A federal judge has extended the time Georgia election officials can accept absentee ballots if they are received up to three days after the general election on Nov. 3.
In a ruling Monday, Judge Eleanor Ross of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia ordered that mail-in ballots that are postmarked by Election Day must be counted if they arrive by 7 p.m. on Nov. 6, which is within three days of the original deadline.
The ruling looks to calm some fears of absentee voting reliability amid an expected slow delivery by the U.S. Postal Service and huge numbers of mail-in ballots in Georgia and across the country due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Extending the deadline would ensure that voters who receive their ballots shortly before Election Day are able to mail their ballots without feat that their vote will not count,” Ross wrote in her 70-page ruling.
Ross’s decision stems from a lawsuit filed in May by the voter registration group New Georgia Project against Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger that aimed to have the absentee acceptance deadline extended beyond 7 p.m. on Election Day.
The judge agreed the mail-in acceptance deadline should be extended but dismissed other claims sought in the lawsuit, including bids to make postage free for absentee ballots and to mail absentee applications to all registered Georgia voters, as occurred for the June 9 primary.
Plaintiffs had also asked for the receipt deadline to be extended by five days, which the judge shortened to three days in her ruling.
More than 7,200 absentee ballots were rejected from among roughly 1.1 million cast in the June primary due to being received after the 7 p.m. Election Day deadline, Ross’s ruling noted.
With many more Georgians expected to vote by mail in the upcoming general election, Ross wrote that “the burden on many voters will be severe” if absentee ballots that arrive shortly after the strict Election Day deadline are rejected.
“The court notes it is reluctant to interfere with Georgia’s statutory election machinery,” Ross wrote. “However, where the risk of disenfranchisement is great, as is the case here, narrowly tailored injunctive relief is appropriate.”
The ruling was immediately hailed by Georgia Democratic leaders, who touted the extended deadline as a boost for voter access ahead of the troubled and pivotal general election that will see presidential, U.S. Senate, congressional and statehouse contests on the ballot.
“Today’s decision is a huge victory for Georgia voters, and a huge win in the fight for every vote to be counted,” said Georgia Democratic Party Chairwoman and state Sen. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta. “All Georgians deserve to have their voice heard, and in the midst of a global pandemic, it is the responsibility of our democracy to make voting by mail and early voting options as accessible as possible.”
Raffensperger’s office plans to appeal the ruling over concerns the extended deadline would hinder the ability of local election officials to process ballots in a timely manner, said Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs.
“Extending the absentee ballot receipt deadline is a bad idea that will make it nearly impossible for election officials to complete their required post-election tasks in the timeline that is required by law,” Fuchs said Monday.
Monday’s court ruling came as Raffensperger’s office launched a new online portal for Georgia voters to request absentee ballots via the internet rather than asking for one by mail or at county election offices.
Raffensperger’s office is now pushing to recruit more poll workers for the general election after a shortage during the June primary contributed to long lines and technical know-how issues with the state’s new voting machines.
Help is on the way for low-income Georgia families whose young children attend public schools that are holding classes virtually amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the state Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) announced Monday.
Around $17 million from state-administered federal aid is being set aside for child-care scholarships to help eligible low-income parents either working or in school pay for child-care services during the school day.
“If families are eligible, they will receive a scholarship to help pay for on-site support and supervision of their children engaged in virtual instruction during the school day while parents work,” said DECAL Commissioner Amy Jacobs. “This is a win-win for school-age children as well as Georgia’s licensed child-care providers who have been largely devastated by this pandemic but have continued to step up for families in their time of need.”
To be eligible, a family’s income must not exceed 85% of the state median annual income, roughly $44,000 for a single parent with one child or just under $65,000 for a family of four.
A child must also be enrolled in a Georgia school district that is only offering virtual learning. Only children ages 5-12 will qualify. Parents must also be working, attending school or both.
Scholarship funds can be used to pay for child care, supervision and other support during the school day while parents are away at work or in school and their children are taking online classes.
Funds can be used at licensed child-care learning centers, family child-care learning homes and providers with an approved day-camp exemption. The state keeps a searchable list of licensed child-care facilities at www.qualityrated.org.
The scholarship application period starts Sept. 1. Families who qualify will be covered under the scholarship for three months and can seek an extension if virtual classes last longer than three months.
As of last Friday, 42 school districts in Georgia have chosen to hold virtual-only classes to start the 2020-21 school year amid the ongoing pandemic, including several districts in metro Atlanta and some rural counties, according to a list provided by the state.
