U.S. Senate race in Georgia intensifies with Supreme Court pick

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (left), U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (center) and Rev. Raphael Warnock (right) are competing in the Nov. 3 special election.

The race for a hotly contested U.S. Senate seat in Georgia kicked up a notch last week with the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and calls for a Democratic candidate to drop out in favor of the frontrunner.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the Atlanta businesswoman appointed to hold retired Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat until the Nov. 3 special election, released an ad Friday claiming she was “the first senator in America” to back President Donald Trump’s push to nominate a new justice ahead of the upcoming election.

“Our nation desperately needs another pro-life justice who will uphold the Constitution and defend conservative values,” Loeffler said.

The ad also takes aim at her Democratic competitor, Rev. Raphael Warnock, who has signaled he would vote against Trump’s nominee if he were to win the election outright on Nov. 3 – a tall order given the 50% vote threshold any of the 21 candidates in the race will need to cross.

“If that is the case and I can win outright on Nov. 3, the vote from the senator in Georgia might be the difference between setting an entire generation under an ideologue on the court or giving the American people a chance to weigh in,” Warnock said in an interview.

And U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, the Republican from Gainesville who has bludgeoned Loeffler with campaign attacks for months, stirred controversy by criticizing Ginsburg’s court opinions on abortion within hours after her death on Sept. 18.

“RIP to the more than 30 million innocent babies that have been murdered during the decades that Ruth Bader Ginsburg defended pro-abortion laws,” Collins wrote on Twitter.

Ginsburg’s death has catapulted the race for Loeffler’s seat even further into the national spotlight, given the victor could not only tip the balance between conservative and liberal justices on the nation’s highest court, but also decide which party holds a majority in the Senate.

Recent polls have shown Loeffler and Collins running neck-and-neck in the low to mid-20% range, with Warnock creeping up close to them within a few percentage points as his profile elevates with new ads, support from sports figures and his potential influence on the Supreme Court nominee.

It’s for that reason Democratic leaders in Georgia like former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams have renewed calls for candidate Matt Liberman to drop out and unify support for one Democratic candidate in the free-for-all race, in which candidates from all parties will be on the Nov. 3 ballot.

But Lieberman, a health-care consultant and former educator who is the son of former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, has signaled he does not intend to exit the race due to the large number of undecided voters who might break his way on Election Day.

“It’s been a tight race the whole time,” Lieberman said in a recent interview. “Obviously, [Warnock] has every advantage and he should have pulled away, but he hasn’t.”

Meanwhile, Loeffler drew attention last week for a pair of ads she released calling herself “more conservative” than the 5th-century warlord Attila the Hun. The ads marked the latest move in the fight between Collins and Loeffler to win the title of most conservative candidate as they seek to woo Republican voters.

“The liberal snowflakes of the world melted when they found out that conservative businesswoman Kelly Loeffler was to the right of Attila the Hun,” said Loeffler campaign spokesman Stephen Lawson. “Now that we’re releasing a second ad highlighting Kelly’s pro-life, pro-gun, pro-Trump values, we assume they will probably evaporate.”

In recent months, Loeffler has filed a steady stream of legislation in the Senate focused on immigration enforcement, punishing violent protesters, protecting funds for police agencies and gun-ownership rights. She has also criticized the Black Lives Matter protest movement as she seeks to solidify her image as a pro-law enforcement candidate.

Collins, meanwhile, has long touted his background as a U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain and the son of a Georgia state trooper, emphasizing his law-and-order roots, support for gun-ownership rights and opposition to abortion.

He has also begun firing shots at Warnock, who has largely escaped criticism from Republican contenders in the race as they batter each other. Collins highlighted a recent segment by Fox News host Tucker Carlson that points outs comments Warnock made criticizing police officers while preaching at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he presides as senior pastor.

“Tucker Carlson exposed the hatred for our police from Stacey Abrams’ handpicked candidate for Senate, Mr. Warnock,” Collins said on Twitter. “In the Senate, I’ll continue to back the blue.”

While the Fox News segment featured comments from 2015 describing certain officers as “thugs”, Warnock in a recent interview said he supports officers overall but would vote in the Senate for uniform use-of-force-standards, abolishing qualified immunity and creating a third-party independent body to investigate officer-involved fatal encounters.

