STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A Republican effort to restrict voting in Georgia is slowly becoming less extreme. After Republicans lost the state in the 2020 election, lawmakers are considering bills that impose new limits on early voting and mail voting. But under fierce criticism, some of those provisions are changing. One of the most notable involves Sunday voting. A bill in Georgia's House of Representatives originally eliminated early voting on Sundays, which would endanger events by Black churchgoers, known as Souls to the Polls. When we called the bishop of Georgia's African Methodist Episcopal Church, we got an earful.
REGINALD JACKSON: I would remind you that all of this is based on a lie - or what they call now the big lie - by the former liar in chief.
INSKEEP: Bishop Reginald Jackson oversees more than 500 churches across Georgia. His wife, Christy Davis Jackson, oversees church missionary work. They both spoke with us last week as the proposals were beginning to change.
JACKSON: We gather in our churches on Sunday morning. You have morning worship. And then after the service, you get on the church buses, church vans, get in cars and people go to vote. It's a very effective way the Black church has of getting out our vote.
INSKEEP: That Sunday sermon doesn't say, vote for candidate X.
JACKSON: Absolutely not. The goal is to get people to vote. We don't tell them how to vote. But we are encouraging them to vote.
INSKEEP: Christy Jackson, when there is a Souls to the Polls event, are you present in one church or another?
CHRISTY DAVIS JACKSON: I am. So generally speaking, in most African American churches, the majority of the population, the congregants, are women. We make up probably 70% to 80% of most churches. And most of those women are missionaries in one way or another. And so I'll be there to align myself with one of the Souls to the Polls. And what's really interesting - the Souls to the Polls has a direct link back to Jim Crow. When we were fighting for the right to vote, it became something that gave us comfort, to go in a group. They might just be community members who get on the bus knowing that they have sort of a safe transport, if you will, to the polls.
INSKEEP: We spoke with Republican state Senator Larry Walker of Georgia, who is a sponsor of one of the many voting bills, and I'd like you to hear some of what he said.
LARRY WALKER: I am concerned that there are situations where there is sort of mass voting events, where there's undue influence exerted on the voter, and people are assisting them to fill out their ballot. So the Souls to the Polls idea, that's where I would have some concerns.
INSKEEP: What do you think of what Senator Walker said?
DAVIS JACKSON: I'm disappointed in Senator Walker for saying that. Is he supposing some type of fraudulent activity on a group of parishioners, congregants, that they can't make up their own mind? Is he saying this after three audits - three audits - of our voting system and the general election vote in the state of Georgia?
JACKSON: Steve, it's even more troubling than that because the fact of the matter is, to make that kind of a statement assumes that nobody in the state of Georgia or nobody in the United States helps anybody to vote. You have people who assist somebody filling out their ballot or, in fact, somebody who might say - 'cause there are people who say to me as their pastor, Pastor, who do you think is the best one I should vote for? That's a common, ordinary thing. And it's not like somebody puts a gun to their head and says, you got to vote for this. No, that's nonsense. And to say or to suppose that doesn't happen in the white community is also nonsensical.
INSKEEP: Bishop Reginald Jackson and his wife and colleague Christy Davis Jackson spoke with us from separate locations in Georgia.
Now, since the first proposal to eliminate Sunday voting, the measure has been softened in the Legislature in Georgia, and it's expected to change again today. Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting is following the story. Stephen, good morning.
STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: How is the bill changing?
FOWLER: So, Steve, the beginning of the bill, when it was introduced, as you mentioned, would get rid of Sunday voting effectively, by making all of Georgia's 159 counties, big and small, have the same early voting days and hours. Then the House restored some of the changes but made it a little bit tricky because counties could pick between one Saturday or one Sunday. People didn't like that - including the Jacksons, by the way - and said that a lot of Republican counties might not choose to have that extra weekend voting hour, and it would limit bigger counties from having more options.
This new version of the legislation that should be discussed today comes from the House Special Committee on Election Integrity. This would require counties to actually expand early voting access, having two Saturdays of early voting that are mandatory and giving counties the option of being open on Sundays.
INSKEEP: OK, so counties can choose. Counties might still choose not to have Sunday voting. But the options are broadening. Why are Republicans changing?
FOWLER: Well, there has been a lot of pushback. Obviously, Democrats and voting rights groups have called these bills Jim Crow in a suit and tie. They say it disproportionately impacts Black voters in particular. But also, the business community in Georgia has gotten involved, with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce saying that they don't necessarily support bills that harm voter access. And Georgia is a battleground state in 2020, and 2022 is probably poised to be no different, so there are some Republicans that don't want to have this next to their name.
INSKEEP: Don't want to be criticized by voters and maybe punished by voters for limiting voting. But we should note, this matter of Sunday voting is just one of many, many provisions on the table with many bills that we've been listening to your reporting about. So what else is evolving in this legislation?
FOWLER: Well, the Senate originally passed a bill that would get rid of no-excuse absentee voting, which we've had for about 15 years. That no longer is on the table. This bill does impose some new restrictions, like adding an ID requirement to absentee voting and limiting where drop boxes can go. But this is definitely a walk-back from some of the most contentious provisions, Steve.
INSKEEP: Well, are the critics of these bills any more satisfied?
FOWLER: Well, yes and no. They still say that it makes it harder for Georgians.
INSKEEP: Stephen, thanks for the update. Really appreciate it.
FOWLER: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting, who's covering elections in that vital state.
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