Lt. Gov. Duncan backs hate-crimes legislation

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan outlines his agenda for the 2020 legislative session at the State Capitol on January 13, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan signaled Friday he plans to work with state lawmakers on passing hate-crimes legislation following the high-profile arrests of three white men in the fatal shooting of a black man near Brunswick.

Duncan, who presides over the Georgia Senate, said Friday lawmakers need to craft legislation that gives victims of hate-motivated crimes “certain tools” to bring civil lawsuits and sets a framework for law enforcement officials “to correctly identify, investigate and prosecute hate crimes.”

“This is an important piece of legislation to get right,” Duncan said in a statement. “It is time to make it clear that Georgians will not stand for hate and violence.”

Duncan’s remarks follow the arrests earlier this month of Gregory and Travis McMichael, a father and son living in the Brunswick area who face murder charges in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery, who is black, was allegedly gunned down after being pursued in late February by the McMichael men, who are white.

Video of the shooting taken by a third man arrested in the case, William Bryan, who is also white, sparked widespread outrage among Georgia leaders and prompted renewed calls for passage of the hate-crimes bill.

The measure, sponsored by state Rep. Chuck Efstration, cleared the Georgia House last year but has stalled in the Senate. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have issued calls in recent weeks to pass the bill. Efstration said he plans to push for its passage once the General Assembly resumes the 2020 legislative session in mid-June.

In a statement earlier this month, Efstration, R-Dacula, noted the bill has gained support from the state House’s top lawmaker, Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. Other influential House lawmakers including the legislature’s longest-serving member, Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, have also pushed for passage this session.

“It is now time for the Georgia Senate to do the right thing and pass the Georgia Hate Crimes Act without delay,” Efstration said.

New voting machines face big test in coronavirus-struck Georgia primary

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

Georgia’s new voting machines will face their first major test in a June 9 primary election that has created far different logistical challenges for state officials than were anticipated before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

The new machines, purchased last summer for $104 million, were already under intense scrutiny as Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office pushed to have the 30,000 new devices rolled out by the March 24 presidential preference primary, all while legal challenges sought to have them blocked.

Then coronavirus hit, upending the game plan for the March 24 contest in which the voting machines were poised for their first statewide use. Since then, primary elections have been postponed twice to June 9, precincts in high-volume voting areas like Atlanta have shuttered over safety concerns and Raffensperger has pushed for Georgians to hand in absentee ballots rather than head to the polls.

“What voters have to understand is that it’s going to look a little bit different when they show up this time,” Raffensperger said at a recent news conference.

“The fewer people voting on the actual election day,” he added, “the safer it will be for the voters, poll workers and all Georgians.”

Purchased last July from Dominion Voting Systems, the new machines – called ballot-marking devices – involve touchscreens and scanners that record a paper print-out of a voter’s completed ballot. State officials hail the new machines as more secure than the old all-electronic machines, which have been scrapped over cybersecurity concerns after 18 years of use.

Critics of the new machines have continued pushing for Georgia to adopt an all-paper voting system, arguing the new devices still record votes electronically and do not provide enough of an audit trail. Lawsuits filed in federal court against Raffensperger’s office aim to halt the new machines in Georgia, though judges overseeing those cases so far have not issued any injunction orders to do so.

To date, Raffensperger said the new machines have not experienced any major technical issues since being installed in time for the March 24 presidential primary. They have been used by hundreds of thousands of Georgians in early voting this year and during a six-county test run last fall, in which county officials reported some minor glitches.

“They’ve worked amazing,” Raffensperger said, while acknowledging that “we haven’t gotten the full use of those [machines] that we would like because of COVID-19.”

Coronavirus, which had sickened more than 45,000 people and killed 1,974 in Georgia as of Friday afternoon, has prompted elections officials to shift attention from having the new machines go off without a hitch to making sure polling places are kept clean and both voters and poll workers have protective supplies to stay safe.

To curb risks of spreading the virus, voters are being spaced out six feet apart from each other in line at local precincts and poll workers will all wear masks and gloves, Raffensperger said. His office is also supplying counties with roughly 60,000 stylus pens for voters to use on the touchscreens rather than their fingers. Without the styluses, polling places would have to completely shut down the touchscreens to disinfect them after each use.

On top of distancing and sanitizing measures, officials expect voting to take longer than normal due to fewer precincts being open in areas like Atlanta, as some local churches and schools that usually serve as precincts back out over coronavirus concerns.

In Savannah, the Chatham County Board of Elections is pushing to open alternative polling places after 12 of the county’s 92 voting sites “were uncertain.” And Fulton County, the state’s most populous, has lost more than 30 voting sites in recent weeks from its nearly 200-site total and is “struggling with Election Day locations,” said the county’s election director, Rick Barron.

