ACLU of Georgia

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Legislative Testimony & Speeches

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Prepared Remarks
Christopher Bruce,
Political Director of the ACLU of Georgia
Senate Ethics Committee
Wednesday, March 17, 2021, 8:00 am

Good morning, Chairman Burns and Members of the Ethics Committee. My name is Christopher Bruce, and I am the Political Director for the ACLU of Georgia. The ACLU of Georgia is a non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting the civil liberties of all Georgians; the right to vote is one of the most sacred civil liberties we have as Americans.

Fundamentally in our elections system, Georgia voters cast their ballots securely and legally in exactly 3 ways: 1) Absentee by mail; 2) Early in-person; and 3) on Election Day. 

At its core, HB 531 (1) makes considerable cuts to each of these forms of voting without justification. 

We believe that any proposed cuts to voting access can only be justified by overwhelming evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. We also believe that elections policymaking should be a deliberate, precise, and evidence-based process. We have not seen such a process unfold for HB 531, so we urge this committee to reject HB 531 as drafted.

First, when it comes to absentee by mail voting, we continue to share many of the concerns that have been raised, including: 

  • New requirements to provide sensitive personal information with applications and ballots, which puts absentee voters, who are disproportionately seniors and Georgians with disabilities, at risk of identity theft; 
  • Various unfunded mandates like requiring security paper for ballots; 
  • AND the fact that even Governor Brian Kemp, who was in quarantine for COVID-19 the Friday before the election, would not have been able to vote in the General Election under the absentee timeline in this bill.

Second, the cuts in this bill to early in-person voting are deeply alarming. Section 18 of the bill would cut weekend voting hours in the five most populous counties in Georgia by 40%. Gwinnett County voters themselves would lose two-thirds of their weekend voting hours. To put this into further perspective, HB 531 would cut early voting access for well over 3 million active voters in Georgia, which is 41% of all voters in the entire state.

The bill also creates an impossible choice for counties between 1) no sunday voting at all, or 2) the extremely confusing situation of “no saturday voting the first weekend, and no sunday voting the second weekend.” When nearly 400,000 Georgians of all stripes, political persuasions, and ethnic backgrounds cast their ballots on the weekend during the general election and runoff, these cuts cannot be justified. 

The bill also makes a large cut to early voting access for federal runoffs — it would have limited early voting in our most recent runoff to just three days. How would the 2.1 million Georgia voters who voted early in the runoff over three weeks — be expected to vote in just three days? The cascading effects of such a drastic cut to early voter access would paralyze our elections system.

But I would like to focus especially on one of the barriers that this bill places on election day voting — the proposal to toss out tens of thousands of Election Day ballots that were cast by eligible voters within their counties of residence, outside of their one precinct.

The justification offered for this proposal, a concern for down ballot races, is not only unwarranted given the current capabilities of Georgia’s ballot-marking devices to print full ballots, but the justification is also fundamentally at odds with the constitutional right of every Georgia voter to choose the races in which they want to vote.

In the 2020 Georgia general election, 5 million votes were cast for president. 99.8% of these votes were cast on regular ballots, which by definition, include every single down ballot candidate. 

  • Yet, the total number of votes cast in Georgia for State House was 4.55 million. 
  • And the State Senate saw 4.5 million (4,501,950) votes in total.

This means that 1 out of 10 voters in Georgia decided, for themselves, of their own accord, to vote for president and refrain from voting in their downballot Georgia State Senate race. 

When half-a-million (500,000) Georgia voters exercised their right to vote for president and skip downballot races, how can we justify trampling upon the right of 10,000 provisional voters to, at worst, do the exact same? Why should provisional voters not be allowed the choice that every other voter in Georgia gets?

The First Amendment considerations of such a paternalistic, pretextual justification for throwing out valid ballots is especially offensive to us as the ACLU of Georgia. 

As long as an in-county, out-of-precinct provisional voter is informed that their ballot may or may not include a few down ballot races, they should be able to exercise their informed decision to vote in the races of their choosing, just as any other Georgia voter can, instead of being completely disenfranchised. 

For elections like statewide runoffs that do not include any downballot races, like our most recent runoff on January 5, throwing provisional ballots out and disenfranchising these voters is even less justifiable. And just so this process is grounded in actual facts and evidence, 7,966 provisional ballots were counted statewide for Georgia State Senate races in the General Election. Which means that the vast majority of provisional ballots that were cast and counted in this state included downballot races, and the vast majority of provisional voters decided, for themselves, to vote in those races. As is their right.

