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.”
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.
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.
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.”
Democratic lawmakers in the Georgia Senate have kicked off the 2021 legislative session with a resolution condemning the riot by supporters of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol last week.
Sponsored by five Democratic senators, the resolution slams “the disgraceful actions of right-wing violence and sedition” that saw Trump supporters break into and vandalize the Capitol building. The riots disrupted Congress’ vote to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s win in the Nov. 3 general election.
The resolution also criticized several Republican state senators for holding “sham hearings” in December that gave a platform to election fraud claims spread by Trump and his allies, “delegitimizing the Senate and giving credibility to these conspiracy theories,” the resolution said.
State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, Tuesday called for those Senate Republicans to be held accountable for acting to agitate Trump’s supporters, saying on the Senate floor they “aided and abetted the spread of disinformation.”
“They gave oxygen to a lie,” said Jordan, who faced death threats for challenging the fraud claims at a Senate hearing last month. “To pretend like nothing happened, that this is just another day … that can’t be an option.”
The rioting and resolution came after Republican state lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee released a report last month calling the Nov. 3 election “chaotic” and that “any reported results must be viewed as untrustworthy.”
Georgia election officials including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger repeatedly dismissed the Nov. 3 fraud claims as unfounded while federal courts tossed several lawsuits seeking to reverse the election results.
Proposals to change Georgia election laws including tighter voter ID requirements and limits on who can cast mail-in ballots look to feature prominently in this year’s session after Biden became the first Democrat to carry Georgia since 1992 and Democrats flipped the state’s two Republican-held U.S. Senate seats last week.
Republican senators who attended the subcommittee hearings and voiced belief in the fraud claims included state Sens. Burt Jones, R-Jackson; Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta; Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming; Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega; John Kennedy, R-Macon; Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia; and Carden Summers, R-Cordele. Former state Sens. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, and Bill Health, R-Bremen, also attended.
Jones, Beach, Dolezal and Ligon also circulated a failed petition in December urging General Assembly members to convene a special session aimed at blocking Georgia’s presidential election results. Gov. Brian Kemp opposed calling a special session.
On Tuesday, Jones and Beach were stripped of their Senate committee chairmanships by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who repeatedly pushed Republicans to drop their focus on fraud claims and instead look ahead to bolstering Georgia GOP candidates in future elections.
The Senate resolution was co-sponsored by Georgia Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain; state Sens. Harold Jones II, D-Augusta; Elena Parent, D-Atlanta; Lester Jackson, D-Savannah; and Jordan.
Georgia’s Republican senators have conceded defeat in the Jan. 5 runoffs for U.S. Senate, officially giving Democrats the state’s two Senate seats and control of the federal government for at least the first two years of the incoming Biden administration.
Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue conceded to Democrat U.S. Sen.-elect Jon Ossoff Friday afternoon, limiting the Sea Island Republican to just one term that ended on Jan. 3. His announcement came a day after Sen. Kelly Loeffler conceded to Sen.-elect Raphael Warnock after only a year in office.
Strong Democratic get-out the vote efforts, plus the fallout from President Donald Trump’s obsession with election fraud claims, combined to unravel the two incumbents’ campaigns and handed Democrats control of both Senate seats for the first time since 2002.
Ossoff, a 33-year-old Atlanta native who runs an investigative journalism company, is set to become the Senate’s youngest member and Georgia’s first Jewish representative in the chamber. He held a slim but insurmountable lead of nearly 50,000 votes with a few thousand ballots left to be counted late Friday.
“We don’t have to accept that poverty or racism or violence are inevitable or necessary,” Ossoff said. “We can dream about higher and higher heights.”
Warnock, a Savannah native and the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, had built up an even stronger lead than his co-campaigner by roughly 83,000 votes Friday. He will become Georgia’s first Black senator after preaching from the same pulpit once held by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“To everyone out there struggling today, whether you voted for me or not, know this: I see you,” Warnock said. “I hear you. And I will fight for you. I will fight for your family.”