“This has been an unprecedented situation for not only Fulton County but also other counties around the state,” Barron said at a recent news conference.

To ease the pressure of in-person voting, state and county elections officials have spent weeks urging Georgians to cast ballots by mail after Raffensperger’s office sent absentee ballot applications to all of the state’s nearly 7 million registered voters starting in March. So far, roughly 600,000 people have sent in absentee ballots of the more than 1.5 million who requested them, according to Raffensperger.

Handling the avalanche of absentee ballot requests has been challenging for many county elections officials, including Barron. Like other counties, his Fulton County staff have been swamped with processing absentee ballot applications and returned ballots, with many voters still complaining they have not received mail-in ballots weeks after requesting them.

Officials have asked voters to be patient as they sift through absentee ballot requests submitted by mail and online in recent weeks.

“It’s almost as though we’ve added a different type of an election on top of the one that we’re already running,” Barron said. “It has split our resources.”

Meanwhile, time is running out for mail-in voting. Ballots must be cast or received by county offices no later than 7 p.m. on June 9 or they will not count, Raffensperger said. If voters wait until the final few days, their absentee ballots may not circulate quickly enough through the mail to make it.

“It does put you at the mercy of the United States Postal Service,” Raffensperger said.

That time crunch prompted one member of the Georgia House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Donna McCleod, to conclude voters should ditch the mail-in method if they have not received an absentee ballot by Friday, May 29. If that’s the case, voters can still fall back on the new machines to cast their ballot.

“Please, please, please stay safe,” said McCleod, D-Lawrenceville. “This is not worth your life, but it is important for us to participate in our democracy.”

Atlanta Mayor Bottoms seeking more federal coronavirus relief

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

ATLANTA – Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms asked Congress Friday for more aid to help local governments cope with the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

Bottoms told members of the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis that Atlanta received $89 million in direct assistance through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act Congress passed overwhelmingly in March, plus another $338.5 million that went to city-owned Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Still, Atlanta is facing a $35 million to $40 million budget shortfall because of the impact the business lockdown resulting from the pandemic has had on tax collections, Bottoms said.

“Cities can only do so much,” said Bottoms, part of a parade of U.S. mayors invited to testify at Friday’s subcommittee hearing. “We need additional assistance to bolster small businesses and people working paycheck to paycheck in jobs that have been endangered or put on hold.”

Bottoms and the other mayors endorsed the latest coronavirus relief bill before Congress, which includes $375 billion in direct aid to local governments. The Democratic-controlled House passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Solutions (HEROES) Act earlier this month, but it has gotten a cool reception from the U.S. Senate’s Republican majority.

Bottoms said Atlanta has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19 because it’s the mostly densely populated city in Georgia and due to its large population of African-Americans, who data shows are being affected disproportionately by the virus.

She said another factor increasing Atlanta’s exposure to coronavirus is that Georgia was among the first states to begin reopening businesses closed because of the pandemic.

The city itself is pursuing a “thoughtful and strategic reopening that is driven by data” and based on the recommendations of a 60-member committee of business, academic, faith-based and philanthropic leaders, Bottoms said.

“We are encouraged by the progress we’re making,” the mayor said. “But we are not out of the woods yet.”

Ossoff pads money lead in Democratic U.S. Senate primary race

Jon Ossoff

ATLANTA – Investigative journalist Jon Ossoff has grown his fund-raising lead in the final stretch leading up to the June 9 Democratic U.S. Senate primary.

Ossoff’s campaign raised $739,362 between April 1 and May 20, according to the final campaign-finance report filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) before next month’s election to choose a Democrat to challenge incumbent Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga.

Former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson raised $402,003 during the same period, followed by businesswoman and 2018 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor Sarah Riggs Amico, whose campaign brought in $237,381.

Ossoff’s totals for April and the first three weeks in May padded a fund-raising advantage he already enjoyed over his two main Democratic opponents. Overall, he has raised more than $4.1 million, compared to almost $2.5 million for Tomlinson and nearly $1.7 million for Amico.

Ossoff, who lost a special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District seat to Republican Karen Handel in 2017, noted in a news release that he is refusing contributions from corporate political action committees. He also has raised all of his campaign funds without resorting to personal loans.

Tomlinson floated a $50,000 loan to her campaign in recent weeks, in addition to a $30,000 loan earlier in the campaign cycle. Amico’s fund-raising totals include a personal loan of $765,000.