HB 531 does not reflect the will of Georgia voters or the results of a deliberate, evidence-based process. We urge the committee to consider these concerns and reject the bill as written.

Thank you, I yield for any questions.

(1)  All section numbers in this testimony refer to sections of document LC 28 0264S, the version of HB 531 that passed the Georgia House on March 1, 2021.

Click to download a pdf version of this testimony.

Prepared Remarks
Andrea Young,
Executive Director of the ACLU of Georgia
Georgia Legislative Black Caucus Press Conference to Rally Around Opposition of HB 531

Good Afternoon,

I am Andrea Young, the Executive Director of the ACLU of Georgia

The ACLU of Georgia is a nonpartisan organization committed to making access to the ballot easy for every Georgia citizen

In October, Secretary of State lauded Georgia’s election rules as the gold standard – with no excuse absentee voting, 16 days of early voting, and automatic voter registration. This statement is still on every press release.

In November, through an extraordinary civic effort across all 159 counties, five million Georgians cast ballots, and 4.5 million were able to vote again in January – all in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

Yet in this legislative session, we have seen a tsunami of bills to make voting more difficult especially more difficult for our essential workers, our working mothers, our senior citizens, our students, and people of color.

We have seen

  • bills that say you need a permission slip from the government to vote by mail,
  • bills that say you need a chaperone to vote by mail
  • bills that deny counties the resources to protect poll workers and  keep lines short, and
  • bills that deny voters a glass of water from a neighbor.

This is heartless and heartbreaking.

Dr. King Exhorted us to stay hopeful in his speech in Montgomery for voting rights – “How long will it take?  How long? Not long because no lie can live forever.”

That was almost 56 years ago.

The lie that Georgia’s voting system needs more “security” is being perpetuated by people who know better.

“Security” is the new code word for voter suppression.

5 million voters.

Two recounts and one audit confirmed the results in Georgia were accurate.

HB 531 must be defeated.

Click to download a pdf version of this testimony.

Prepared Remarks
Christopher Bruce, Political Director ACLU of Georgia
House Judiciary Noncivil Citizen’s Arrest Hearing
Thursday March 4, 2021, 9:00AM

Good Morning, my name is Christopher Bruce, and I am the political director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. The ACLU of Georgia is an organization dedicated to protecting the civil liberties of all Georgians, and Georgia’s current law which allows private persons to make arrests puts those civil liberties at grave risk. Thank you to this committee for the opportunity to speak to you today in favor of House Bill 479, which would fully repeal this law.

Georgia’s law which allows private persons to make arrests was codified over 250 years ago. This law was enacted shortly after Georgia seceded from the Union and was fighting to preserve slavery during the Civil War. It was enacted to give greater power to lynch mobs and slave patrols. And today, it continues to permit people to weaponize their own racial biases and deprive innocent Georgians of their most basic liberties – freedom and life – which was saw with the horrendous murder of Ahmaud Arbery.

We are grateful to the bill sponsors for putting forth a full repeal of Georgia’s citizens arrest law and we hope this committee will see the great benefit of a full repeal as well. Along with the full repeal of citizens arrest, the bill also makes an important change to law by permitting certain individuals to effectuate detainments instead of arrests. The legal distinction between arrest and detain is an important one. To detain is to prevent from proceeding, while to arrest is to use legal authority to deprive a person of their freedom. Another important distinction between these two terms are the legal consequences- an arrest has graver legal consequences than a detainment. The standard to effectuate a detainment is also lower than that to effectuate an arrest.

Further, permitting private persons to make arrests is even more unnecessary today, as law enforcement officials have an immense amount of resources. In fact, our state spends a superfluous amount of money to fund law enforcement, spending nearly 5 billion dollars annually. I’d imagine it’d be hard, even for law enforcement, to justify a need for private citizens to take on their duties.

In the year since Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, his family and the Brunswick community have demonstrated their strength and their perseverance. The community came together to oust a dishonest and dangerous District Attorney. The community came together to elect a new District Attorney who has committed to ending the corruption that has run rampant in that office for years. The community has been pushing for much needed law enforcement reform, and just a few weeks ago the efforts of Ahmaud’s family and the Brunswick community led to the introduction of HB 479, and the committee hearing we’re at today.

