a single election.
Before the 2016 presidential general election, 10 counties let voters cast ballots early on at least one Saturday and Sunday, including counties with large urban populations in Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus and Savannah, according to the Georgia Secretary of State's Office. Hillary Clinton won all but two of those counties, although Donald Trump won the state by about 5 percentage points.
But Republicans argue that Georgians should have equal access to the polls during federal and state elections, with each county having the same number of early-voting opportunities and each city having the same hours on Election Day.
"This gives parity for everybody in the state," said Brass. "It doesn't make sense for one person to be able to vote any extra time than any other person."
Brass said it would be too expensive to mandate that all counties expand their early-voting opportunities, although he said he hasn't analyzed how expensive such a proposal would be.
Brass' bill was initially focused on changing poll-closing times in Atlanta after Democratic Sen. Jen Jordan won a special election last year in a district that included parts of Atlanta and Cobb County. Because Jordan's race took place during a municipal election, Atlanta polls stayed open until 8 p.m., an hour later than those in Cobb County. Atlanta polls close at the same time as the rest of Georgia during normal state and federal elections, according to the Secretary of State's Office.
Brass' measure passed the Republican-controlled Senate last month on a party-line vote. It now awaits a vote by the House, where a committee has broadened the bill's scope by amending it to limit all counties to only one weekend day of early voting.
Several African-American churches have embraced Sunday voting, including Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached. Since 2014, Ebenezer's pastor, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, has helped lead multiple "soul to the polls" initiatives in which busloads of parishioners are given rides to polling stations.
Warnock called the current Republican proposal "electoral ethnic cleansing."
"Weekend voting is working, so why are we changing it?" Warnock told The Associated Press in a phone interview, pointing out that more than half of Georgia voters took advantage of the state's early-voting opportunities in the 2016 presidential election. "Why are we trying to cripple and hamstring the effort of American citizens to exercise that most precious right?"
Brass denied his bill is an attempt to curb voting by any group.
"When I first took this on, had I known I would be called a racist because of it, I probably would have stayed away from it," said Brass, referring to angry emails he has recently received. "But the fairness is not there and I'm going to keep pushing for it because it's the right thing to do. I'm not a racist. I'm not trying to suppress anybody's right to vote."
For decades, any changes to Georgia's voting laws required approval from the federal government before taking effect, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. That changed in 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down the civil-rights era pre-approval requirement.
"If they get it passed, they are asking for a lawsuit," Bullock said, pointing to a recent case in North Carolina where lawsuits prevented the state from scaling back early voting. "When a state seeks to reduce early voting opportunities, almost invariably they get sued."