All three candidates have raised enough money to air TV ads in recent weeks. Entering the last weeks of the primary race, Ossoff still had $950,850 left in his campaign treasury, compared to $236,985 cash on hand for Tomlinson and $177,771 for Amico.

Perdue faces no Republican opposition on June 9 and will hold a huge financial advantage over whichever Democrat wins that party’s nomination. Seeking a second six-year term, Perdue had raised more than $13.4 million through May 20 and had almost $9.4 million remaining, according to his report to the FEC.

However, the race is shaping up as more competitive than the fund-raising disparity between Perdue and the Democrats would indicate.

A recent online poll conducted by Civiqs and published by left-leaning website DailyKos found Ossoff with a slight lead over Perdue, 47% to 45%. However, that amounted to a virtual tie because the poll’s margin of error was plus-or-minus 3.1%.

The same poll showed Perdue ahead of Tomlinson by a single percentage point and leading Amico by three.

Kemp to let bars, summer school open in Georgia amid COVID-19

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

Gov. Brian Kemp moved Thursday to relax broad social restrictions in Georgia on bars, nightclubs, summer school classes and overnight summer camps in the coming weeks amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Kemp also announced he will extend the public health emergency in Georgia through July 12, granting him powers to continue issuing executive orders.

The latest pulling back of business restrictions comes amid a bump in positive coronavirus cases in recent days prompting caution from local health experts concerned about people returning too quickly to normal behavior.

At a news conference, the governor said “encouraging data” trends in the number of positive coronavirus cases and hospitalizations convinced him it was time to start slowly reopening more businesses.

“We remain encouraged by the numbers that we are seeing in testing, hospitalizations and a wide variety of other data points across the state,” Kemp said.

In an executive order the governor signed Thursday, bars and nightclubs will be allowed to reopen starting June 1 after nearly two months of closures, so long as establishments meet strict rules. Restrictions include limiting occupancy to 25 patrons or 35% of a building’s occupancy and only serving drinks to seated patrons or in designated areas.

Summer school classes will be allowed starting next month if schools can keep students separated in classrooms and routinely sanitize facilities. Overnight summer camps will be permitted starting May 31 under similar sanitizing and social distancing requirements.

Live performance venues will remain closed for the foreseeable future, though Kemp said he is working with businesses owners on a reopening plan.

Kemp also announced businesses like restaurants and other gathering spots will be allowed to have larger groups of up to 25 people if they keep six feet of space between them starting in June. The six-foot rule has applied for several weeks to groups of up to 10 people.

Additionally, the governor is allowing amusement parks, water parks, carnivals and circuses to reopen under several restrictions starting June 12. Sports leagues will also be permitted to hold practices starting June 1 and must abide by guidelines that the leagues themselves have drafted, Kemp said.

As of 1 p.m. Thursday, more than 45,000 people had tested positive in Georgia for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. The virus had killed 1,962 Georgians.

Kemp and health officials attributed a bump in positive COVID-19 cases seen on the state Department of Public Health’s website in recent days to a large backlog of old test results the agency received from private labs over the weekend.

The state’s public health commissioner, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, backed Kemp’s decision to ease business restrictions, citing the state’s bolstered testing capacity and the hiring of 800 contact tracers tasked with charting an infected person’s web of physical interactions.

“I felt very comfortable … particularly because the data trends have been staying very, very favorable,” Toomey said Thursday.

Ahead of Kemp’s news conference, leading health experts at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta urged people to continue keeping their distance from each other even as social restrictions begin to relax.

“This pandemic is not over just because a politician is saying it’s safe to get out,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, who chairs the Hubert Department of Global Health at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health. “I think there are important economic decisions that need to be made, but what I would tell people is … take care of yourselves, practice social distancing, be careful.”

“The data tells me that I should probably continue sheltering in place,” he added. “I’m not ready to go to a restaurant yet.”

Del Rio, who previously criticized Kemp for waiting too long before ordering Georgians to shelter-in-place, said he expects to see positive COVID-19 cases rise as people interact with each other more and testing increases.

He and a colleague at Emory, Dr. Colleen Kraft, said people need to weigh how comfortable they are exposing themselves or family members to the virus. Kraft, an associate chief medical officer at Emory, said the state should start gaining a better picture of whether cases are on the rise “within the next month.”

In the meantime, Kraft said Georgians should consider viewing their social habits within a “coronavirus circle,” by which she meant the number of other people someone could potentially expose by ignoring social-distancing practices.

“The bottom line is you need to be aware of keeping yourself safe and other people safe,” Kraft said Thursday. “We’re in a country of personal choices, but you need to be sure that you’re being respectful to other people and their medical fragility.”