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.

Georgia Power, Sierra Club wage court battle over coal ash cleanup costs

An aerial view of Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer (File photo)

ATLANTA – A lawyer for the Sierra Club asked a Fulton County Superior Court judge Monday to prohibit Georgia Power from passing on $525 million in coal ash cleanup costs to its customers.

But lawyers for the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) and Georgia Power argued the Atlanta-based utility fully justified both its cleanup plan and the costs of that work during hearings before the PSC last year.

Robert Jackson, the lawyer representing the Sierra Club, asked Judge Shukura Millender to declare the pollution of groundwater by Georgia Power’s ash ponds at 11 coal-fired power plants “unlawful,” or at least “unreasonable and imprudent.” Such a ruling would disqualify the company from recovering the costs of the cleanup from ratepayers, he said.

“Georgia Power has coal ash sitting in groundwater at plants Bowen, Hammond, Scherer, Wansley and Yates,” Jackson said. “If it had complied with Georgia environmental law, these expensive environmental remediation costs could have been avoided.”

Georgia Power is working on a multi-year plan to close all 29 of its coal ash ponds at the 11 power plants to meet federal regulations for handling coal ash, which contains toxic chemicals that can pollute drinking water supplies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cracked down on pollution from ash ponds in 2015 after a massive spill at a plant in Tennessee.

The PSC signed off on Georgia Power’s coal ash cleanup proposals In July 2019 as part of its latest Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), an update of plans for meeting the state’s energy needs the utility submits every three years. The commission then followed up on that vote late last year by incorporating the costs of the cleanup in a rate increase for Georgia Power.

Jackson argued Monday that the PSC decided to allow Georgia Power to pass on those costs to customers without any evidence that they were incurred lawfully or reasonably.

But Dan Walsh, a lawyer representing the PSC, said Georgia Power justified those costs during last year’s proceedings before the commission. In bringing the issue to court, the Sierra Club is essentially seeking to relitigate the case, he said.

“The evidence Georgia Power presented of the costs it would incur … were sufficient to justify permitting cost recovery [from customers],” Walsh said. “By arguing the evidence relied upon by the commission is inadequate, the Sierra Club is asking the court to second guess the commission on the weight it afforded to the evidence.”

Tom Reilly, the lawyer representing Georgia Power, dismissed the Sierra Club’s argument that the company has acted unlawfully in its disposal of coal ash. Neither the EPA nor the Georgia Environmental Protection Division have accused Georgia Power of breaking the law, and there are no pending enforcement actions related to coal ash, he said.

“If the Sierra Club had an issue about the activities being undertaken and whether they were insufficient and improper, it should have made the argument in the IRP,” Reilly said.

Jackson said none of the voluminous testimony filed in last year’s proceedings dealt directly with Georgia Power’s request to make customers pick up the tab for the coal ash cleanup.

“These plans are draft remediation plans for what Georgia Power plans to do when it closes these coal ash ponds,” he said. “None of these documents say anything about whether it’s just or reasonable or prudent to pass these costs on to their ratepayers.”

Judge Millender said she would take the various parties’ arguments under advisement and issue a written ruling.

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.

Pence rallies in Georgia to boost Republican U.S. Senate campaigns

Vice President Mike Pence (center) joined fellow Republicans U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (left) and U.S. Sen. David Perdue (right) for rallies in support of their runoff campaigns on Nov. 20, 2020. (Pence Twitter photo)

Vice President Mike Pence swung through North Georgia Friday to boost the runoff campaigns for the state’s two Republican senators as they battle strong Democratic contenders for control of the U.S. Senate.

Pence’s rally stops in Cherokee and Hall counties came as Georgia’s presidential election results were set to be certified Friday afternoon, confirming President-elect Joe Biden’s win in the state over President Donald Trump.

The vice president made it plain that with Biden’s win and U.S. House Democrats retaining their majority, Georgia Republican voters will need to hand GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler victories in the Jan. 5 runoff elections to block Democratic control of Congress and the White House.

“We need the great state of Georgia to defend the majority,” Pence said at a rally in Canton. “And the road to the Senate Republican majority goes straight through the state of Georgia.”

Hinting at the prospects of an incoming Biden administration, Pence said Georgia “could be the last line of defense” against Democratic control in Washington, D.C., though Trump still has not conceded defeat in this month’s general election.

