Georgia lawmakers seek special session for voter ID changes before Senate runoffs

Certified results from the 2020 general election saw President-elect Joe Biden beat President Donald Trump in Georgia by 12,670 votes. (Photo by Beau Evans)

A group of Republican state lawmakers are calling for the General Assembly to hold a special session ahead of the Jan. 5 runoff elections for U.S. Senate to consider changes to Georgia’s voter ID laws amid testiness over the recent presidential contest.

State election officials have said a second recount of the Nov. 3 presidential election that began Tuesday likely will not include inspecting signatures on absentee ballot envelopes, which allies of President Donald Trump have demanded since his loss to President-elect Joe Biden in Georgia.

In Georgia, county election officials verify mail-in voters by matching the signatures they are required to make on ballot envelopes with their signatures on file from when they registered. The envelopes are then separated from the actual ballots to protect voter privacy, making it tough to re-match those signatures later.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office has repeatedly said state and local officials have found no evidence so far of any widespread fraud in this month’s general election. Raffensperger has, however, advocated for tightening the state’s voter ID laws.

Gov. Brian Kemp has not said whether he would convene the legislature before the regular session on Jan. 11. His office responded Tuesday with a prior statement from the governor, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, saying they “share the same concerns many Georgians have about the integrity of our elections.”

If a special session is convened, lawmakers should consider creating a notary or photo ID requirement for voting by mail and hold committee hearings on “any evidence of voter fraud,” four Republican state senators who called for the session said in a news release.

“As the [first recount] has shown, we have structural issues with the implementation and proper execution of our ballot counting procedures,” read a joint statement from Sens. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming; William Ligon, R-Brunswick; Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta; and Burt Jones, R-Jackson.

A statewide hand recount that wrapped up last week confirmed Biden’s win over Trump in Georgia by 12,670 votes out of a record-setting roughly 5 million ballots cast in the election amid a surge of mail-in voting due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trump has not yet conceded defeat and his allies in Georgia have homed in on the process for verifying voter signatures on absentee ballots as problematic not only for the presidential election, but also potentially for the intensely watched U.S. Senate runoffs in January.

Georgia’s two Senate runoff races are poised for high turnout due to their unique importance. Wins by both Democratic candidates over the Republican incumbent senators would give Democrats control over the White House and Congress for at least the next two years.

Many Georgia Republican leaders have pointed to roughly 5,000 ballots that went uncounted in the initial election results but were discovered during the hand recount that wrapped up last week as proof of problems with the election system. Those ballots trimmed Biden’s lead over Trump by 1,900 votes.

State election officials had said prior to the recount that they expected to find some discrepancies from the original count, but stressed also any additional recount or effort to again verify signatures would not likely change the ultimate outcome of the presidential election.

Even so, among those pushing to verify signatures and change the state voter ID law is Kemp, who last week called the discovery of thousands of ballots during the hand recount “simply unacceptable.”

However, the governor also recently railed against “baseless attacks [on Georgia’s election system] that are absolutely absurd.”

“These are ridiculous,” Kemp said at a news conference Tuesday. “They only seek to breed fear, create confusion and sow discord among our citizens.

“We must ignore those that want to divide us and find a way to overcome the challenges that we all face together.”

Early voting for the Senate runoff elections starts Dec. 14. The deadline for Georgia voters to register for the runoffs is Dec. 7.

Mental health services in Georgia focus of state commission

The sight of the woman lying on the floor of a windowless jail cell is a something Henry County Judge Brian Amero will never forget.

Pregnant, unresponsive, off her medication and “draped in a paper robe,” the woman had been kept there for several months with scant help for her mental health issues, waiting for a probation hearing. Jail staff tried transferring her to a psychiatric facility but “no one would take her,” Amero said.

“So this is where she sits, this is where she lays, twenty-four hours a day in the dark basement of the jail, in this condition,” said Amero, one of many judges in Georgia hoping to curb how often people with mental health issues wind up in jail rather than treatment settings.

Amero is among dozens of advocates, experts and officials on a state commission studying how to improve Georgia’s mental health system, an underfunded web of agencies and local boards that serve tens of thousands of people with mental illnesses, developmental disabilities and substance addiction.

The Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission held its second meeting last week after forming in 2019 to draw up solutions to the funding, workforce, care access and insurance issues that hamper the state’s mental health services.

