Jonathan O’Brien | State Capitol Reporter

(Atlanta, Ga) — Controversial Senate election bills and an overhaul of the citizen’s arrest statute dominated Crossover Day under the Gold Dome.

Lawmakers debated the bill for nearly four hours and ultimately passed SB 241 with a one-vote majority. The legislation would, among other things, eliminate no-excuse absentee voting, a GOP-backed election reform passed in 2005. It would also limit absentee voting to those 65 and older, those with physical disabilities, and voters out of town on election day.

“This is not preventing anyone from voting by mail-in absentee,” said Senate Majority Leader and bill sponsor Mike Dugan (R-Carrollton). “All this is doing is creating a groundwork to help relieve some of the stresses that we see in the future as we continue to grow.”

Democratic members of the state senate stood in complete opposition to the legislation. “SB 241 creates unnecessary barriers and burdens on voters,” Sen. Jen Jordan (D-Atlanta) said. “It disproportionately impacts racial minorities, the elderly, those that live in rural Georgia, disabled, and students.”

Support among Republicans was not unanimous, four GOP senators excused themselves during the vote, and Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan refused to moderate the debate. “As a presiding officer, I don’t have a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote; that was my opportunity to say I did not approve of that measure and let somebody else carry that debate,” Duncan told WGUR’s Jonathan O’Brien.

Between the two chambers, 12 pieces of election legislation will now have to be debated and reconciled before the end of the session on March 31st.

Over in the Georgia House, lawmakers were united in their unanimous support of HB 479, which would repeal Georgia’s Civil-War era citizen’s arrest law. The current statute allows Georgians to arrest someone they suspect of committing a crime.

House vote on HB 479 which overhauls the state’s citizen’s arrest law March 8, 2021

House vote on HB 479 which overhauls the state’s citizen’s arrest law March 8, 2021

Gov. Brian Kemp unveiled an overhaul of the law earlier this year. “I believe it’s time for Georgia to take another step toward a better, safer, and more just future for our state,” Kemp said. The bill does make exceptions for business employees, security guards, private investigators, and truck weigh station officers. They would be allowed to hold someone they believed has committed a crime.

The law came under renewed scrutiny following the February 2020 killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick. Representative Al Williams (D-Midway) told the chamber, “out of his death comes this day, where we have the opportunity to say to America that this is not the Georgia of old.”

If the Senate passes the bill, Georgia will become the first state in the nation to do away with the citizen’s arrest law.

The house also passed a bill to allow hospital patients and nursing home residents the right to have a “legal representative” visit them even if there is a public health emergency.

Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) sponsored the bill. “It’s about patient’s rights. It gives the patient the right to have their next of kin at their bedside to help them make critical decisions in the delivery of care.”

Among the bills that failed to make it: a House measure on sports-betting in Georgia (the senate already passed its version, which proposes a Constitutional Amendment) and a pay-raise for lawmakers (the senate already rejected a similar bill).