Ga. primary still set for May despite push to delay from top lawmakers

Georgia voters can deposit their absentee ballots in drop boxes for the June 9 primary election after the State Election Board Wednesday approved the unusual system to help people avoid spreading the COVID-19 disease. File/Georgia Recorder

Georgia elections officials are moving full steam ahead with plans for a May 19 primary as time runs short for top Republican leaders to get their wish for a longer election delay.

Some top Republicans and Democrats are still debating the suitability of the May 19 election date and whether it should be delayed until June or later due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The debate is ramping up as state officials deal with the unprecedented  challenges of a suspended 2020 legislative session and state of emergency declaration that now runs through April 13.

The public health emergency already led to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office merging the March 24 presidential preference primary with the May 19 election, when votes for the state legislature, U.S. Congress and local races are set to take place. A press conference is scheduled for Monday morning to outline public safety guidelines ahead of the May vote.

Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Secretary of State’s Office is mailing 6.9 million absentee ballot applications to all active voters for the May balloting.

“We have to plan our election based on it being held in May,” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said. “We’re watching the situation on the ground. We’re in touch with all the county elections officials. You hope for the best, but you have to plan for the worst. I understand how trying and difficult things are right now for all Georgians.”

Raffensperger’s decision drew a strong rebuke from top GOP officials, especially state House Speaker David Ralston. He complained mass vote-by-mailing could jeopardize Republican control in the Legislature.

The Blue Ridge Republican clarified a day later that he meant to say higher turnout wasn’t his concern, but instead it was the potential for voting fraud, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported.

Postponing the election would require either for the now suspended legislative session to resume so lawmakers can pass enabling legislation, or for Gov. Brian Kemp’s statewide emergency declaration to be extended.

Raffensperger said he’ll reevaluate changing the election date if the emergency order is changed.

Sending out the ballot applications is necessary due to the public health crisis caused by the coronavirus outbreak, and is not something the state is planning for yet for the November general election, he said.

Typically, no more than 7% of voters cast absentee ballots. Most Georgians vote in person and this year were set to test the state’s new $107 million voting system for the first time on a large scale.

Absentee ballot application

Voters are required to mail back the absentee ballot applications with a stamp in order to receive the actual ballot through mail.

Georgia’s 11-member GOP congressional delegation sent a letter to Raffensperger last week urging him to delay the election, citing the safety concerns for older voters and poll workers.

“Moving forward with an election date that requires early voting to begin during a time when every public health agency has stated that ‘if you are an older person, stay home and away from other people’ is irresponsible,” the letter said. 

For its part, the Democratic Party of Georgia said it supports maintaining the May primary date.

However, the Democrats want the state to cover the costs of stamps for voters who mail their ballots. 

Rescheduling the election to June or later might confuse voters accustomed to primaries held in May every two years, said Cindy Battles, program coordinator for the government accountability nonprofit Common Cause Georgia.

“All of that confusion is just going to lower turnout further and that’s not something we want,” she said. “What we’re working for is for the voices of all the voters to be heard in our election, and from what we see with a robust vote-by-mail program proceeding to the May 19 election is the best solution.”

 Odds for new election date

Georgia State University political science professor Robert Howard says he expects that the primary election day to eventually be rescheduled because Kemp is likely to extend the statewide emergency order.

Overall, even if the mass absentee ballots are turned in, it’s unlikely it would prevent Joe Biden from winning the Democratic presidential primary here or change who emerges from the majority of the state and local primaries, said the co-author of Politics in Georgia.

Some Republicans are alarmed that more Democrats will cast their ballots through mail as absentees in this primary, potentially swinging some close races, Howard said.

I think Ralston is afraid that if we allow universal ballots in the primary then there will be a strong push to have that in the general election and Georgia is a competitive state,” he said.

Former state Rep. Buzz Brockway said the best route is for top leaders to work together before any decision is made to postpone the election. 

“I think people are rightly using caution and saying we need to look at this from every angle,” said Brockway, a Republican representative for Gwinnett County from 2011 to 2018. “I think that Secretary Raffensperger’s office has acted in the best they can in trying to protect the public while ensuring our constituents’ right to vote.”

Moving an election date is a major task that would require input from many people, Raffensperger said.

We would make sure we reach out to senior leadership in the General Assembly, in the House and Senate and also the governor’s office,” he said. “It’s also very import to reach out to the leadership of the Republican Party and Democratic Party because these are partisan primaries. 

“We don’t want to do anything unilaterally and always want to have a discussion and have as much uniformity that this is the right decision to go for all voters,” Raffensperger said.

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.