With voter turnout hovering at 4.5 million, the runoffs solidified Georgia’s position as a battleground state with closely fought elections for at least the next decade and particularly in 2022, when Gov. Brian Kemp will likely face Democrat Stacey Abrams in a rematch of the heated and close 2018 gubernatorial election.
The two Senate races drew the eyes of America and the world to Georgia over the past two months since Warnock and Ossoff forced runoffs against their opponents, summoning nearly $1 billion in campaign and outreach spending along with visits from dozens of celebrities and national politicians.
With the stakes high even in normal times, the runoffs barreled forward amid the unusually intense backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and election results in November that saw a Democrat win a presidential contest in Georgia for the first time since 1992.
Both Democrats overcame attempts by Perdue and Loeffler to paint them as socialist candidates too extreme for conservative Georgians through fierce attack ads that sought to tie Ossoff to communist China and portray Warnock as anti-police.
That campaign strategy failed, according to several local analysts who credited the two Democrats for focusing on more hopeful messages that elevated key issues like health care, criminal justice, workers’ rights and the ongoing COVID-19 response.
Perdue, a former corporate executive, and Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman appointed to retired Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat in late 2019, were also hamstrung by their loyalty to Trump as the outgoing president trashed Georgia’s election system over his loss to President-elect Joe Biden in the Nov. 3 general election.
With Congress poised for Democratic majorities in both chambers, the Biden administration now faces an easier road to appointing Cabinet members and pushing through legislative priorities until at least the 2022 mid-term elections. He has nonetheless pledged to take a moderate approach and work with leaders on both sides of the aisle.
“Georgia voters delivered a resounding message [in the runoffs],” Biden said. “They want action on the crises we face and they want it right now. Together, we’ll get it done.”
Georgia’s most powerful state lawmaker threw cold water Thursday on calls by some top Republican officials to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting after the 2020 election cycle.
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, indicated he may not support any legislative moves to require Georgians to give specific reasons for requesting mail-in ballots, following a recent push by Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to end the practice.
“Somebody’s got to make a real strong case to convince me otherwise,” Ralston said at a news conference at the state Capitol.
Ralston added he plans to create a new committee focused on election access and oversight as state Republican leaders push to tighten Georgia’s voter ID laws. He also said he would support legislation to change the state’s free-for-all “jungle” primary format for special elections.
Election fraud claims by President Donald Trump and his allies are expected to take a back seat going forward after committees in both General Assembly chambers held hearings on the subject in recent weeks and extremists angered by Trump’s election loss stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.
“People are concerned [about fraud claims] and I think we have to address those concerns,” Ralston said Thursday. “But people need to know the truth. And I don’t think they have been getting the truth all the time.”
State law has allowed Georgia voters since 2005 to vote by mail for any reason, not just due to living out of state or other specific reasons. Raffensperger has pressed lawmakers to change the law after local election officials were overwhelmed counting absentee ballots in elections this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Proposals to change Georgia’s election laws look to take center stage in the General Assembly’s 2021 legislative session that kicks off next week. State lawmakers are grappling with changing voter patterns that saw the 2020 presidential election and both U.S. Senate seats flip in Democrats’ favor.
The June 9 primaries, Nov. 3 general election and Jan. 5 Senate runoffs each saw more than one million absentee ballots cast, shattering previous mail-in voting records. Raffensperger traced slow turnaround times that sparked suspicions over Georgia’s election integrity to the flood of absentee ballots.
“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.”
The Georgia Senate Republican Caucus also has called for eliminating no-excuse absentee voting “to secure our electoral process” as part of a legislative wish list this year that includes requiring a mail-in signature audit and banning absentee ballot drop boxes.
Georgia Democratic leaders have pledged to oppose efforts to overhaul absentee voting, which helped Democratic voters drive up turnout enough to secure wins for President-elect Joe Biden in November and Democratic Sen.-elects Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock this week.
“No-excuse absentee voting has been used safely and effectively by both parties since 2005,” the Georgia Senate Democratic Caucus wrote on Twitter. “Ending the practice in order to try and turn back the tide of Democratic participation in Georgia is voter suppression.”
