A key committee in the Republican-controlled Georgia legislature on Wednesday made a surprise move and began work on a massive new voting bill that would give the state broad powers over local election officials, set limits on weekend early voting and add voter ID requirements for absentee ballots.

Word of a new 93-page bill came about an hour before a scheduled hearing of a special election integrity committee in the Georgia House, and it set off outrage from voting rights activists who called it a “disgraceful” bait-and-switch tactic.

“They are attacking voting rights from every single angle,” Hillary Holley of Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group, said in a hastily arranged news conference.

Earlier in the day, the committee’s public agenda had described the hearing as centered on a two-page bill, dealing narrowly with absentee voting provisions — only to substitute it with the sweeping bill.

The unexpected move comes as the Georgia legislature hurtles toward the scheduled March 31 conclusion of its legislative session. The new package incorporates elements of other controversial voting bills that have already passed the state House and Senate — along with several new measures.

Some voting-rights activists singled out for criticism a provision that would give any Georgian the right to challenge the eligibility of an unlimited number of voters. In the run-up to the January 5 Senate runoff elections, groups, such as the conservative organization True the Vote, sought to cast doubts of the eligibility of hundreds of thousands of Georgia voters.

“This is inviting people to interfere with the rights of voters,” Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, said of the language in the new bill. “This is so reminiscent of any White person being able to say, ‘That Black person can’t vote.’ ”

Georgia GOP state Rep. Barry Fleming, who oversees the committee and is guiding voting bills in Georgia House, did not immediately respond to a CNN request for comment.

But during Wednesday’s session, he said fellow lawmakers would have the chance to “discuss and ask questions” about the bill. “The committee will make the ultimate decision about what we do or don’t do,” he added. His committee is slated to resume work Thursday.

Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature has been at the forefront of efforts to set new limits on voting nationwide, following a barrage of false claims by former President Donald Trump that fraud led to his election loss last November.

There is no evidence of widespread fraud that would have changed the election outcome, and prosecutors in Fulton County, Georgia, are investigating Trump’s attempt to sway officials in the state.

Georgia’s changing demographics have made the longtime Republican stronghold a key political battleground. Last November, President Joe Biden became the first Democrat in nearly three decades to win the state. And strong voter turnout in January helped send two Democrats to the US Senate, flipping control of the chamber to their party. One of those new senators, Raphael Warnock, captured his seat in a special election and will be on the ballot again in 2022.

The preamble to the new bill said changes are needed to address the “lack of elector confidence in the election system.”

The bill makes broad changes to how elections are administered and how and when voters can receive and cast their ballots. Under the proposal, for instance, voters would have to request absentee ballots 11 days before an election, rather than the Friday before Election Day as currently allowed. And voters who seek absentee ballots would have to provide a copy of their identification or the number of their Georgia’s driver’s license or state ID.

It’s not clear which of the bills under consideration in Georgia are likely to pass and head to the desk of the state’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. In an email, Kaleb McMichen, a spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston said it’s “premature” to assume the bill that landed today “will be the final bill or that this would be the final version.”

State Representative Barry Fleming, Chairman of the Special Committee on Election Integrity, R-Harlem, stands at the back of the House Chambers inside the Georgia State Capitol. Fleming sponsored House Bill 531. (Photo: Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice)

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