With many students returning to class in August, state officials have left it to local school districts whether to hold classes in person or start off with virtual learning.
The state Department of Education released guidelines over the summer to help local districts decide how to hold classes in the fall via a mix of in-person classes and online instruction options.
In a statement Monday, Gov. Brian Kemp hailed the child-care scholarship as a way to help many families struggling from the economic fallout of coronavirus as they try to hold down jobs and maintain steady schooling options for their children.
“These are challenging times for our state, but we will continue to work around the clock to support our students and teachers, improve outcomes and get people back to work,” Kemp said.
ATLANTA – Another poll shows President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden running neck and neck in Georgia.
A survey of 782 Georgia voters conducted Aug. 24-25 by Public Policy Polling, a North-Carolina based Democratic polling firm, found Biden holding a slim lead over Trump, 47% to 46%. However, that was well within the poll’s margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.5%.
Biden’s strong showing was largely due to his support among self-identified independent voters. He held a 26-point advantage among that group, 56% to 30%.
Other Georgia polls in recent weeks have shown similar results.
Broken down by age, Trump is dominating among older Georgia voters, while Biden leads among younger voters. Trump leads Biden 56% to 41% among voters over 65, while Biden is ahead among voters under the age of 45, 49% to 40%.
Biden holds a narrower lead of 46% to 40% among voters between 46 and 65.
With the coronavirus pandemic making many Georgians reluctant to stand in a voting line on Election Day, only 27% of voters surveyed said they plan to vote in person on Nov. 3. A small plurality of voters showed a preference for early voting over voting by mail, 35% to 30%.
The poll found a strong correlation between how voters plan to cast their ballot and their preferred candidate. Trump was the choice of 75% of voters who plan to vote on Election Day, while Biden scored 72% support among those planning to vote by mail.
Early voters were more evenly divided, with 53% supporting Trump and 46% favoring Biden.
Black voters are much more likely to vote by mail, according to the poll. While 45% of Black voters expressed a preference for mailing in their ballots, only 18% of white voters said they plan to vote by mail.
The poll was commissioned by Fair Fight, the voting rights group founded by Stacey Abrams after she lost the 2018 gubernatorial election to Brian Kemp.
Top Republican candidates in Georgia vying to fill former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term in the U.S. Senate rolled out big-name backers on the campaign trail this week ahead of the Nov. 3 special election.
U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to the seat in January following Isakson’s retirement, launched a second statewide tour set to feature Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.
She held a campaign rally in Marietta Friday with Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr and Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., joined her for a private event earlier in the day, campaign staff said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, campaigned in Alpharetta and Gainesville Friday with 6th Congressional District Republican nominee Karen Handel, retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s attorney Sidney Powell and former Georgia First Lady Sandra Deal.
Former Gov. Nathan Deal attended the rally in Gainesville but did not make a formal endorsement of Collins.
Still, the presence of Deal evoked tension in the Georgia Republican Party sparked by the Senate race with the appearance of a former governor lined up against Kemp, who tapped Loeffler to hold Isakson’s seat until the special election.
The campaigns of Loeffler and Collins have lobbed grenades at each other in recent months through attack ads and social-media messages as each tries to woo Republican voters while several Democratic challengers, including party frontrunner Rev. Raphael Warnock, wait in the wings.
Recently, though, the two Republican campaigns have each stepped up efforts to cast themselves as the race’s staunchest conservative candidate while trumpeting support for President Donald Trump, particularly amid this week’s Republican National Convention.
Trump, a Republican who has a track record of swaying local races with his Twitter profile, has not yet endorsed either Republican candidate in Georgia.
In Marietta on Friday, Loeffler highlighted dozens of bills she has filed in the Senate over the past eight months that align with her strong anti-abortion stance, gun-rights support and opposition to calls to reduce funding for police agencies amid nationwide protests.
Loeffler has also pushed to portray herself as an outsider candidate akin to Trump, noting her background as a businesswoman and framing the four-term Congressman Collins as entrenched in establishment politics. She had loaned her campaign $15 million from her own money as of mid-July.
“I don’t owe anyone anything except you,” Loeffler said Friday. “I can’t be bought.”
With both candidates angling for the title of most conservative, Collins has touted endorsements from several dozen Georgia sheriffs and accused Loeffler of adopting conservative views only after she was appointed to the Senate. He has also criticized her use of wealth in the campaign.
In Gainesville Friday night, Collins stressed his vocal defense of Trump during impeachment hearings last December during which he hounded congressional Democratic leaders in his role as the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
“I’m going to give you three people you can call and ask if I’m a conservative,” Collins said. “It’s Jerry Nadler, Adam Schiff and Nancy Pelosi.”
