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Bill would reduce early voting days in cities

CONYERS — A bill seen by some as an attempt to chill voter turnout and by others as a way to help municipalities control their election costs has passed the state House and awaits debate in the Senate.

House Bill 891, approved by the House last month, would reduce early voting days to six in municipal elections that don’t coincide with county, state and federal elections. Cities would also have the option to keep the current 21 days of early voting.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 146 to 25, with Reps. Tonya Anderson, D-Lithonia, and Dee Dawkins-Haigler, D-Lithonia, opposed and Reps. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle, Pam Dickerson, D-Conyers, and Tom Kirby, R-Loganville, voting in favor. Rep. Andrew Welch, R-McDonough, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Dawkins-Haigler, speaking at a Conyers town hall meeting last week, said that both the cities of Atlanta and Savannah had lobbied to keep early voting at 21 days, which led to an amendment allowing cities to opt out of the six-day limit and retain the three weeks of early voting.

Early voting was reduced by the Legislature in 2011 from 45 days to 21.

The bill has been opposed by groups like the League of Women Voters of Georgia, the ACLU, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and more because of the risk of limiting access to voting. But for small towns like Mansfield and Newborn in Newton County, the bill represents a needed cost-saving measure.

Mansfield, where the mayor resigned last week, now faces a special election, possibly in August, to fill the position. City Council members said at a meeting Monday night that 21 days of early voting is an unnecessary expense for a town its size. Mansfield has fewer than 400 residents.

“It’s not cost-effective for a city like us,” said Councilman Marty Smallwood.

Newborn officials attempted in 2013 to have the town’s municipal elections handled by Newton County. At that time town officials estimated that it cost nearly $5,000 to hold an election, primarily because the town is required to have two people at Town Hall for 21 days of early voting. In 2009, only two people voted early in Newborn, where the population is about 500.

Both Covington and Conyers contract with local boards of elections to handle their balloting. Covington’s last election cost the city about $15,000; the Conyers election cost about $10,000.

Conyers City Manager Tony Lucas said the city had had only limited discussions of the bill but was generally supportive. “(The Georgia Municipal Association) is supporting the legislation, and we would too,” he said.

Lucas said the option to keep 21 days of early voting gives cities “the best of both worlds.”

The cost of conducting the elections is also a consideration for Conyers, he said.

“There is a larger cost associated with (early voting),” he said. “That’s something that the council would have to take into consideration.”