Election 2021: Georgia lawmakers brace for fight over mail-in voting

Georgia Senate members take the oath of office on the first day of the 2021 legislative session on Jan. 11, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – The battle for votes in Georgia is set to leap from the ballot box to the state Capitol as legislative Republicans look to clamp down on vote-by-mail rules Democrats have championed amid recent electoral wins.

Though no major election bills were introduced in the 2021 legislative session’s first week, state Republican leaders have placed Georgia voting laws in their crosshairs since the Nov. 3 presidential election, framing proposed changes as needed to boost election integrity following record-setting absentee voting.

Democratic state lawmakers are readying for a fight. Already, they have taken to podiums and press conferences at the Capitol to thrash proposed mail-in voting changes as modern-day voter suppression aimed at halting Democratic gains in recent election cycles.

In particular, Republicans in the Georgia Senate last month called for ending no-excuse absentee voting, which since 2005 has allowed registered Georgia voters to request and cast mail-in ballots for any reason and not just if they are out-of-state, elderly or disabled.

Some top Republican lawmakers and officials have been cold to that idea, preferring instead to focus on adding stricter voter identification requirements for casting absentee ballots than the signature-verification process that stirred controversy in the 2020 election cycle.

Legislation on mail-in voting may have to clear a new committee on election access and oversight being formed by Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, before passing the legislature. Ralston has said he wants bills to address “perceived problems” many Georgians had with the 2020 elections.

“Many Georgians are concerned about the integrity of our election system,” Ralston said. “Many of those concerns may or may not be well-founded, but there may be others that are.”

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston previewed his priorities for the 2021 legislative session at the State Capitol on Jan. 7, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Nixing no-excuse absentee

The pivot to election-law changes in the state legislature comes after Georgia voters cast record-setting numbers of absentee ballots in the 2020 primary, general and runoff elections, spurred by fears over voting in person during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mail-in votes topped one million in all three election rounds, far exceeding past Georgia election cycles. The huge vote-by-mail turnout helped Democrats win the presidential contest in Georgia and flip both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats for the first time in decades.

That outcome drew an intense backlash from the losing candidate, President Donald Trump, who insisted Georgia’s election system was “rigged” by fraud even as the state’s Republican elections chief and federal courts rejected his claims.

The outcry from Trump supporters was enough for Republican state lawmakers to hold four hearings on election fraud claims, each concluding that changes should be in order for how Georgians can vote by mail in future elections.

“There’s a lot of trust issues and confidence issues we have to try to restore around the state,” said Georgia Senate Majority Whip Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega. “I do not want to suppress the vote. … But we want to make sure every legal vote is counted.”

Gooch and other members of the Senate Republican Caucus have pledged to shrink who can request an absentee ballot, effectively overturning the state’s no-excuse absentee voting law that Republicans sponsored in 2005 under then-Gov. Sonny Perdue.

That proposal has backing from Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who faced attacks from Trump and his allies for not reversing the state’s election results. He has said the flood of absentee ballots put too much pressure on local election officials as they raced to count votes under the heat of national scrutiny following the Nov. 3 election.

“Until COVID-19, absentee ballot voters were mostly those who needed to cast absentee ballots,” Raffensperger said. “For the sake of our resource-stretched and overwhelmed elections officials, we need to reform our absentee ballot system.”

But putting the squeeze on mail-in voting could face hurdles even within Republican ranks after Ralston recently said he won’t back the change unless “a real strong case” can convince him otherwise. Instead, he called for absentee voting to have the same “level of security” as in-person voting.

Gov. Brian Kemp (right) joined Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (center) and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (left) to condemn riots by Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Voter ID on the table

Ralston’s comments on security point to changes Republican lawmakers are pushing that would tighten voter ID rules for mail-in voting, such as requiring Georgians to provide copies of their driver’s license or other identification cards to receive an absentee ballot.

Currently, registered Georgia voters need only provide their signature on an application form to request an absentee ballot. Signatures on that request form as well as on the envelope in which voters mail their ballots are matched with other signatures in voters’ registration files before those ballots are accepted.