The ACLU of Georgia supports House Bill 479, because it fully repeals the antiquated, racist, and dangerous citizens’ arrest law in Georgia. We believe it is in the best interest of this state and all Georgians to remove the ability for any private person to conduct an arrest.

In closing, for the constitutional promise of “We the people” to truly mean all people, we must dismantle and revise laws that contribute to systematic racism and that are harmful and unnecessary. House Bill 479 is a step in the right direction.

We must act now to ensure that nothing like Ahmaud Arbery’s murder ever happens again in our state and in doing so ensuring justice for Ahmaud.

Thank you.

Click to download a pdf version of this testimony.

Prepared Remarks on SB 202
Christopher Bruce, Political Director ACLU of Georgia 
Senate Ethics Committee 
March 3, 2021, 7:00 a.m.

Good morning Chairman Burns and Members of the Ethics Committee.

My name is Christopher Bruce, and I am the Political Director for the ACLU of Georgia. The ACLU of Georgia is a non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting the civil liberties of all Georgians; the right to vote is one of the most sacred civil liberties we have as Americans.

The ACLU of Georgia recognizes that the sponsors of this bill, SB 202, are attempting to ensure that those who receive absentee ballot applications are voters who, at the exact time they receive the application, could actually use it to request a ballot.

We share this desire. We understand that the futility in a voter receiving an absentee ballot application if they have already requested a ballot. And we further recognize that there’s no point to a county elections office receiving multiple applications for the same voter.

But we ask the committee not to pass this bill as written because it would impose a substantial burden on organizations and campaigns that encourage voter participation and civic engagement, while not being well-designed or proportional to the harms addressed.

First, we must specifically consider the harm NOT addressed. There is no evidence that voters who submit multiple absentee ballot applications receive multiple ballots. The state uses a centralized elections system to ensure that each ballot entry corresponds to a registered voter, and only one ballot entry is allowed — whether a voter submits two applications they received in the mail, or whether they use snail mail, email, or the absentee portal to submit multiple applications themselves without anyone’s help.

To put a fine point on it, the evidence shows that this bill is aimed at an annoyance, not at election integrity. We cannot let misinformation or imagination get in the way of that fact.

Second, even if this provision were implemented, enforcement will be extremely complicated due to various factors including inconsistencies in how counties update their absentee voter and registered voter information, as well as the ways in which this information is actually delivered to the public, including the purchase and delivery of voter rolls.

The notion that mailing lists for absentee ballot applications must continually be compared to the voter rolls and the absentee rolls sounds good in theory, but completely falls apart once the actual details of such a process are considered. We would encourage far deeper consideration of such details before a proposal like this is advanced.

Third, the organizations and campaigns that would be affected by this bill played an integral role this past cycle. During the 2020 General Election, 1.3 million Georgians voted absentee by mail — nearly 30% of the general election’s total voters. These voters were able to stay safe and help keep our polling locations from becoming COVID-19 hotspots because they voted absentee.

Many Georgians worked tirelessly to ensure that all of their neighbors had the option to vote safely and securely via absentee ballot. Because of the difficulties that these proposed changes would create for Georgians, the imposition of a stiff monetary penalty seems inequitable to the issue at hand. The definition of an “occurence” of a violation (line 30) within this bill is also vague and would lead to further compliance and enforcement headaches.

SB 202 attempts to address an annoyance for local elections offices, but seems to inadvertently create a cumbersome process that would interfere with important activity within our democracy and penalize Georgians who are just trying to encourage civic engagement in their communities. Creating hoops for these organizations to jump through, and then imposing monetary penalties when mistakes are made won’t remedy the logistical issues that motivated the creation of this bill.

We urge this committee to reject the bill as drafted for the aforementioned reasons. If this bill were to be improved, we would ask the committee 1) to consider removing the monetary penalty in favor of State Election Board discretionary enforcement, and 2) to require greater standardization in the ways that counties enter absentee information and how the public accesses this absentee information and our state’s voter rolls.

But we reiterate that we do not believe the harm being addressed by the proposal rises to the level of changing Georgia’s Elections Code. Operational process improvements and rulemaking bodies are better suited for this issue.

Thank you. I yield for any questions.

Click to download a pdf version of this testimony.