Reversing the trend of jails and prisons acting as revolving doors for those with mental health issues is a top challenge facing Georgia’s service providers and law enforcement, both of which often lack enough resources to help people before they experience a preventable crisis that leads to arrest.

Nearly one-fourth of the roughly 53,700 people in state prisons as of January of this year needed treatment for a mental illness, said Georgia Supreme Court Justice Michael Boggs, who serves on the commission and has worked for years on criminal justice reform.

The situation is more dire at county jails such as in South Georgia’s Dougherty County, where Boggs said 209 out of 597 people housed in the jail last January needed mental health services. Those persons tend to stay incarcerated longer than other inmates, depriving them of treatment and increasing jail costs.

“Our jails become the de facto mental health institutions in a lot of our communities,” Boggs said. “It is not only morally unacceptable; it’s financially and otherwise not sustainable.

“We’ve got to do a better job of getting these individuals the treatment they need and not putting them in the county jails.”

Children also face major mental-health challenges in Georgia. Youth admissions to emergency rooms have increased 116% since 2015 with more than half of those children transferring to psychiatric facilities, said Dr. Dan Salinas, chief of community clinical integration at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Insurance red tape blocks many of those children from receiving help. Children covered under Medicaid in Georgia are often delayed or outright denied admission to residential treatment facilities after hospital stays, said Emily Acker, president and CEO of the nonprofit care provider Hillside.

Acker told commission members last week about a 13-year-old girl named “Rose” who was sex-trafficked by a parent and hospitalized 19 times between two stays at residential treatment facilities, where she was initially denied admission by a Medicaid care management organization.

“In Georgia today, it should not be so difficult to provide a child like Rose the care that she needs and deserves,” Acker said.

Collecting key data on mental health services in Georgia is also an uphill battle. Spotty data on Medicaid claims and local providers participating in state-funded programs make it tough to address care gaps, said Nicoleta Serban, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at Georgia Tech.

“Once we have a good understanding of the supply of services, we can really have a good understanding also of what is the demand that we can cover with the current supply,” Serban said. “I don’t think we have an answer to this question, and it’s a quite challenging question to address.”

Experts and commission members offered up several recommendations to bolster Georgia’s mental health system including more specialized probation supervision, alternative court programs with more treatment-focused sentencing and single-provider Medicaid management through the state.

State Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, who chairs the commission, said he’ll convene members soon to draft and approve an annual report on recommendations. The commission is set to continue meeting through June of 2023.

COVID-19 cases rising in Georgia, Kemp urges vigilance for Thanksgiving

Coronavirus has sickened hundreds of thousands people and killed thousands more in Georgia. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Gov. Brian Kemp is urging Georgians to keep distanced and consider outdoor or virtual gatherings this Thanksgiving with COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths on the rise in recent weeks.

Positive cases have increased substantially in recent weeks from a daily average of just under 1,200 cases on Oct. 1 to an average of more than 2,600 daily cases as of Monday, according to state Department of Public Health data.

Kemp and other state officials are hoping to stave off an even steeper spike during the holidays, when the temptation for more Georgians to abandon distancing precautions may be high after eight months of isolation away from loved ones.

The governor asked people to consider holding virtual or outdoor gatherings and to tightly limit group sizes in Georgia homes for the Thanksgiving feast.

“I know that people are frustrated and ready to return to normal,” Kemp said at a news conference Tuesday. “But we cannot grow weary. We have to keep our foot on the gas in this fight.”

As of Monday, more than 406,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia. The virus had killed 8,644 Georgians.

Public-health officials across the U.S. are warning of a possible bleak winter season for COVID-19 transmissions with emergency-use authorization for several vaccines just around the corner – but not ready yet.

Georgia’s top public-health official, Dr. Katheen Toomey, said Tuesday that while Georgia has not seen the virus spread as rapidly recently as in other states, positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths are still on the rise.

She cautioned people hopeful of spending time with family and friends to not rely on any recent negative COVID-19 tests they may have taken, since that’s no guarantee against catching the virus after receiving results.

“It’s particularly important that we don’t use a [COVID-19] test as a justification to go and not follow the guidelines,” Toomey said.

As they have in the past, Kemp and Toomey stressed the importance of wearing masks, maintaining distance and washing hands to lower chances for catching the virus. The governor also said officials have up to two months-worth of protective gear to send local hospitals and elderly care facilities.

“We are prepared to handle whatever comes our way,” Kemp said. “We want this to be a bump, not a spike.”