“We have got to have public policy that centers on the humanity of black people,” Warnock said. “Black people don’t want more than anyone else. We just want equal treatment under the law.”

Loeffler has made support for law enforcement central to her campaign, capitalizing on broad negative reaction from many conservative voters over instances of violence and vandalism seen during protests against police brutality and racial injustice since June.

She particularly has taken strong stances against calls from some advocates and lawmakers to reduce funding for police departments, going so far as to introduce legislation that would yank federal dollars from cities that shrink their police budgets.

“For months, the radical Left’s ‘defund the police’ movement has promoted violence, chaos and anarchy in cities across our country, while villainizing and attacking the brave men and women in law enforcement who risk their lives to keep us safe,” Loeffler said this month.

As Loeffler and Collins trade blows, Warnock has sought to elevate health care as among the most important issues in the race. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened health-care inequality in communities and acts as proof of the need for expanded access to Medicare and universal insurance coverage, Warnock has said.

“We don’t suffer from a lack of resources,” Warnock said. “We suffer from a lack of political will and moral imagination.”

On the health-care front, Loeffler has focused much of her early activities in the Senate on efforts to block federal funds from groups that provide abortions like Planned Parenthood and to boost access to health-care services for military veterans.

Collins, who has frequently expressed opposition to the Affordable Care Act, aligns with Loeffler and the prevailing Republican stance that favors expanding options for securing health insurance with less government influence on the marketplace.

“Even if you thought it was a good idea to start with, it’s not being funded,” Collins said recently of the Affordable Care Act. “We’ve got to get back to a system that protects pre-existing conditions.”

Amid the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Senate race is steaming for the finish line with less than 40 days until the special election. A runoff will be held in January if none of the 21 candidates including Loeffler can win more than 50% of the vote.

Issues Box

In their own words, he is how Loeffler, Collins and Warnock stand on some key issues:

On health insurance and the Affordable Care Act:

LOEFFLER: “I believe the solution [to health care costs] is not a government-run system that would get rid of employer-provided insurance, shutter our hospitals and raise taxes on the middle class.”

COLLINS: “[The Affordable Care Act] has basically become the anchor that floats off the back of the boat, slowing everything down and causing problems.”

WARNOCK: “[Universal health care] is for me a human right and it is certainly something that the richest nation in the world can and should provide for all its citizens.”

On the impacts of COVID-19 and the continuing economic recovery:

LOEFFLER: “The coronavirus pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives, and the federal response has been in full force to help provide relief.”

COLLINS: “Georgia in particular is an example for other parts of the country to say we can get back out of this and have a get-well mentality instead of a get-sick mentality.”

WARNOCK: “I think we have to remind people that our response is out of love and not out of fear. It is a way of loving your neighbor as you love yourself. And I think we ought to embody that in public policy.”

On law enforcement and police reforms amid nationwide protests:

LOEFFLER: “American cities, businesses and livelihoods are being destroyed as a result of violent rioters and looters. Enough is enough. The violence must stop, and it’s time to hold these criminals and vandals accountable.”

COLLINS: “The training aspect is something that’s more prevalent that we need to look at, at all levels of law enforcement. There are always going to be those moments … when you don’t know what you’re walking into and you have to make a life-or-death decision.”

WARNOCK: “Black people are dying. There’s a human toll that I think we cannot lose sight of in all of this.”

On immigration reform, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and border protection:

LOEFFLER: “For years under the Obama administration, our Southern border was left exposed, incentivizing the flow of illegal immigrants and illicit drugs into our country. President Donald Trump has taken swift action to reverse this trend and prioritized building the border wall to protect Americans and keep our nation safe.”

COLLINS: “I think there’s ways we could fix [DACA] if we could have a more honest conversation.”

WARNOCK: “People need a dignified path to citizenship. What I would abolish is the dehumanization of people.”

Year-end school tests poised to count ‘essentially zero’ in Georgia amid pandemic

Georgia’s top school official aims to make year-end standardized tests count “essentially zero” toward students’ final grades in the 2020-21 school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

State School Superintendent Richard Woods is also poised to recommend waiving performance consequences for teachers tied to the annual Georgia Milestones exams and let local schools decide when to administer the year-end tests.