Prepared Remarks on Senate Bill 171
Christopher Bruce
Political Director, ACLU of Georgia
Georgia Senate Committee on Judiciary

Coverdell Legislative Office Building, 307
March 02, 2021, 9:00AM

My name is Christopher Bruce, and I am the Political Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. The ACLU of Georgia is an organization dedicated to protecting the civil liberties of all Georgians, and some of the most vital civil liberties to ensuring we have a free and fair democracy are the civil liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. The fight for freedom of speech has been a bedrock of the ACLU’s mission since the organization was founded in 1920.

Our fight to protect First Amendment rights was driven by the need to protect the constitutional rights of conscientious objectors and anti-war protesters. The organization’s work quickly spread to combating censorship, securing the right to assembly, and promoting free speech in schools. We have stood for these rights even when we did not agree with the speech and objected to the goals of the organization. Now, one of the gravest threats to the First Amendment are attempts to infringe on the constitutional rights to Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly and Petition- Senate Bill 171 infringes on those rights in a number of ways that are dangerous and should be of great concern to this committee.

Senate Bill 171 tramples the First Amendment, specifically lines 82-85 and lines 137-145 incentivize counties and municipalities to crack down on protests and/or prevent them from occurring in the first place, lines 123-125 punishes counties and municipalities from meaningfully reining in the police, and lines 106-110 encourages the dehumanization of, maiming of, and even murder of protesters among a variety of other concerning measures enshrined in the legislation.

SB 171 seeks to scare people into not exercising their First Amendment rights via lines 37-59, lines 75-76, which dramatically expands the scope of laws criminalizing unlawful assembly; lines 30-32 referring to simple battery, lines 77-81 in its reference to violence, lines 99-105 referring to highway obstruction, lines 201-208 referring to defacing public monuments which ratchets up penalties for unlawful  acts conducted during an unlawful assembly as defined in this proposed legislation; and SB 171 seeks to scare people into not exercising their First Amendment rights in lines 114-117 by implementing a broad and vague definition of unlawful assembly.

Throughout history, we have seen who suffers the gravest consequences when police are encouraged or permitted to take drastic responses in their interactions with civilians who are exercising their First Amendment rights especially in the context of civilians protesting for justice and equality, like we saw during the Racial Justice protests during the Summer of 2020 and like we saw during the Civil Rights Movement. Black and Brown civilians stand to suffer the greatest consequences if Senate Bill 171 is to become law.

The right to join with fellow citizens in protest or peaceful assembly is critical to a functioning democracy and at the core of the First Amendment.  As legislators, you all take an oath to uphold and defend the constitution and it is the hope of myself on behalf of the ACLU of Georgia and our members and supporters across the state, that this committee will not move forward with Senate Bill 171 as it is a grotesque attack on the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

Given the reasons I have detailed, I strongly urge this committee to stand up for the First Amendment and in doing so, to rethink passage of Senate Bill 171.

Thank you.

Click to download a pdf version of this testimony.

Prepared Remarks
Christopher Bruce –
Political Director, ACLU of Georgia Opposing HB 531
Anti-Voter Suppression Rally

March 1, 2021, 10AM Capitol Steps
Washington Street, Atlanta, GA

During the 2020 general election in Georgia, five million people cast their ballots and made their voices heard. But we have over 7.5 million registered voters in Georgia which means that even in the record turnout general election, around 2.5 million registered Georgians, or one out of three, did not make their voices heard. 

The story of the 2.5 million Georgians who did not cast ballots in the general election spans every region of our state but repeatedly goes untold. 

It is the story of Georgians who couldn’t take time off from work to vote.

It’s the story of Georgians who live too far away from the polls, particularly in the Black Belt region. 

It’s the story of Georgians who were entitled to provisional ballots at their polling location but denied access.

These are the stories that HB 531 ignores. The story of millions of Georgians whose silence is not willful–but the result of a system that continues to fail them.

What these Georgians require is expanded access to the ballot, and that should be the foremost goal of this legislature. 

Every eligible Georgian who wants to cast a ballot, to make their voice heard should be able to do so with ease. 

But HB 531 does not reflect that goal. 

At every turn, the bill erects new hurdles to access and guts much of Georgia’s existing voting infrastructure. It seeks only to widen that silence of 2.5 million voters by drastic increments.

20. That’s the number of days that HB 531 would delay the mailing of absentee ballots to Georgians who are seniors and physically disabled.

Over 20,000. During the general election and runoff, that’s the number of Georgians, disproportionately Black, who voted in-person by provisional ballot — ballots that HB 531 tries to throw out.

A quarter of a million. That’s how many Georgians voted on early voting days that HB 531 would cut.