Despite the case climb and holiday risks, Kemp has declined so far to change any mandatory COVID-19 rules beyond sanitation guidelines in restaurants and bars, a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people and a shelter-in-place order for Georgia’s elderly and chronically ill populations.

That steadiness comes despite a recent White House COVID-19 task force warning Georgia to boost safety rules for the holidays. Kemp said Tuesday he did not “see any reasons” for more safety measures since the state is seeing a “bump” and not a “spike” in viral transmissions and illnesses.

Kemp has long sought to weigh health risks with potential economic damages when imposing mandatory COVID-19 rules since March, most contentiously by declining to order a statewide mask mandate as other states as well as cities within Georgia chose to do so.

State officials also gave a first glimpse into preparations for rolling out COVID-19 vaccine doses once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives the green light likely next month for distributing a handful of vaccines that have passed clinical trials with flying colors.

Insurance Commissioner John King, who is heading up Georgia’s vaccine plans, said officials are currently “fine-tuning” how best to locate the state’s most vulnerable elderly and chronically ill community members to prioritize them for distribution, due to a limited number of doses initially set to arrive.

With many public-health experts anticipating vaccines will not be available widespread to the general public until at least summer 2021, King heeded Georgians not to lean on any vaccine’s near-readiness as an excuse to ignore distancing, hand-washing and wearing masks.

“When you’re waiting for the cavalry to arrive, you double down,” King said. “We know that the vaccine is coming [and] you can’t let your guard down.”

Georgia set for second election recount, unlikely to probe mail-in signatures

Certified results from the 2020 general election saw President-elect Joe Biden beat President Donald Trump in Georgia by 12,670 votes. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Georgia election officials are gearing up for another recount of the roughly 5 million ballots cast in the state’s presidential election this month following a request over the weekend by President Donald Trump’s campaign.

State law allows Trump, who lost Georgia by fewer than 13,000 votes to President-elect Joe Biden, to seek a recount due to the narrow margin. The election results were certified last Friday after a statewide audit of every ballot that included a hand recount.

The upcoming recount will run ballots through scanners rather than by hand, said Gabriel Sterling, the election systems manager in Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office. It will start at 9 a.m. Tuesday and must wrap up by the end of Dec. 2, posing challenges for a few counties like Fulton poised to hold local elections on Dec. 1.

The process will not involve inspecting or matching signatures on absentee ballot envelopes, which Trump’s allies have called for to weed out any potential instances of mail-in voter fraud – though so far no evidence has been presented of such widespread fraud in Georgia.

State law and privacy concerns currently bar the close level of signature scrutiny that Trump and his Republican supporters in Georgia want, Sterling said at a news conference Monday. He also noted the initial verification steps were open for both political parties to watch, but neither did so.

Absent specific fraud evidence or a court order, Sterling said state officials see no recourse to inspect signatures on absentee ballot envelopes at this point.

“We anticipate that we will continue to follow the law and follow the process as we have done from the beginning,” Sterling said. “So far, we have not seen anything widespread.”

Amid various fraud claims, Republican allies of Trump have homed in on mail-in signatures as the best way to test the election’s integrity as the president still refuses to concede defeat. Gov. Brian Kemp, U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins and the Georgia Republican Party have all pushed for more comprehensive signature verification.

“We as [Georgia Republicans] will never give up on the fight to make sure that every lawful vote is counted and every unlawful vote rejected,” state GOP Chairman David Shafer wrote Monday on Twitter.

But moves to scrap absentee ballots by inspecting envelope signatures could face tough prospects in Georgia after a federal judge last week rejected a restraining order sought by a Trump ally to halt the election’s certification until signatures could be verified further.

Loeffler’s and Perdue’s Democratic runoff opponents, Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, have slammed the two Republican senators for sowing distrust in Georgia’s election system despite the election results’ certification last week.

Meanwhile, Raffensperger has urged state lawmakers to tighten Georgia law on verifying signature matches when the General Assembly next convenes, which currently would be the regular legislative session set for mid-January. The governor so far has not called for a special session before the runoffs.

Mail-in voting looks to continue taking center stage in Georgia with runoff elections for the state’s two U.S. Senate seats that have drawn intense interest across the country scheduled to be held on Jan. 5.

Nearly 800,000 absentee-ballot applications already have been sent out for the runoffs, meaning next month will likely see similar mail-in voting numbers to the 1.3 million absentee ballots cast in the Nov. 3 elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said Ryan Germany, general counsel in Raffensperger’s office.