The proposed changes follow the refusal earlier this month by federal education officials to grant Georgia a waiver to scrap standardized tests this year during the pandemic.

Woods immediately pledged to water down the tests in defiance and urged that students and teachers “not worry about the tests.”

Next week, Woods plans to recommend the state Board of Education approve lowering the 20% course grade weight that the tests normally carry to 0.01% — or “essentially zero” since state law prevents the tests’ weight from being 0%, according to a news release from the state Department of Education.

“Georgia will abide by federal law, but we are not going to layer additional stress and burden onto our students and teachers during this time,” Woods said in a statement. “In this environment, these tests are not valid or reliable measures of academic progress or achievement, and we are taking all possible steps at the state level to reduce their high-stakes impact.”

The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 1.

In a letter sent Sept. 3, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told Georgia school officials they “should not anticipate” receiving approval to scrap the annual assessments this year, citing the need to maintain performance standards and data-tracking for student achievement.

Georgia officials submitted the testing waiver request in June to abstain from year-end tests as the state’s roughly 2,800 public schools grapple with resuming classes online and in-person amid the virus. The waiver request drew broad support from students, parents, teachers and other Georgians who were recently surveyed.

On Thursday, Woods reiterated his strong opposition to DeVos’ decision on the testing waiver.

“I remain disappointed and disheartened by the federal directive to administer high-stakes tests in a pandemic,” Woods said.

The Georgia Association of Educators backed Woods’ move to reduce testing grade weights and urged Gov. Brian Kemp to sign an executive order allowing education officials to relax the performance consequences for teachers tied to the tests.

“This action would not eliminate accountability for teachers and administrators, but rather promote shared accountability and mutual support amongst educators, families and the community to ensure students emerge from this crisis physically, socially, emotionally and academically healthy,” said the association’s president, Lisa Morgan.

Drop boxes for absentee ballots roll out in Georgia ahead of Nov. 3 election

Drop boxes to deposit absentee ballots ahead of the Nov. 3 general election have been set up by the dozens across Georgia as an option for voters who prefer not to show up in-person at a polling place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

First rolled out for the June 9 primaries, the secure drop boxes have been installed in roughly three-fourths of Georgia’s 159 counties over the past few months. They are located on government properties like county elections offices, courthouses, city halls and local commissions.

  • View a map of drop box locations here.

So far, around 1.2 million Georgians have requested absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 election, according to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. State election officials expect to see record turnout for the coronavirus-troubled election.

Many of those asking for absentee ballots were voters who voted by mail for the primaries in June and opted to automatically receive an absentee ballot for November. Others have used the state’s new online portal to request a mail-in ballot.

The drop-box option has been pitched as a way to motivate more Georgians to vote early in the general election rather than flood polling places on Election Day. Officials expect long lines even with a large vote-by-mail and early voting campaign.

The drop boxes are anchored to the ground, monitored by constant surveillance video and can only be opened by a team of two poll workers. They will be emptied at least once every 72 hours until Oct. 26, after which they will be emptied every 24 hours.

Beyond the drop boxes, county election officials will be able to scan absentee ballots starting two weeks before Election Day to help tabulate huge numbers of ballots more easily.

Casting ballots early should help “relieve that pressure valve” poised for local polling places for in-person voting, Raffensperger said this week.

“Everyone is working together to make sure we have as smooth a process as possible,” Raffensperger said.

Line tracker, tech support aim to smooth hurdles in Nov. 3 election in Georgia

Voters wait in line at a precinct in Cobb County on May 18, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Georgia election officials gearing up for the Nov. 3 general election will have help from big-name companies to troubleshoot technical issues and a new real-time tool that tracks the wait in line at local polling places.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told members of the Atlanta Press Club Tuesday the new real-time tracker will let voters see wait times on Election Day and help officials pinpoint any polling places that may be experiencing issues so they can be resolved.

Raffensperger’s office is also working with groups like the Coca-Cola Company and AT&T to train employees as technical-support workers able to diagnose and fix issues that crop up with voting machines on Election Day.

Those initiatives, combined with a push to recruit thousands of poll workers and the launch of an online portal to request absentee ballots, are creating confidence that Georgia may see a better Election Day experience in November than occurred in the line-plagued June 9 primary.

“We have a very robust plan of action for the November election cycle,” Raffensperger said Tuesday. “I think we’re much better prepared.”

