Early voting ends in Georgia with enormous turnout

The line stretched around the block at South Cobb Regional Library in Mableton where voters waited in line for hours to cast ballots on the first day of early voting in the Nov. 3 general election on Oct. 12, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

More than 3.8 million people cast ballots in Georgia by the close of the three-week early voting period for the Nov. 3 election, marking roughly half the state’s total registered voters and nearly eclipsing the entire vote count of the 2016 election.

Around 2.6 Georgians turned out to vote in-person for early voting from Oct. 12 through Oct. 30, according to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office. Another roughly 1.2 million had cast absentee ballots through Friday, with more mail-in votes expected to arrive before Election Day.

Turnout for the Nov. 3 election looks to dwarf record numbers seen in the 2016 presidential election, which drew around 4.1 million votes in Georgia. Interest is high among Georgians this election cycle with the presidency, both U.S. Senate seats, congressional seats and control of the state House of Representatives in play.

The enormous early turnout numbers in Georgia reflected safety concerns about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, long lines seen during the June 9 primaries and mistrust in the integrity of the election ahead of one of the most consequential elections for Georgia in decades.

Raffensperger has estimated another 2 million Georgians could head to the polls on Election Day next week, potentially upping the final vote tally to 6 million of the state’s 7.6 million registered voters.

“Voters are coming out to vote,” Raffensperger told members of the State Elections Board on Friday.

With a huge chunk of the vote coming from mail-in ballots, Raffensperger has said officials tasked with publishing election results “plan to get them up as soon as we have them.” Absentee ballots must be received by 7 p.m. on Election Day in order to be counted.

“We want everyone to know that your vote counts,” Raffensperger said earlier this week. “We want to get those election results up as soon as possible.”

Raffensperger has urged Georgians to “make a plan” if they intend to vote on Tuesday with lines expected to be long. He has also pressed mail-in voters to deliver their absentee ballots quickly to one of hundreds of drop-off boxes scattered throughout the state or at a local elections office.

Come Election Day, the state and counties have recruited around 50,000 volunteers largely as poll workers, while several hundred contractors and others trained in how to troubleshoot Georgia’s new voting machines will be at precincts for technical assistance, according to Raffensperger.

Gaps in poll worker know-how and minor technical glitches contributed to long lines during the June 9 primary, along with delays caused by safety and sanitization measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The large number of volunteers should help smooth the process on Nov. 3, Raffensperger said earlier this week.

“Though we originally aimed to recruit just 10,000 Georgians, average, everyday voters joined the effort in droves, exceeding even our expectations,” Raffensperger said in a statement Friday. “These heroes deserve to be recognized for their selfless dedication to upholding democracy in Georgia.”

Polling places in Georgia will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday.

This story has been corrected to note that absentee ballots must be received by 7 p.m. on Election Day in order to be counted in Georgia.

Port of Savannah may be renamed after Johnny Isakson

Former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson

ATLANTA – Georgia lawmakers will take up a resolution this winter to rename the Port of Savannah after retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, David Ralston, speaker of the state House of Representatives, announced Friday.

Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, cited Isakson’s long record of support for Georgia’s deep-water ports and the role they play in the state’s economy.

“Speaker Ralston believes the Port of Savannah stands as a beacon for economic growth,” said Kaleb McMichen, Ralston’s spokesman. “Senator Isakson dedicated his career to building up this state and expanding opportunity for all. … It is only fitting then that one of this state’s most important economic engines, our Port of Savannah, should bear Senator Isakson’s name.”

In particular, McMichen cited Isakson’s role in winning federal funding to deepen Savannah Harbor from 42 feet to 47 feet, a $1 billion project that will allow the Port of Savannah to accommodate the new generation of giant containerized-cargo ships when completed late next year. The port recently became the nation’s busiest export hub.