Unlike for absentee ballots, Republican leaders have highlighted how Georgia voters must show their driver’s license or other identification when voting in person – though a driver’s license, Social Security number or other identifying documents are already needed to register to vote in Georgia.

Raffensperger has called for lawmakers to pass legislation requiring ID card copies or numbers for Georgians to request absentee ballots, similar to how his office’s newly created online application portal now requires a driver’s license or state-issued ID number for voters to receive a mail-in ballot.

Gov. Brian Kemp has also backed the extra ID requirement for absentee voting, marking his strongest stance on election-law changes so far. The governor has avoided discussing no-excuse absentee voting and left out election issues entirely from his annual State of the State speech on Jan. 14.

“Voters casting their ballots in person must show photo ID and we should consider applying that same standard to mail-in balloting,” Kemp said shortly after certifying the Nov. 3 election results.

State Senate leaders have also signaled they may bring legislation to outlaw mail-in drop boxes that were widely used in the 2020 elections, as well as measures to boost access for poll watchers in ballot-counting areas and require more routine audits of absentee ballots.

Ralston had yet to appoint members of the election-focused committee as of Friday.

State Sen. Elena Parent (at podium) joined Georgia Democratic leaders in opposing moves to limit absentee voting at the State Capitol on Jan. 14, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Democrats muster opposition

As state Republican leaders work out what election bills to introduce, Democratic lawmakers have signaled they plan to loudly oppose all but the most minor changes to voting rules in Georgia – though they face long odds of blocking any legislation that majority Republicans are determined to pass.

Democrats condemned the recent Republican-led hearings on election fraud claims, labeling them a smokescreen to pass voter ID changes that could make it tougher for poorer Georgians to cast absentee ballots and curb the large 2020 vote-by-mail numbers that benefitted Democrats.

Limiting absentee voting would be out of step with what most Georgians want, several Democratic leaders argued this week as the session kicked off. House Minority Leader James Beverly, D-Macon, said he is open to tweaking some election rules but will “vigorously fight” proposals for major changes.

“Let’s deal with the facts [and] not the fraud issue,” Beverly said. “Let’s maybe tweak a couple rules, but we shouldn’t be spending that much time on that issue when you’ve got people really suffering right now.”

At a news conference Jan. 14, Democratic leaders from both chambers said they plan to file bills to expand access to mail-in voting rather than limiting it as well as allow Georgians to register to vote on Election Day instead of a deadline set weeks before.

“We know our policies are the ones preferred by a majority of Georgians,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta. “As Democrats, we are not afraid to be held accountable by the people we represent.”

Sports betting bill introduced in General Assembly

Georgia Rep. Ron Stephens

ATLANTA – Online sports betting would come to Georgia under legislation introduced in the state House of Representatives Friday.

Under a bill sponsored by Rep. Ron Stephens, a longtime proponent of legalized gambling, at least six sports betting operators would be licensed by the Georgia Lottery Corp., paying application fees of $50,000 and annual licensing fees of $900,000.

The operators would pay a tax of 16% of their adjusted gross revenues. The money would go toward education, including the popular HOPE Scholarships program.

Supporters of legalizing gambling in Georgia argue the state is losing millions of dollars in potential tax revenue to illegal gambling.

“Georgia folks are doing it now,” said Stephens, R-Savannah. “All we’re going to do is capture the tax and put it in the HOPE Scholarship.”

Previous efforts to legalize sports betting in Georgia, as well as casinos and pari-mutuel betting on horse racing, have been handicapped by the requirement that proposed constitutional amendments receive two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate.

But this year, sports betting is being introduced as a statute rather than a constitutional change. As such, passing it only requires simple majorities in each legislative chamber.

Also, as a statute, the bill could take effect immediately upon the governor’s signature, rather than having to go before Georgia voters in a statewide referendum.

Stephens’ bill would prohibit Georgians under age 21 from engaging in sports betting. Wagering on high school or college games also would be forbidden.

Bettors would have to be physically located in Georgia to place a bet, a requirement that would be enforced with geofencing technology.