Ralston also doubled down Thursday on his recent call for law changes that would let the General Assembly choose Georgia’s secretary of state instead of voters. He also hinted he might support creating a new election official in the state and removing election responsibilities from Raffensperger’s office, if such a proposal is brought during the session.
The 2021 legislative session starts on Monday and is expected to run through March.
Gov. Brian Kemp readied the Georgia National Guard Wednesday in response to riots at the U.S. Capitol by President Donald Trump’s supporters protesting the Electoral College vote.
Kemp, who faced intense pressure from Trump and his allies to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia, called Wednesday’s storming of the Capitol “un-American” and “a disgrace.”
“It is unimaginable that we have people in our state and in our country that have been threatening police officers, breaking into government buildings,” Kemp told reporters inside the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta. “This is not the Georgia way and it is not the way of our country.”
A huge crowd of Trump supporters swarmed the U.S. Capitol as House and Senate lawmakers convened Wednesday to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College win. Trump had egged on his supporters to protest the vote and hailed several Republican lawmakers who planned to protest the certification before chaos broke out, including several congressional lawmakers from Georgia.
Kemp has faced the president’s rage in recent weeks for not stepping in to toss out the Nov. 3 general election results, which showed Biden won Georgia by 11,779 votes. On Wednesday, the governor slammed Trump loyalists who have pressured him to order a special legislative session aimed at overturning the election.
“Those of you who have called for a special session: You now know what that would look like,” Kemp said.
Kemp said he is extending an executive order allowing him to mobilize the National Guard that was put in place during protests over the summer against racial injustice and police brutality.
The governor was joined Wednesday by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who both condemned the riots in Washington, D.C., and urged Trump to disperse the protesters.
“Today is an incredibly sobering reminder of how delicate our democracy truly is,” said Duncan, who for several weeks has called on Trump to drop his fraud claims. “It is also a reminder how dangerous it is for people in power act as if they are more important than that democracy.”
“This is a very sad day,” Ralston said. “The shocking images we have seen from our nation’s capital today are indefensible, un-American and, frankly, heartbreaking.”
The Georgia Senate Republican Caucus also condemned the Trump protesters, saying of Wednesday’s events that “there is no place for such action in this country.”
Some Republican Congress members from Georgia objected to the riots after being forced to lock down in the Capitol rotunda as protesters shattered windows and broke into lawmakers’ offices – though many including U.S Reps. Rick Allen, Barry Loudermilk, Buddy Carter and Marjorie Taylor Greene had earlier pledged to object to the Electoral College certification.
House Democrats from Georgia were unanimous in denouncing the riots, with newly seated U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux going so far as to urge her colleagues to impeach Trump a second time.
U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who lost to Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock in Tuesday’s runoff election, also condemned the Capitol riots after promising to join House and Senate Republicans objecting to the certification. U.S. Sen. David Perdue was still silent late Wednesday after losing to Democrat Jon Ossoff.
The events in Washington came as Ossoff and Warnock were both set to secure wins in their runoff races for U.S. Senate, giving Democrats control of Congress and the White House for at least the first two years of the incoming Biden administration.
Warnock invoked Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose pulpit he presides over at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, in calling for the country to focus on healing in the wake of Wednesday’s riots.
“Let us each try to be a light to see our country out of this dark moment,” Warnock said.
Democrats have captured both of Georgia’s seats in the U.S. Senate for the first time in nearly 20 years, a momentous feat that gives the party control of Congress and the White House.
Several media outlets declared Democrat Jon Ossoff the winner Wednesday afternoon in Tuesday’s tight runoff contest against incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue. Ossoff took 50.3% of the vote to 49.7% for Perdue, apparently just above the 0.5% margin of victory that under state law would have allowed Perdue to request a recount.
Rev. Raphael Warnock captured Georgia’s other Senate seat earlier in the day when the Democratic challenger was declared the winner over incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler. Warnock prevailed by a slightly wider margin, 50.7% to 49.3%.