Isakson retired from the Senate at the end of last year, citing health issues. He was elected to the Senate in 2004 after serving five years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing a congressional district in Atlanta’s northern suburbs.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, tweeted Friday that he plans to introduce a similar resolution at the federal level honoring Isakson.

Georgia governor quarantining after congressman contracts COVID-19

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks with reporters outside Amazon’s new warehouse in Gwinnett County on Sept. 1, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Gov. Brian Kemp is quarantining after being exposed to a person who tested positive for COVID-19, his office announced Friday afternoon.

Kemp’s office soon afterward announced he and First Lady Marty Kemp tested negative for the highly contagious virus. Both are still quarantining.

“The Governor is not currently experiencing any symptoms and will be quarantining, per Department of Public Health guidance,” Kemp’s office said in a statement.

Separately, U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-West Point, disclosed he tested positive for coronavirus after developing cold-like symptoms Thursday night that worsened the following morning.

Kemp and Ferguson, both Republicans, appeared together on Tuesday at a rally for President Donald Trump just outside Warm Springs, the same day Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden made a campaign stop there. Many of the attendees at the pro-Trump rally were not wearing masks.

Ferguson is campaigning for a third term representing Georgia’s 3rd Congressional District, which stretches west of Atlanta to the state line between Columbus and Villa Rica. He is competing against Democratic nominee Val Almonord.

“While the vast majority of my recent schedule has been virtual, we are beginning the process of reaching out to anyone I have seen in recent days,” Ferguson said Friday. “I am eager to get back to work and will do so as soon as I have fully recovered.”

Kemp’s quarantine announcement came shortly after he renewed COVID-19 distancing and sanitization rules that have been in place for several months in Georgia, which has struggled to shake off the virus as businesses and schools reopen following a statewide shutdown in April.

Public gatherings are limited to 50 persons or fewer and a shelter-in-place order remains in effect for elderly persons in long-term care facilities and those with chronic health issues.

As of Friday afternoon, more than 358,000 people in Georgia had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. It had killed 7,955 Georgians.

Critics: Georgia health-insurance reforms a ‘missed opportunity’

ATLANTA – Georgia’s new health-insurance reform plan will address three problems at once, Gov. Brian Kemp announced recently when he rolled out two insurance “waivers” approved by the federal government.

The governor’s “Georgia-centric” approach will reduce one of the nation’s highest uninsured rates, lower premiums and increase competition in the private health-insurance market, Kemp said.

But the plan is getting pushback from patient advocates who argue the state isn’t getting enough bang for its buck and could cover more Georgians for about the same cost to taxpayers.

‘This is a huge missed opportunity,” said Laura Colbert, executive director of Georgians for a Healthy Future. “We’re missing the most cost-effective way to solve this problem.”

The two waivers will allow the state to undertake a limited expansion of its Medicaid program and give Georgians with incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid options outside the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Under the Medicaid waiver, single adults with incomes up to 100% of the federal poverty level, currently $12,760 a year, can enroll in Medicaid or an employer-sponsored insurance plan starting next July. The state will help pay premiums and copays for those who sign up for insurance through their jobs.

To qualify, enrollees will have to take part in “qualifying activities” for at least 80 hours a month, such as a job, on-the-job training, vocational training, education or community service.

Under a second waiver, the state will fund a reinsurance program starting in January 2022 aimed at holding down premiums by paying part of an insurance company’s claims once they exceed a certain amount.

The program is expected to reduce premiums statewide up to 10% on average and up to 25% in some communities, primarily in rural Georgia.

The second waiver also will eliminate the healthcare.gov portal the ACA provides for enrollment in individual coverage plans, effective as of January 2023, and let Georgians sign up directly with private insurance carriers, local brokers or agents, or through web-broker sites.

Georgia enrollment in healthcare.gov has fallen by 22% since 2016, a trend the governor blamed on the site being clunky to use.

“For me, healthcare.gov is a four-letter word,” Kemp said. “The enrollment process has been nothing short of disappointing.”