Georgia is poised for record voter turnout in the Nov. 3 general election with a presidential contest, two U.S. Senate seats, congressional, state and local offices all on the ballot.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also inspiring huge interest in absentee ballots. So far, around 1.1 million Georgians have requested mail-in ballots and started receiving them this week.

Along with masks and gloves for poll workers, local precincts will feature new plexiglass screens purchased and donated by companies that aim to add more of a buffer between poll workers and voters for social distancing.

Companies like Coca-Cola, AT&T, Delta Air Lines and the Atlanta Hawks are working with the nonpartisan group GaVotingWorks to provide tech support, donate plexiglass screens and purchase more absentee ballot drop-off boxes for counties.

Jennifer Dorian, the co-founder of GaVotingWorks, said the collaborative effort reflects a growing interest among companies to participate in civic duty by pitching in more resources during the virus-troubled election cycle.

“We’re finding companies are a vital resource that can talk to employees as well as all Georgians,” Dorian said Tuesday.

Early voting for the general election starts Oct. 12. The online portal to request an absentee ballot is found at https://ballotrequest.sos.ga.gov/.

Georgia leaders push to boost 2020 Census count with 10 days before deadline

Georgia is lagging in its count of the 2020 U.S. Census. (U.S. Census Bureau photo)

Local leaders from Rome to Savannah pressed Georgians on Monday to complete the 2020 census with only 10 days left before the deadline.

Georgia ranks near the bottom of states in its progress on the decennial count, which influences federal money allocations and political representation. The deadline is Sept. 30.

As of Monday, nearly 91% of households in Georgia had completed the census either on their own initiative or after census takers tracked them down via door-to-door visits or phone calls.

That’s an increase from the 81% completion rate seen earlier this month but still lags behind every other state in the country except Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Montana.

Without a serious push to count more people, many cities and counties in Georgia could find themselves left with fewer dollars to provide services for more people – and will be stuck with that problem for another 10 years.

“This is the only thing we need to be talking about for the next 10 days,” said Savannah Mayor Van Johnson. “This is the overtime.”

Johnson joined mayors and other officials from Rome, Moultrie and East Point in a news conference urging people to fill out their online census forms or send them in the mail.

Mayor Bill McIntosh, from the South Georgia city of Moultrie, noted smaller and more rural communities like his could suffer worse from an undercount than urban areas, both by losing critical federal dollars and having less representation in the Georgia General Assembly through redistricting.

McIntosh said he’s seen some resistance to completing the census from people who fear the federal government may use their personal information for negative purposes. That will not happen, McIntosh and others stressed.

“The census matters and it matters in very significant ways in our lives,” McIntosh said.

The census count affects the state’s share of a huge pot of federal dollars provided annually for a wide range of programs like Medicaid and Medicare, food stamps, housing vouchers, highway construction, child-care services, special education and more.

Roughly $1.5 trillion will be available for states to tap into depending on the size of their census-determined populations, according to research from Georgia Washington University. The larger the population, the larger the share.

The census also plays a major political role in influencing how state lawmakers may redraw legislative and congressional district boundaries during negotiations next summer.

The high-stakes logistics of counting hundreds of millions of people across vastly different communities was daunting from the start. But the COVID-19 pandemic threw a major wrench into the equation, causing on-the-ground census takers to delay operations into summer and face reluctance from uncounted people to open their doors during follow-up visits.

Despite the hurdles, Rome City Commissioner Wendy Davis stressed Georgia cities and counties only have one shot for the next 10 years to maximize their federal money allocations.

“Folks need to understand that there’s money that all of our taxpayers have sent up to Washington,” Davis said. “We want to get our fair share back.”

Larry Hanson, executive director of the Georgia Municipal Association, pointed out companies often look at census figures to see if a community is thriving when deciding whether to set up shop in a given area. A census undercount could hurt a community’s economic development prospects for the next decade, he said.

“You may lose an opportunity to have a prospect that you never even realized,” Hanson said. “That they never even called on you, never even visited your community, because of information that may in fact be inaccurate.”

East Point Mayor Deana Ingraham echoed others in emphasizing that there is still time currently to boost Georgia’s census count – but it is certainly crunch time now.

“When we count, we matter,” Ingraham said.