Almost 4 million. That’s the number of absentee ballots cast last year in Georgia – applications and ballots that would carry sensitive personal information if HB 531 were to pass.

And over 30 million. That’s how many dollars local elections offices across our state would lose in grant funding as a result of HB 531.

One last number: 2. That’s the number of hours, generously speaking, that members of this legislature and the public had to review HB 531, now a 66-page bill, after it was introduced and before it was heard in committee.

That the bill is riddled with poorly-drafted, frequently redundant provisions lacking in any evidentiary basis was no surprise.

This wholesale overhaul of Georgia elections was introduced as hastily as it was written and does nothing to serve the 2.5 million Georgians whose voices went unheard last cycle. 

So, we have to ask: if HB 531 is not for the voters, then who is it for? 

Is it for a twice-impeached president who peddled nonstop lies and misinformation about the election, who tried to bully our top elections official into illegally throwing out ballots? 

Is it for the unethical lawyers on his team who bogged our judicial system down with dozens of frivolous lawsuits trying to overturn the election?

Or is HB 531 for the domestic terrorists who murdered police officers on Capitol Hill?

Because HB 531 is certainly not for Georgians, especially not Black and Brown Georgians who have spilled rivers of blood for centuries fighting for their right to vote. 

The choice is clear.

If our great state is to bridge a gap in voter access that is already too wide … we must stop HB 531.

The right to vote is too precious and too sacred to be thrown away in surrender to lies, conspiracy theories, and domestic terrorists.

So, let’s make sure that every elected official in this state hears our message loud and clear, today, and every day after.

Let Georgia Vote.

Thank you.

Click here to download a PDF of this speech.

Prepared Remarks
Christopher Bruce – Political Director, ACLU of Georgia
Senate Ethics Committee
February 25, 2021,  7:30 a.m.

Good morning Chairman Burns and Members of the Ethics Committee. My name is Christopher Bruce, and I am the Political Director for the ACLU of Georgia. The ACLU of Georgia is a non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting the civil liberties of all Georgians; the right to vote is one of the most sacred civil liberties we have as Americans.

Georgia realized unprecedented voter turnout during the 2020 election cycle as millions of Georgians were able to safely and securely cast their ballots while a global pandemic plagued our state. But instead of helping more Georgians access the ballot, Senate Bill 241 creates significant barriers to the ballot box in Georgia. We urge this committee to table this legislation, which has the potential to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters across our state.

First, this bill deeply harms the right to vote in Georgia by requiring Georgians to provide one of a narrow set of excuses in order to vote absentee by mail. Over 1.3 million Georgians voted by absentee ballot during the general election, as did 1.1 million during the runoff. Making absentee-by-mail voting available only to those who fulfill one of the 6 official criteria excludes eligible voters who, without absentee options, may not otherwise be able to cast a ballot. Lack of readily accessible transportation, the demands of a job, family emergencies, geographical challenges all limit one’s access to the polls. For Georgians contending with these hurdles, absentee voting is not just a convenience but a necessity.  The bottom line is simple: during the 2020 General Election, nearly 30% of votes were cast via absentee by mail voting. If SB 241 were to pass, many of those Georgians would be barred from using their preferred voting method.

Georgians have been able to cast absentee ballots by mail, without having to provide an excuse, for over 15 years. This places Georgia amongst the supermajority of states in the nation (34 + DC) that allow their citizens to access no-excuse absentee by mail voting as a right.[1] Why do the voters of Georgia suddenly need a government permission slip in order to exercise their right to cast an absentee ballot?

Second, SB 241 creates an unnecessary hurdle by requiring voters to have a witness signature on their absentee ballot. The goal of this provision is to solve a problem that does not exist. An audit by the GBI of over 15,000 absentee ballots found exactly zero cases of fraud or voter impersonation. What then is the function of requiring a chaperone to vote absentee?

Barely any states require voters to have a witness signature in order to cast an absentee ballot.[2] And in those states (11 total) the measure has caused significant harm to voters and has done nothing to increase elections security. Wherever this misguided policy has been implemented, failure to include a witness signature is routinely a top reason that absentee ballots are rejected. [3]

This not only created a hurdle for voters; it also burdened counties and municipalities with the cost and labor of notifying voters of their ballot rejection. The burden is obvious. The benefit is not.