The Senate runoff results solidify Georgia’s position as a battleground state with closely fought elections for at least the next decade, said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University.
“This is yet another election that confirms Georgia isn’t reliably Republican anymore,” Gillespie said Wednesday. “It has become purple and it has the potential to be very competitive for the next few election cycles.”
The two Democrats’ potential wins “feel bigger than Obama,” said Georgia political strategist Fred Hicks, commenting on former President Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008 as the country’s first Black commander-in-chief. Warnock becomes Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator and Ossoff is the state’s first Jewish senator.
“There’s never been this kind of a get-out-the-vote effort statewide launched by Democrats and Democratic-affiliated groups,” Hicks said. “This was the first time that people went out to vote all over the state, not just metro [Atlanta] … And in a game of margins, that made the difference.”
Georgia has not been represented by two Democratic senators simultaneously since 2002, when former Sens. Max Cleland and Zell Miller both held office before Cleland’s reelection loss that year.
Turnout in the Jan. 5 runoffs is set to hover around 4.5 million as counting continued Wednesday, marking record-breaking turnout driven by huge vote-by-mail, early voting and Democratic enthusiasm over President-elect Joe Biden’s win over President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 general election.
Close to $1 billion was spent by the four campaigns and outside groups in both races, dwarfing previous fundraising records in American politics, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. Celebrities and national politicians flocked to the state. Trump and Biden held rallies twice each.
Beyond the cash and cameos, Democratic operatives in Georgia also managed to “absolutely perfect get-out-the-vote” with wide canvassing efforts and “a more hopeful, optimistic message” than the fearful tone set by the senators’ campaigns, said Buzz Brockway, a former Republican state lawmaker and former Gwinnett County GOP chairman.
“Fear only goes so far,” Brockway said. “Obviously, there are people who think the world ended last night, but there are a lot who don’t.”
Democrats managed to hold the same margins or better that Biden saw in his win over Trump in Georgia despite a 10% drop in turnout in the runoffs compared to the Nov. 3 general election, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.
Bullock, who has tracked elections in Georgia for decades, said Wednesday he did not see a path forward for Perdue and Loeffler in the runoffs.
“Democrats in the past have lost these general-election runoffs because they didn’t come back to the polls,” Bullock said. “That wasn’t the case this time.”
Much of the credit for Tuesday’s results and the presidential election flip went to Stacey Abrams, the former gubernatorial candidate and rising Democratic star who has led voter registration and turnout efforts since her loss to Gov. Brian Kemp in 2018.
Abrams took to Twitter late Tuesday night to laud her voting rights group Fair Fight’s staff and volunteers for helping put Ossoff and Warnock on a “strong path” to victory.
“Across our state, we roared,” Abrams said.
Georgia GOP leaders are now left to wonder what could have been if not for the influence of Trump, who served up more distraction than motivation for crucial conservative voting blocs by insisting the state’s election system was “rigged” after his loss on Nov. 3, according to several analysts.
Blame for Perdue’s and Loeffler’s potential losses should fall squarely on the president, said Georgia’s election system implementation manager, Gabriel Sterling.
“When you say your vote doesn’t count … then you spark a civil war within a GOP that needed to be united to get through a tough fight like this in a state that has been trending in the other direction for years now,” said Sterling, who is a Republican and a former Sandy Springs city councilman.
Officials have seen no evidence of widespread fraud in the runoff elections, Sterling said. That’s despite Trump’s assault on the state’s election integrity as he lobbed unproven fraud claims Wednesday and declared Perdue and Loeffler “never had a shot” – though neither senator has conceded defeat.
As Trump raged, Biden praised Georgia voters and Democratic leaders for sending “a resounding message” that looks to ease the way for his incoming administration to appoint Cabinet members and push through legislative initiatives for at least the next two years.
“After the past four years, after the election … it’s time to turn the page,” Biden said in a statement Wednesday. “The American people demand action and they want unity. I am more optimistic than I ever have been that we can deliver both.”
This story was updated to reflect that several media outlets have called the runoffs for both Ossoff and Warnock.