The bill is modeled after online sports betting legislation that took effect in Tennessee last fall. In November, its first month, the Volunteer State generated $131.4 million in wagers, yielding almost $2.4 million in tax revenue.

As a statute rather than a constitutional amendment, Stephens’ bill would have to go to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk rather than bypassing the governor and going straight to Georgia voters.

Kemp opposes legalized gambling and could veto the bill. However, sports betting enjoys bipartisan support in the General Assembly.

The measure’s cosponsors include three Republicans – Reps. Matt Dollar of Marietta, Lee Hawkins of Gainesville and Shelly Hutchinson of Snellville – and two Democrats, Reps. Billy Mitchell of Stone Mountain and Al Williams of Midway.

Sports betting also has the influential backing of a coalition formed by Atlanta’s four pro teams: the Braves, Falcons, Hawks and Atlanta United.

College campus building projects dominate annual state bond package

Savannah Convention Center

ATLANTA – Major building projects from Valdosta to Athens are included in the $883.1 million bond package Gov. Brian Kemp is recommending to the General Assembly.

That’s lower than the $1.13 billion in bond financing lawmakers approved last June for the current fiscal year. But the amount is likely to go higher as members of the House and Senate add projects when the legislature gets its turn at Kemp’s $27.2 billion fiscal 2022 budget plan.

The most expensive project appropriation in the package is $90 million to continue the planned expansion of the Savannah Convention Center. Lawmakers earmarked $70 million last year for the first phase of the $210 million project.

Next on the list is $56.4 million to build a new headquarters for the Georgia Department of Public Safety in Atlanta. A portion of the money would go toward tearing down the existing building.

The bond package sets aside $124.9 million for K-12 school construction and renovation, $208.2 million for construction and renovation on University System of Georgia campuses and $84.3 million for building projects at the state’s technical colleges.

Highlights include $26.8 million to build an aviation training academy at the Chattahoochee Technical College campus in Paulding County, $26.3 million to renovate the humanities building at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton and $21.7 million for Phase I of the Poultry Science Center Complex at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Athens Technical College would receive $13.1 million to build an Industrial Systems Technology Building, $12.4 million is earmarked for construction of a performing arts center at Valdosta State University, and $12.2 million would go toward a convention center at Georgia Southern University.

Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton is due to receive $11.8 million for facility improvements, and $7.6 million would be used to build a Nursing and Health Science Simulation Lab at Albany State University.

The state Department of Juvenile Justice would receive $13.7 million to add a 56-bed housing unit at the Muscogee Youth Development Campus, while the Augusta YDC would get $11.7 million for another 56-bed unit.

Members of the House and Senate appropriations committee will spend three days next week reviewing Kemp’s budget proposals.

Initial unemployment claims on the rise in Georgia

Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler

ATLANTA – First-time unemployment claims in Georgia increased by 5,581 last week to 37,039, reflecting a national trend, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.

As a result, the state agency paid out more than $223 million to jobless Georgians last week, as benefit checks authorized by a second COVID-19 relief package Congress passed during the holidays continued uninterrupted.

However, the agency is continuing to work on implementing changes to the system required by the new stimulus package. That work has to be completed before those eligible for the 11 weeks of extended payments can receive all of their benefits.

“Our … teams are working around the clock to implement the new guidelines that include complex requirements and programming,” Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said.

“The complexity of some of the additional specifications are challenging to program and will be an increased burden, not only on our staff, but to claimants as well. They could’ve done this in a more simplified manner with more input from the states.”

The labor agency is encouraging claimants to continue requesting weekly payments for those who have exhausted benefits or are awaiting eligibility determinations. All eligible payments will be issued when a decision on eligibility is released.

Since the pandemic first took hold in Georgia last March, the labor department has distributed more than $17 billion in federal and state unemployment benefits to nearly 4.3 million Georgians, more than the combined total from the nine years before the virus hit.

The job sector accounting for the most initial unemployment claims in Georgia last week was manufacturing with 8,582 claims. The accommodation and food services job sector was next with 6,682 claims, followed by administrative and support services with 4,595.

More than 169,000 jobs are listed online at EmployGeorgia.com for Georgians to access.  The labor department offers online resources for finding a job, building a resume, and assisting with other reemployment needs. 