One state elections official captured it plainly last year during the pandemic, stating “That witness signature doesn’t do a lot for us, and it does a lot of harm to voters.”[4] This bill would have Georgia adopt what is clearly a worst practice in voting.

Third, on top of requiring a government permission slip and a chaperone to vote absentee, the bill continues its assault on absentee voting by creating a Kinko’s rule, requiring a photocopy of a personal ID with every single absentee ballot. Not only is this an extreme burden to place on Georgia voters, a large number of whom do not have a scanner/printer/copier at home, but this also creates a situation in which every single absentee ballot would contain sensitive personal information. If such a rule had applied to each absentee voter in Georgia, this past cycle, over 4 million photocopies of personal identification would have been floating around, needlessly.

42% of absentee voters in the general election and 47% of absentee voters in the runoff were age 66 and older. The rollover absentee list this past cycle reached nearly 600,000 voters, all of whom are Georgians who are either physically disabled, senior citizens, or both. When senior citizens and those who are disabled are more likely to be targeted for identity theft, to force all of these voters to make copies of their ID every time they vote absentee is not only incredibly burdensome, but also deeply dangerous policy.

These proposals to add massive hurdles to absentee balloting in Georgia fail to recognize that a global pandemic continues to affect communities all over Georgia and that absentee ballots, undoubtedly, saved lives this past election cycle. Instead of recognizing that absentee ballots kept voters safe while COVID-19 killed more than 15,000 of our fellow Georgians and half-a-million of our fellow Americans, this bill would force voters to risk their lives in order to cast their ballots, making it nearly impossible for Georgians to utilize the safest option to vote–absentee-by-mail.

The barriers imposed by this bill directly disenfranchise our most vulnerable citizens, and create overwhelming burdens for poll workers and voters alike. We strongly urge this committee to reject the bill as drafted.

Thank you. I yield for any questions.

[1] VOPP: Table 1: States with No-Excuse Absentee Voting
For domestic voters wishing to vote absentee or by mail, 16 states require voters to provide an “excuse” for why they will not be able to vote on Election Day. Some of these states do provide early in-person voting. The other 34 states and Washington, D.C., do not require an excuse from those who wish to vote absentee or by mail. Five states conduct elections entirely by mail (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington), which means voters do not need to request a ballot, and instead automatically receive one. The other 29 states and D.C. offer “no-excuse” absentee voting, which means any voter can request a mail ballot without providing an excuse.

[2] VOPP: Table 14: How States Verify Voted Absentee Ballots

[3] With Black voters accounting for a disproportionate number of those rejections. Voters struggling with witness rules in early voting ( Wisconsin rejected over 14,000 ballots in one primary election due to voters not having a witness signature on their ballot.

[4] South Carolina State Election Commission Spokesman Chris Whitmire; Voters struggling with witness rules in early voting, Associated Press, September 25, 2020
Click here to download a PDF of this statement.

Prepared Remarks 
Christopher Bruce – Political Director, ACLU of Georgia
Georgia House Higher Education Committee
Georgia State Capitol, Room 341
February 19, 2021,  9:00 a.m.

Good morning.

My name is Christopher Bruce, and I am the Political Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today about HB 1. House Bill 1 is nearly identical to two bills this committee worked on during the 2020 Legislative Session-. Those were House Bill 995 and Senate Bill 318. I want to thank Chairman Martin and this committee for your hard work to address the very grave and valid concerns with those bills, and it is my hope that the committee will do that with House Bill 1.

The ACLU of Georgia OPPOSES HB 1 [LC 49 0277 ]. Although we have a variety of concerns with House Bill 1, I will focus on one of our concerns in particular as this section of the bill would permit state-sanctioned discrimination at our public colleges and universities.

This bill, as currently worded, would roll out the red carpet for student organizations at Georgia’s PUBLIC colleges and universities to discriminate in their membership and leadership. This provision was addressed in changes this committee made last legislative session, and again, I’m hoping the committee will rectify the concerns with this provision in House Bill 1.

Specifically, I’m referring to [Section 20-1-33 (e); lines 130-137].

Currently, the University System of Georgia and many of Georgia’s public colleges and universities have policies that prevent student organizations from discriminating in their membership and/or leadership. These policies are designed to protect the civil rights and civil liberties of students regardless of whether those students are a federally protected class. Nondiscrimination policies promote equal protection under the law for all students at Georgia’s public colleges and universities. AND these policies foster an open, safe, and invigorating environment in which students can learn and grow while attending the state’s public colleges and universities, institutions that are among the best in the nation.