The state anticipates the Medicaid waiver will cost taxpayers an average of $218 million per year. On the other hand, Deloitte Consulting, the firm the state hired to help develop the waivers, projected the cost of a “full-blown” expansion of Medicaid through the ACA would cost Georgia $547 million annually.

But the plan’s critics question Deloitte’s numbers. They cite a state Department of Audits and Accounts report last year that a full expansion of Medicaid – as 38 other states have done – would cost Georgia $213.2 million in fiscal 2022.

Also, while the state’s Medicaid waiver is expected to cover about 65,000 Georgians, last year’s fiscal note asserted a full expansion – covering single adults with incomes up to 138% of the poverty level – would serve more than 500,000.

“You’re spending four times more per person with this waiver than you would with a [full] Medicaid expansion,” said Laura Harker, health policy analyst for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

But supporters say there’s more to Georgia’s brand of Medicaid expansion than meets the eye.

Kyle Wingfield, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, asserted in a recent column the Medicaid waiver’s impact will be felt far beyond the projected numbers because it won’t discourage people from bettering themselves by earning more money.

“It will help provide a smoother transition to private insurance markets,” he wrote. “So, as people climb the income ladder and move out of the program, new people will enter it – extending the impact to more Georgians.”

Indeed, Kemp predicted more than 270,000 Georgians ultimately will benefit from the Medicaid expansion.

The Georgia waivers’ detractors also are concerned about the qualifying activities the Medicaid waiver will require of enrollees.

Colbert said the provision leaves out full-time caregivers and those who don’t have access to the internet, which enrollees will have to use regularly to report their activities.

“The history of Medicaid hasn’t been a program about work,” Harker said. “It’s been a program about health.”

Harker also defended the healthcare.gov website. She said the portal has rebounded from a rash of technical problems when it was first rolled out during the last decade.

“We’d be the only state without some type of central marketplace,” she said of Georgia’s plan to abandon healthcare.gov. “Most states either have healthcare.gov or their own exchange.”

But Wingfield argued that replacing healthcare.gov with a wider array of coverage options in the private market would let Georgians buy less expensive coverage if they choose.

“Brokers and insurance carriers will be able to show consumers not only the subsidized, but very expensive, ACA plans, but other types of coverage that may cost them even less out of pocket,” he wrote.

“Injecting more competition and options into this marketplace is a crucial step toward reining in prices and giving Georgians better access to care.”

Initial jobless claims in Georgia down slightly

Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler

ATLANTA – First-time unemployment claims in Georgia declined by 1,197 last week to 43,605, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.

The agency paid out more than $168 million in benefits last week, bringing total benefits paid since the coronavirus pandemic exploded in Georgia last March to more than $15 billion, more than the last 27 years combined.

Meanwhile, the labor department announced a pilot project set to begin Nov. 2 that will allow claimants to schedule an online appointment with a claims representative to ask questions about their claim.

Each appointment will be assigned a two-hour window during which a representative will call the claimant. Almost 3,000 appointments will be scheduled during the program’s first two weeks.

“The addition of this online tool will further our ability to address claim issues,” Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said.  “We have been adding personnel to our staff to help with general responses, and this addition will allow our experienced staff to focus on resolving claimant issues more efficiently.” 

Claimants are urged to be ready to discuss their claim during the time frame allotted.  Additional time slots will be added each Monday for the following week. On Monday, Nov. 2, the appointment scheduler will be available on the agency’s website and will be highlighted under the Spotlight area on the homepage.

Since March 21, the accommodation and food services job sector has accounted for the most initial unemployment claims in Georgia with 950,239. The health care and social assistance job sector is next with 456,145 claims, followed by retail trade with 419,395.

More than 167,000 jobs are listed online at EmployGeorgia for Georgians to access. The labor department offers online resources for finding careers, building a resume, and assisting with other reemployment needs.