Kemp highlights pandemic response, rural Georgia in State of the State message

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp asked state lawmakers Thursday to give businesses more help dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, double down on investment in rural Georgia and build on last year’s criminal justice reforms.

In a 65-minute State of the State address to a joint session of the state House and Senate, Kemp proposed expanding a tax credit the General Assembly passed last year for Georgia businesses that make personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks and gowns to manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment.

“We cannot waste time in bidding wars with other states or foreign adversaries,” the governor said. “No one nation should hold a monopoly on life-saving medicines and medical supplies, and we should bring these critical industries and the jobs that come with them back to America and here to Georgia.”

Along with restoring more than $1.2 billion to Georgia’s public schools to offset massive spending cuts on education the legislature imposed last year, Kemp called for a one-time $1,000 supplement to help Georgia teachers and other school employees reopen schools safely.

Building on the Rural Strike Team the governor formed in 2019 to lead efforts to create jobs in rural Georgia, Kemp recommended $40 million in the fiscal 2022 state budget to establish a Rural Innovation Fund to help rural businesses get started and grow.

“Many of the economic, medical, and other challenges that are facing rural Georgia cannot be fixed with a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach,” Kemp said. “These issues are best addressed through targeted, innovative, public-private solutions that meet the needs of specific communities not just today or tomorrow, but five, 10, or 25 years down the road.”

In the criminal justice arena, Kemp asked lawmakers to reform Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law as a follow-up to the hate-crimes bill the General Assembly passed last June. He cited the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man shot to death while jogging on a Brunswick street last year by three white men.

“Ahmaud was the victim of a vigilante-style of violence that has no place in our state,” Kemp said. “We can again send a clear message: Georgia is a state that protects all of its people and fights injustice wherever it is found.”

Kemp spent much of Thursday’s address praising the heroism and self-sacrifice of health-care workers in hospitals and nursing homes across Georgia who stepped up to fight COVID-19.

The governor defended his “measured reopening” of the state’s economy to reduce the pandemic’s impact on businesses and their employees. He said he took a lot of criticism for that decision but  heeded the pleas of business owners and essential workers struggling to make ends meet.

“These hardworking Georgians were struggling, not because their business was a failure or because their products or services were no longer needed. No, they faced devastation because of a virus, through no fault of their own,” Kemp said. “While some disagreed with me, I know our decision … to give these people a fighting chance – a glimmer of hope – meant everything to them.”

Democratic lawmakers were unimpressed with Kemp’s speech, noting he avoided talking about controversial proposals to change election laws that Republicans are pushing.

Minority-party leaders in both chambers pledged to press for expanding health insurance coverage, bolstering access to mail-in voting and passing a broader criminal justice reform package.

“Thousands of Georgians continue to live paycheck-to-paycheck, and financial security continues to be elusive for most Georgians,” said Georgia Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain.

To offset last year’s budget cuts, Democrats called for a tax hike on tobacco and vaping products that would increase state revenues by $567 million to $705 million.

A criminal justice reform package Democrats rolled out Thursday goes beyond repealing the citizen’s arrest law to setting new standards for police training, limiting no-knock warrants and ending police choke holds.

Democrats said they also plan to introduce bills allowing Georgians to register to vote on Election Day and providing for state officials to send out absentee ballot request forms for each election, as happened ahead of last June’s primaries.

With those initiatives likely to meet a wall of opposition in the Republican-led General Assembly, Democrats are gearing up to frame election-law changes as attempts at voter suppression after President-elect Joe Biden became the first Democrat to carry Georgia since 1992 and Democrats flipped both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats last week.

“These barriers don’t prevent fraud,” state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said of election-law change proposals. “They prevent democracy.”

The rebuttal to Kemp’s speech from Democratic leaders also carried a  warning following their defeat of Republicans in the presidential and Senate contests and ahead of Kemp’s potential rematch in 2022 against 2108 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

“If you’re not working for all of Georgia, you won’t be working for Georgia much longer,” said Georgia House Minority Leader James Beverly, D-Macon.