Georgia launches online absentee ballot request system

ATLANTA – Georgians can request an absentee ballot for the November election by going online to a website Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office launched Friday.

Located at, the website allows users to request that an absentee ballot be mailed to them, which they can then return by mail or place in one of the drop-off boxes that were installed across the state ahead of the June primaries.

With the coronavirus pandemic raging, Georgians voted by mail in record numbers in June and are expected to do so again in November. Many of those who waited to vote in person in June were forced to wait in long, socially distanced lines that in some cases took hours.

Raffensperger’s office sent request forms for absentee ballots to every registered voter in Georgia ahead of the primaries. But he decided not to do that ahead of the November election after fellow Republicans, including House Speaker David Ralston, complained the practice could encourage fraud.

The secretary of state responded by developing the website to make it easy for Georgians who want to vote through the mail to request an absentee ballot.

The agency also expects to realize huge savings by using the website rather than paying the postage to mail absentee ballot request forms to about 7 million registered voters.

When a voter clicks on the website, he or she is prompted to supply personal data including name, date of birth and home county. The data then goes to the appropriate county elections office, which sends out the absentee ballot.

The new system has been put through several weeks of testing by cybersecurity experts working with the secretary of state’s office.

Voters who wish to cast absentee ballots are being asked not to procrastinate. The U.S. Postal Service is asking voters to allow 15 days for delivery each way.

The voter registration deadline is Oct. 5. Voters can check their registration status online at

U.S. Marshals rescue 39 missing children in Atlanta, Macon

Investigators with the U.S. Marshals Service conduct “Operation Not Forgotten” to locate missing children in Atlanta and Macon in this photo dated Aug. 6, 2020. (Photo by Shane T. McCoy, U.S. Marshals)

The U.S. Marshals Service along with state and local agencies have rescued 26 missing children in Georgia at risk of trafficking and abuse over a two-week period this month in Atlanta and Macon, according to an announcement Thursday.

Another 13 endangered children were determined to be in safe locations as part of the rescue mission called “Operation Not Forgotten.” Investigators made nine arrests and cleared more than two dozen warrants.

“The U.S. Marshals Service is fully committed to assisting federal, state and local agencies with locating and recovering endangered missing children, in addition to their primary fugitive apprehension mission,” Marshals Service Director Donald Washington said in a statement. “The message to missing children and their families is that we will never stop looking for you.”

The 39 missing children who were rescued or deemed safe via the operation were considered at high risk for child sex trafficking, exploitation, sexual and physical abuse and due to medical or mental-health conditions, according to a Marshals Service news release.

Many of the arrested persons had multiple warrants and now face charges on allegations involving sex trafficking, parental kidnapping, registered sex offender violations, drugs and weapons possession and custodial interference, the news release said.

Officials said children were located in about 20 Georgia counties including Fulton, Gwinnett, Clayton and Forsyth. They were located in a variety of settings including homes, apartment complexes and motels where some were being trafficked for sex, according to officials.

Many of the children had been missing for several weeks, while one was missing for two years prior to recovery. Their ages ranged from 3-years-old to 17-years-old, officials said.

The Marshals have rescued more than 1,800 missing children since launching a partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2005. Nearly 300 children were recovered last year.

“It’s hard to put into words what we feel when we rescue a missing child, but I can tell you that this operation has impacted every single one of us out here,” said Darby Kirby, who heads up the Marshals’ Missing Child Unit. “We are working to protect them and get them the help they need.”

The two-week operation involved assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and state agencies including the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr’s office, the Division of Family and Children Services and the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Year-end tests for Georgia K-12 schools still up in the air amid COVID-19

Georgia school officials have adopted changes to reduce the number of year-end tests K-12 students must take, but it remains up in the air whether final assessments will be scrapped entirely this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Education has not yet approved a waiver Georgia officials submitted in June to abstain from year-end tests as the state’s roughly 2,800 public schools continue grappling with resuming classes online and in-person amid the virus.

The waiver, which federal officials must approve before tests can be canceled, drew broad support from students, parents, teachers and other Georgians who were surveyed recently on whether they back scrapping tests this year.

But without waiver approval, the state Department of Education is forced to move forward for now on planning for the tests to be administered and green-lighting certain contracts aimed at tracking student testing performance.

“We don’t know what the future holds nor can we predict what COVID-19 will look like,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods said Thursday. “Until we hear something from [federal officials], we’re moving things forward like a normal day.”

Meanwhile, members of the state Board of Education passed a resolution Thursday to eliminate four year-end tests in high school and one in the third grade from the trove of assessments required annually for third graders through seniors in Georgia.

Those changes came as part of legislation the General Assembly passed in June and Gov. Brian Kemp signed a short time later. Kemp, Woods and many school advocates backed reducing tests to help ease stress and heavy workloads for students and teachers, as well as drive down costs to prepare the tests.

Along with fewer tests, the legislation allowed state education officials to study whether some tests are redundant and if they could be eliminated, and required local school districts to compile data on how their students fared with the testing to compare performance with schools in other states.

It also required schools to administer tests within 25 days of the end of spring semester for elementary and middle school students, and on a date to be determined by the state board for high schoolers.