As the Republican candidates continue in-person campaigning, Warnock, the senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church who has drawn broad support from state and national Democratic leaders, has kept to virtual town halls and talks alongside county Democratic groups amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Warnock has homed in recently on Georgia’s health-care system during the pandemic and virus-prompted economic fallout, especially with two rural hospitals set to close in Jackson and Randolph counties in the coming months.
In a new ad released Wednesday, Warnock highlighted his experience counseling people who have lost loved ones and jobs due to coronavirus, emphasizing the need for expanded health-care access and financial assistance while criticizing the state and federal responses to the pandemic.
“All too often these are people whom government has forgotten or for whom it was never there in the first place,” Warnock said. “I’ll always work for you.”
Nearly two dozen candidates including Loeffler have qualified for the Nov. 3 special election to complete the remaining two years of the Senate term formerly held by Isakson. Candidates from all parties will be on the same ballot, and a runoff will be held in January if no candidate wins more than 50% of votes in November.
ATLANTA – When Georgia’s economy ground to a virtual standstill after Gov. Brian Kemp issued a stay-at-home order to discourage the spread of coronavirus, the hospitality industry was hit the hardest by far.
Hotel room occupancy across the state plummeted by 62%. More than 187,000 leisure and hospitality jobs went away in March and April, and the state lost more than $3 billion in travel spending from mid-April through mid-May.
The damage was even more severe in Savannah, where hotel occupancy in the city’s historic district sank to just 9% in April. Savannah was forced to cancel its world-renowned St. Patrick’s Day celebration and the annual Savannah Music Festival.
In Chatham County, 91% of the unemployment claims filed during the pandemic’s early days came from hospitality workers, said Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, which runs the city’s tourist information center.
“It was a big blow early on,” Marinelli told members of the Georgia Board of Economic Development last Wednesday.
But gradually, there have been signs of business starting to pick up, spurred by the proactive efforts of state and local tourism promotion agencies to get visitors back.
In fact, the months of June and July saw year-over-year visitation records in Helen, a former logging community in the North Georgia mountains that resurrected itself decades ago to look like a Bavarian village.
“Since the governor partially lifted the stay-at-home order, it’s just been phenomenal,” said Jerry Brown, executive director of the Alpine Helen/White County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Helen is the type of day trip being promoted by the state Department of Economic Development’s Tourism Division, which launched a four-week test last month of Explore Your Georgia, a digital program that encourages Georgians to visit in-state destinations.
Mark Jaronski, the state agency’s deputy commissioner overseeing tourism, said Georgians are now traveling 200 miles to 300 miles despite the pandemic. The goal of the new program is to promote in-state attractions as an alternative to traveling out of state.
The agency is targeting a different market – tourists coming into Georgia from out of state – through various welcome centers located along interstate highways just inside the state’s borders with Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama.
Jaronski said the state has reopened seven of nine welcome centers that were closed early in the pandemic. The centers’ employees point visitors without set itineraries toward the various attractions Georgia has to offer, he said.
“Our managers and specialists do a great job referring them to our business partners across the state,” Jaronski said.
Some tourism promotion agencies have gotten creative with their initiatives. With a nod to the iconic “I Love New York” and “Virginia is for Lovers” campaigns, the Albany Convention and Visitors Bureau has launched “I Love ABY,” complete with a line of merchandise available online.
“We wanted to come up with something that would keep our social media going and promote Albany,” said Rashelle Beasley, the agency’s director. “It morphed into more. … We turned it into an online store.”
Beasley said the agency also is running a contest inviting people to post photos of Albany-area attractions. Each week’s winner is awarded a $25 gift certificate to a local restaurant.
Marinelli said Visit Savannah changed its social media strategy early in the pandemic from promoting specific events and attractions to “aspirational” messaging meant to remind visitors of how much there would be to do in Savannah once the traveling restrictions were eased.
“When people in June started traveling again, those images of Savannah were things they remembered,” he said.
But there are limits to what can be done to boost tourism during a pandemic.
Marinelli said weekend visitation has picked up in Savannah in recent weeks, particularly with the opening of the Plant Riverside District, an entertainment area along the river in the western end of the historic district with high-end shops and restaurants.
But weekday business and convention travel to Savannah remains non-existent, Marinelli said.
“Although we are seeing some uptick, our industry has taken a hit,” he said. “We’re going to have a long, slow uphill climb back.”