Pence is the latest high-profile national Republican to stump for Perdue and Loeffler in Georgia ahead of the Jan. 5 runoff elections, following visits from Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

They are helping fuel a campaign by national and state Republicans to paint Democratic Senate hopefuls Jon Ossoff, an investigative journalist, and Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, as too far left for Georgia voters.

That message has been carried in a series of attack ads from Loeffler featuring her opponent Warnock’s past comments on police from the pulpit, and in television interviews where Perdue has accused Ossoff of being too cozy with China.

Ossoff and Warnock punched back this week, highlighting news reports on moves Perdue allegedly pursued to benefit a Navy supplier and professional sports owners, as well as an ethics complaint lodged against Loeffler for appearing to solicit campaign donations on federal property.

The two runoff races look to gain steam over the next six weeks with intense national attention being paid to the candidates and money pouring in from both political parties to bolster each campaign.

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

Telecom execs: Business case for rural broadband doesn’t work without lower fees from EMCs

ATLANTA – Telecom companies are ready and willing to invest tens of millions of dollar extending broadband service into rural Georgia, telecom executives told members of the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) this week.

But they can’t afford to do so unless the PSC rolls back the fees the state’s electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) charge for attaching broadband technology to utility poles, the executives testified during a four-day hearing that wrapped up Friday.

“Building [broadband] networks in rural areas is an expensive proposition in areas where there may be more poles than people,” Jason Gumbs, senior vice president for Comcast in a 10-state region that includes Georgia, said Friday. “Every cost factor … takes on an added importance.

“If Georgia presents itself as a place where we cannot invest because of onerous pole rates, we will have to look at other opportunities in front of us.”

Under legislation the General Assembly passed this year, the PSC must decide how much Georgia’s EMCs will be allowed to charge the telecoms for the critical pole attachments they will need to bring vital broadband connectivity to wide swaths of rural Georgia that are currently unserved or underserved. Commissioners are expected to vote on the issue next month.

The EMCs, which currently are charging about $20 per pole per year for attachments, are asking the PSC to increase that rate to an average of $37.95 per pole, which EMC officials say reflects their costs.

The telecoms want the commission to adopt the much lower rate of $7 per pole set by the Federal Communications Commission, now in effect in states including neighboring North Carolina and close to the rate Georgia Power charges in its service area.

Douglas Frank, regional vice president for Mediacom, which serves customers in 22 states including Georgia, said the $37.95 rate would increase the company’s costs by 83%. Mediacom currently pays $20.77 per pole, he said.

“It is simply not operationally possible … nor a sustainable business practice,” he said.

But under cross-examination, Frank conceded the 38 EMCs that will be affected by the PSC’s decision on pole rates would lose $8.3 million per year were the commission to adopt the FCC rate.

Robert Remar, a lawyer representing the EMCs, suggested the deep-pocketed national telecoms would be better able to absorb a revenue loss than the member-owned EMCs, which would have to pass on their losses directly to customers.

The telecoms are offering significant broadband investments in Georgia. Frank said Mediacom has committed $20 million to $25 million during the next several years in its service area.

Gumbs said Comcast already has begun a $9 million initiative to expand broadband service to nearly 8,000 homes and businesses in Haralson and Carroll counties, starting Dec. 7 in Tallapoosa. It’s part of a planned three-year $27 million investment in 10 Georgia counties, he said.

Gumbs said the $5 million Comcast would save if the PSC adopts the FCC pole rate would be put toward its Georgia broadband plans.

But Remar said there’s no guarantee the telecoms would use the savings from a lower pole attachment rate to expand broadband connectivity in Georgia.

“Even if the commission decides to lower your pole attachment rates, you could decide to invest in another state … some other place where you’d get a better return,” he said.

Several commissioners hinted they may be reluctant to roll back the pole attachment rates because of the potential impact on the EMCs’ 4 million customers.

“The thought of hitting these EMC customers financially with no real guarantees of offsetting that with broadband makes me a little bit nervous,” Commissioner Tim Echols said. “It seems like I’m robbing one to help the other.”

But Gumbs said a lower pole attachment rate would not automatically result in raising EMC customers’ monthly bills.

“We will attach to more poles, which would increase the revenue for the EMCs,” he said. “Electric consumption will also go up. … I don’t see those 4 million Georgians impacted.”