With many schools resuming classes this month, some board members on Thursday called on local school districts to return students back to in-person classes quickly rather than lean on virtual learning to complete courses indefinitely.

“There’s a million reasons why we need to safely get the kids back into the buildings as quickly as possible,” said board member Mike Long.

Kemp and Woods have also supported resuming in-person classes during the pandemic but have left it to local districts how to proceed.

Also on Thursday, the board approved a roughly $18.5 million grant to boost virtual programs aimed at tailoring courses to a student’s individual needs and signed off on new elective classes focused on the history and literature of the Old and New Testaments.

Initial unemployment claims in Georgia decline for fifth straight week

Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler

ATLANTA – Initial unemployment claims in Georgia fell below 100,000 last week for the fifth week in a row, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.

For the week ending Aug. 22, 56,768 jobless Georgians filed first-time unemployment claims, down 1,331 from the previous week.

Since March 21, the labor department has processed more than 3.5 million initial unemployment claims, more than during the last eight years combined.

In the latest development, the agency has begun creating a system to handle claims filed under the new federal Lost Wages Assistance (LWA) program, which will replace an initiative that had been providing unemployed workers $600 per week until it expired at the end of last month.

Certification requirements for the LWA are different than those for the earlier program, which will require the labor department to develop a new computer system to administer payments, a process the agency anticipates will take three to four weeks.

“We are working as quickly as possible to build an application to meet the new … guidelines to process these weekly supplements,” Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said Thursday. “I am thankful we have an IT and [Unemployment Insurance] team that is able to interpret extensive federal guidelines and develop a system that will support the specifications these systems demand.”

The new program will provide weekly supplements of $300 to unemployed Georgians. Congress failed to reach agreement on legislation renewing the earlier program at the $600 level before it expired, prompting President Donald Trump to announce the LWA earlier this month, to be funded with up to $44 billion drawn from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

However, the LWA initially is providing benefits for just three weeks. After that, states must reapply weekly for more funding.

Democrats in the Georgia House of Representatives complained this week that the state’s backlog of unprocessed unemployment claims is unacceptable and called on Gov. Brian Kemp to boost staffing at the labor department to speed up the processing of claims.

But Butler said simply hiring temporary workers lacking experience in the complexities of handling unemployment claims wouldn’t solve the problem.

“Our big issue is not processing claims,” Butler said Thursday. “Besides fraud, it’s dealing with appeals and redeterminations. … You cannot program a computer to do that. It takes a very experienced, well-trained [Department of Labor] person.”

To combat a huge increase in fraud that has accompanied the exponential growth in claims, the labor department is trotting out a new tool. The department has formed a partnership with the nationally recognized program to provide a complete online verification program. is free for claimants to identify themselves, including a video chat with trained staff members.

“This money is taxpayers’ money,” Butler said. “It’s our job to protect this money. … We are working with state and federal law enforcement to go after these cases. We’re hoping to see some arrests and stop this.”

Since March 21, the accommodation and food services job sector has accounted for the most first-time unemployment claims, with 846,192 claims filed. The health-care and social assistance sector is next with 418,313 claims, followed by retail trade with 383,556.

More than 136,000 jobs are listed online at for Georgians to access. The labor department offers online resources for finding a job, building a resume and assisting with other reemployment needs.

State economic development agency board approves Savannah Convention Center expansion

Savannah Convention Center

ATLANTA – Georgia’s economic development agency signed off Wednesday on the first phase of the planned expansion of the Savannah Convention Center.

The Department of Economic Development’s Board of Directors voted unanimously to sell $70 million in bonds to begin construction of the $210 million project on Hutchinson Island. Savannah officials and the city’s legislative delegation will seek the rest of the funding during the next two years.

This year’s first installment already had been approved by the General Assembly as part of a $1.13 billion fiscal 2021 bond package.

The project will double the exhibit hall space to 200,000 square feet, add a 60-foot-wide hangar door, a new entrance with an all-glass façade, outdoor space, a 40,000-square-foot ballroom, 15 meeting rooms and 900 parking spaces.

A second “bookend” hotel financed with private funds is to be built adjacent to the site, joining the Westin Savannah Harbor.

Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the convention center was frequently booked to capacity, forcing it to turn away larger gatherings that would bring in more revenue.

“This is a significant boost for Savannah tourism and development,” said Larry Hanson, executive director of the Georgia Municipal Association and a member of the economic development agency’s board.

“It’s a good investment,” added board member Jay Neely, a vice president at Savannah-based Gulfstream Aerospace Corp.

Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, told board members Wednesday the groundbreaking for the project will take place this fall, with the expanded center due to open by the end of 2023.

In other business at Wednesday’s meeting, the board approved transferring the operation and maintenance of two of Georgia’s 11 welcome centers from the state Department of Economic Development to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Unlike the other nine welcome centers, the centers in Plains and Sylvania are not located along interstate highways near the various state lines, said Andrew Capezzuto, the economic development agency’s general counsel.

While the nine interstate welcome centers serve primarily as rest stops for travelers, the centers in Plains – the home of former President Jimmy Carter – and Sylvania focus more heavily on providing tourists with information about the historic sites located in the two communities, Capezzuto said.

“Plains and Sylvania fit very well within [the DNR’s] operation,” he said.