Georgia state lawmaker arrested after protesting GOP-sponsored voting restriction bill outside Gov. Kemp’s office

ATLANTA — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp drew protests Thursday as he signed into law a sweeping Republican-sponsored overhaul of state elections that includes new restrictions on voting by mail and greater legislative control over how elections are run.

Democrats and voting rights groups say the law will disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color. It is one of a wave of GOP-backed election bills introduced in states around the country after former President Donald Trump stoked false claims that fraud led to his 2020 election defeat.

President Joe Biden called such GOP efforts “un-American” and “sick” during a news conference Thursday. And a group of voter mobilization groups filed a lawsuit late Thursday in federal court in Atlanta challenging the new law.

As Kemp delivered his remarks he was interrupted by a commotion before a livestream of the event cut out.

Democratic state Rep. Park Cannon, who is Black, was arrested by Capitol police amid a protest after knocking on the door of the governor’s office during his remarks.

Rep. Park Cannon (D-Atlanta) is escorted out of the Georgia Capitol Building by Georgia State Troopers after being asked to stop knocking on a door that lead to Gov. Brian Kemp's office while Gov. Kemp was signing SB 202 behind closed doors at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta on March 25, 2021. (Photo: Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, via AP)

Video captured by a bystander shows Cannon, who is handcuffed with her arms behind her back, being forcibly removed from the Capitol by two officers, one on each arm. She says “where are you taking me?” and “stop” as she is taken from the building.

Cannon was charged with felony obstruction of law enforcement, punishable by one to five years in prison, and with disrupting a session of the General Assembly. She was released late Thursday night.

The Republican changes to voting laws in Georgia follow record-breaking turnout that led to Democratic victories in the presidential contest and two U.S. Senate runoffs in the once reliably red state.

The bill passed the state House 100-75 earlier Thursday, before the state Senate quickly agreed to House changes 34-20. Republicans in the legislature were in support, while Democrats were opposed.

Rep. Barry Fleming receives a hug from Rep. Lynn Smith, R-Newnan, after a bill he sponsored, SB 202, passed in the House Chambers in a legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Photo: Alyssa Pointer, AP)

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler said the bill was filled with “voter suppression tactics.”

“We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we’ve seen since the Jim Crow era,” Butler added.

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Democratic Rep. Rhonda Burnough said the bill was based on lies told by Republicans after last November’s election.

“Georgians turned out in record-breaking numbers because they could access the ballot,” Burnough said. “Lies upon lies were told about our elections in response, and now this bill is before us built on those same lies.”

What’s in the bill

Among highlights, the bill would require a photo ID in order to vote absentee by mail, after more than 1.3 million Georgia voters used that option during the COVID-19 pandemic. It also would cut the time period people have to request an absentee ballot and limit where ballot drop boxes can be placed and when they can be accessed.

Republican Rep. Jan Jones said the provisions cutting the time people have to request an absentee ballot are meant to “increase the likelihood of a voter’s vote being cast successfully,” after concerns were raised in 2020 about mail ballots not being received by counties in time to be counted.

One of the biggest changes would give the GOP-controlled legislature more control over election administration, a change that has raised concerns among voting rights groups that it could lead to greater partisan influence.

The bill would replace the elected secretary of state as the chair of the state election board with a new appointee of the legislature after Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger rebuffed Trump’s attempts to overturn Georgia’s election results. It also would allow the board to remove and replace county election officials deemed to be underperforming.

Rep. Park Cannon, D-Atlanta, applauds as Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, speaks in opposition of SB 202 in the House Chambers during a legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Photo: Alyssa Pointer, AP)

That provision is widely seen as something that could be used to target Fulton County, a Democratic stronghold covering most of Atlanta, which came under fire after long lines plagued primary elections over the summer.

Republican Rep. Barry Fleming, a driving force in crafting the bill, said that provision would only be a “temporary fix, so to speak, that ends and the control is turned back over to the locals after the problems are resolved.”

The bill also reduces the timeframe in which runoff elections are held, including the amount of early voting for runoffs. And it would bar outside groups from handing out food or water to people standing in line to vote.

The bill does not contain some of the more contentious proposals floated by Republicans earlier in the session, including limits on early voting on Sundays, a popular day for Black churchgoers to vote in “souls to the polls” events. It would instead mandate two Saturdays of early voting ahead of general elections, when only one is currently mandatory, and leave two Sundays as optional.

Opponents rally against bill

African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Reginald Jackson announces a boycott of Coca-Cola Co. products outside the Georgia Capitol on Thursday, March 25, 2021 in Atlanta. Jackson says Coca-Cola and other large Georgia companies haven't done enough to oppose restrictive voting bills that Georgia lawmakers were debating as Jackson spoke (AP Photo/Jeff Amy) (Photo: Jeff Amy, AP)

But such changes haven’t tempered opposition from Democrats or voting rights groups.

About 50 protesters including representatives from the NAACP gathered across from the Capitol building Thursday in opposition to the bill.

During the rally, Bishop Reginald Jackson of the African Methodist Episcopal Church called for a boycott of Coca-Cola Co. products.

Jackson, who leads more than 400 churches across Georgia, said the Atlanta-based soft drink company had failed to live up to the commitments it made last year to support the Black Lives Matter movement by not forcefully opposing the voting bills pushed by Republicans.

“We took them at his word,” he said of Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey. “Now, when they try to pass this racist legislation, we can’t get him to say anything.”

Jackson said boycotts also were possible against other large locally based companies such as Delta Air Lines and Home Depot.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce pushed against some proposals Republicans later dropped, including eliminating no-excuse absentee voting. But the business lobbies and top Atlanta corporations have not vocally opposed all changes.

Associated Press writer Jeff Amy contributed to this report.

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