Current policy allows public colleges and universities to withdraw official recognition and funding of student organizations if they are found to discriminate on the basis of sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, color, age, gender, gender identity or expression, marital status, citizenship, sexual orientation, or disability.

But the passage of HB 1 would permit — and even sanction — discrimination under the guise of the First Amendment. In particular, Section 20-1-33 (e)  lines 130-137 of the bill would prevent Georgia’s public institutions of higher education from withdrawing funding and other benefits for certain student organizations even in the case of membership-based discrimination. This language severely undermines the important policy currently in place, opens the door for widespread discrimination within our state’s public colleges and universities, and essentially forces public institutions to condone discrimination at the expense of vulnerable students and taxpayers.

Students at our public universities maintain their right to freedom of expression, and University anti-discrimination policies do not violate the First Amendment. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez that public colleges and universities are within their rights to require student organizations seeking school recognition and funding to adhere to the school’s non-discrimination policy as long as the policy is applied equally.

But HB 1 seeks to circumvent that ruling and the University nondiscrimination policies currently in place. By alleging that the act of withdrawing funding and recognition from discriminatory student organizations is discrimination in and of itself, this bill twists, obscures, and ultimately contradicts the true purpose of non-discrimination policies. Section 20-1-33 (e) lines 130-137 of the bill attempts to put the sheep’s clothing of free speech over the wolf of discriminatory conduct.

HB 1 would have a chilling effect on the important protections Georgia’s public colleges and universities have to bar discrimination. The American ideals of free speech must never be used as a sword for discrimination.

The ACLU of Georgia believes this legislation is unnecessary and that this committee should not pass this legislation. At the very least, this committee must revise the aforementioned section. Thank you.

Click here to download a PDF of this statement.

Prepared Remarks on HB 127
Vasu Abhiraman – Policy Counsel, ACLU of Georgia
Energy, Utilities, and Telecommunications Committee
February 9, 2021, 3:00 p.m.

Good afternoon, Chairman Parsons and Members of the Committee. My name is Vasu Abhiraman, and I am the Policy Counsel for the ACLU of Georgia. The ACLU of Georgia is an organization dedicated to protecting the civil liberties of all Georgians, including the fundamental right to privacy safeguarded by our state and federal constitutions. I am testifying today on behalf of the ACLU of Georgia in opposition to H.B. 127. Although we agree with the important safety goals of the legislation, we oppose the bill in its current form, because it lacks sufficient safeguards against abuse.

Under current Georgia law, law enforcement must generally get a warrant to access cell phone location information. Wireless service suppliers can, however, voluntarily provide location information to law enforcement without a warrant when the service supplier reasonably believes that there is an emergency.

H.B. 127 in its current form would require service suppliers to disclose their customers’ location information to any law enforcement official who asserts that an emergency situation exists. The tragedy that gave rise to this legislation was truly terrible, and we all want to ensure that law enforcement can quickly access cell phone location information to avoid such tragic outcomes. Current law, however, already allows service suppliers to quickly and effectively assist law enforcement while preventing abuse that could jeopardize the safety of others.

Today, service suppliers are well equipped to quickly and efficiently respond to emergency requests by law enforcement. In the first half of 2020, the nation’s two largest service providers—AT&T and Verizon—processed over 97,000 emergency requests for information. These and the other service providers maintain large law enforcement compliance teams that operate around the clock, responding to requests at any hour in order to help avoid tragedies like the one that gave rise to this bill. This process has only continued to be refined and improved in recent years.

Service supplier discretion is an important check against false or overzealous invocations of emergencies by law enforcement agencies who want to gather evidence without getting a warrant. This discretion also allows service suppliers to vet requests from criminals and stalkers who impersonate law enforcement to get the location information of current or potential victims. As written, service suppliers would be required to honor requests without any documentation of the emergency and would not face any consequences if the information was later abused by law enforcement or law enforcement impersonators.

Effective privacy safeguards can coexist with speedy emergency request procedures without interfering with law enforcement’s important job of protecting the public. The ACLU of Georgia therefore puts the following recommendations before the Committee.

First, the Committee should simply preserve the existing system, which allows service suppliers to assist law enforcement in emergency situations but keeps important safety valves in place to protect customer privacy. Current law in Georgia mirrors the standard in federal law, which has proved effective when emergencies arise.