Georgia’s two Senate runoff races are poised for high turnout due to their unique importance. Wins by both Democratic candidates over the Republican incumbent senators would give Democrats control over the White House and Congress for at least the next two years.

Ahead of the runoffs, State Election Board members on Monday extended temporary rules put in place for the Nov. 3 elections that allow counties to install absentee-ballot drop boxes and scan absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

Both the drop boxes and early scanning helped counties manage the unprecedented flood of mail-in ballots for the general election and look to do so again for the runoffs, Germany said Monday.

“That is something I think all voters in Georgia will appreciate,” Germany told members of the election board.

The election board on Monday did not take up a proposed rule aimed at cracking down on potential out-of-state voters who may try to register to vote in Georgia for the runoffs amid recent rumors and reports of non-resident voters possibly attempting to do so.

Republican leaders including Shafer and Collins have pressed Raffensperger to clamp down harder on voter residency requirements, while largely Democratic-aligned observers argue tougher rules could disenfranchise poorer Georgians and those in more fragile living situations.

Germany said Raffensperger’s and Attorney General Chris Carr’s offices have agreed to send out an official bulletin advising county elections boards on specifics of Georgia’s residency requirements and verifications, rather than pass any new rules on the matter.

“We think that will accomplish the purpose that we want,” Germany said.

Early voting for the Senate runoff elections starts Dec. 14. The deadline for Georgia voters to register for the runoffs is Dec. 7.

Kemp, Raffensperger certify Georgia election results and Biden win

Certified election results show Biden won Georgia while Republican lawmakers held the General Assembly. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Gov. Brian Kemp signed off on certifying Georgia’s presidential election results Friday following a hand recount of a record-breaking number of ballots that confirmed President-elect Joe Biden beat President Donald Trump in the state by a slim 12,670 votes.

The Nov. 3 election results certified Friday by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger also confirmed Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff captured enough votes to force a runoff with incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue.

Additionally, the certified results showed Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux flipped a suburban Atlanta area congressional seat, while state Republican lawmakers will maintain control over both chambers in the Georgia General Assembly for the crucial redistricting process this summer.

Georgia’s presidential election has been fraught with controversy for nearly three weeks as Trump’s allies hurled claims of voter fraud. The weeklong recount that wrapped up Wednesday uncovered more than 5,000 previously uncounted votes.

Voters eager to oust Trump amid long-developing demographic changes in Atlanta’s suburbs and wary of standing in line at precincts due to the COVID-19 pandemic managed to cast a record-breaking 5,000,585 ballots, a large share of which came in the form of vote-by-mail.

As the state’s election chief, Raffensperger hailed the unprecedented hand-recount effort as an immense achievement on the part of county election workers that proved Georgia’s newly installed voting system worked after months of uncertainty.

“Working as an engineer throughout my life, I live by the motto that numbers don’t lie,” Raffensperger said Friday morning. “As secretary of state, I believe that the numbers that we have presented today are correct. The numbers reflect the verdict of the people, not a decision by the secretary of state’s office, or of courts, or of either campaign.”

But Kemp struck a far different tone in his remarks Friday evening, lashing out at the state’s election system for initially missing thousands of uncounted ballots and calling for legislative changes to how voter signatures are verified on absentee ballots once the General Assembly convenes in mid-January.

“It is important for Georgians to know that the vast majority of local election workers did their job well under unprecedented circumstances,” Kemp said. “However, it’s quite honestly hard to believe that during the audit, thousands of uncounted ballots were found weeks after a razor-thin outcome in a presidential election. This is simply unacceptable.”

Under state law, Trump can still request a separate recount by early next week due to the narrow margin separating him from Biden, which would be done by re-scanning all the ballots electronically rather than re-tallying again them by hand.

Meanwhile, Georgia Democrats have been jubilant over the election results in a state where a Democratic candidate for president has not won since 1992. They have shifted focus to Georgia’s two Senate runoff races that would give Democrats control of the White House and Congress if both Democratic candidates win.

“The audit revealed what was obvious from the start: we flipped Georgia blue,” the Georgia Democratic Party said on Twitter. “The voters have spoken, and nothing is going to change that.”

The runoff elections between Perdue and Ossoff and between Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democratic challenger Rev. Raphael Warnock are set for Jan. 5.