Second, should the Committee move forward with H.B. 127, it should add protections for customer privacy. Law enforcement should be required to get after-the fact approval from a judge, so that a neutral decision-maker can ensure that the claimed emergency was genuine. In cases where the emergency was not genuine, any evidence obtained through the request should be suppressed and a significant civil remedy should exist for those affected.

Third, law enforcement should be required to give after-the-fact notice to any person whose location information was obtained in order to allow that person to seek redress if law enforcement violated the law or learn if someone may have impersonated an officer to illegally obtain information.

Fourth, law enforcement should be required to document and retain all requests for location information made under the statute.

Fifth, the language in Section 2, part (b) should make clear that law enforcement must have “probable cause” to believe that an emergency exists. A probable cause standard will help ensure that sensitive location records are obtained only when there is good reason to believe an emergency situation exists.

The same features of cell phone location information that make it useful to law enforcement are also exactly why the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that such information is protected by the Fourth Amendment. Cell phone location information can invade reasonable expectations of privacy by laying bare some of the most sensitive aspects of our lives: when we are at home, where we spend the night, where we worship, which doctors or psychiatrists we visit, and more. We therefore urge the committee to reject the bill as drafted. Thank you, and I look forward to answering any questions the committee may have.

Click to download a PDF version of this statement. 

Prepared Remarks on HB 270
Christopher Bruce – Political Director, ACLU of Georgia
Special Committee on Election Integrity
February 4, 2021, 11:30 a.m.

Good afternoon Chairman Fleming and Members of the Special Committee. My name is Chris Bruce and I am the Political Director for the ACLU of Georgia. The ACLU of Georgia is an organization dedicated to protecting the civil liberties of all Georgians and the right to vote is one of the most sacred civil liberties we have.

HB 270 would significantly limit absentee-by-mail voting throughout the State of Georgia by creating a ban on the issuance and mailing of absentee ballots within the 10 days prior to an election. We urge this committee to not pass this bill as currently drafted.

Under this bill, it seems that absentee ballot applications would have to be received, at the latest, 11 days, or by the second to last Friday, before Election Day. But rather than creating a new deadline for applications to be received, this bill restricts the issuance of absentee ballots. The current proposal lacks clarity on a major question: What happens to unfulfilled absentee ballot requests that were received, properly, just before the ballot issuance deadline?

This proposal fails to include any type of grace period in which elections offices could legally issue and mail the remaining ballots for applications that are received before the deadline.

We recognize that the current absentee-by-mail application system can strain election offices and create challenges for voters who apply for their ballots last-minute. An absentee ballot application received the Friday before an election has little chance of being properly issued and mailed prior to Election Day. A bill aimed at this underlying issue could move the absentee application deadline back a few days, without affecting the ability of elections offices to issue a ballot in response to a properly executed application received by the deadline. However, moving the application deadline back at least a whole week, through the mechanism of banning the issuance of ballots within ten days of Election Day, is excessive and may create an unintended burden on election offices and voters.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, fewer than ten states in our country force their voters to adhere to such an early deadline for absentee applications. Georgia would be following the minority of states and could potentially disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters if this bill is adopted.

Voters who can credibly expect to receive an absentee ballot that is mailed within the ten day period prior to Election Day, such as voters whose ballots are mailed to another location within the county, should not be disallowed from having their absentee application request fulfilled within that period. Furthermore, voters who find themselves in an emergency situation that would necessitate absentee voting, such as last minute hospitalization or travel, should be allowed to request an absentee ballot in the days nearing the election.  

In the ten days before the general election in November and the runoff election in January, 34,313 Georgians not only requested absentee ballots, but voted them successfully and made their voices heard. Chairman Fleming, you may be interested to know that hundreds of voters in (423) McDuffie and Columbia were included in the democratic process of electing representatives like you because they were issued ballots within this critical 10-day period. 

During this same period in Houston County, over one thousand voters (1,031) were issued absentee ballots AND successfully returned them during the general and runoff elections. In Muscogee County over one thousand voters (1,004) were issued absentee ballots and cast their ballots during this time. In Baldwin County, hundreds of (290) voters during this period were issued absentee ballots and returned them successfully.

In summary, this bill has the potential to disenfranchise a significant number of voters due to its lack of administrative clarity and overreaching timeline adjustments. We urge this committee to reject the bill as drafted. As always, we are happy to share this data so we can help draft the best policy for Georgians to vote.

Click to download a PDF version of this statement. 

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