Absentee-voting debate continues as primary pushed from May to June

Georgia’s primary election has been bumped to June, which is a change some state officials hope will increase the likelihood of more people being able to vote in person. Here, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger demonstrates the state’s new voting equipment. Photo courtesy Secretary of State's office

Georgia’s primary election has been pushed back to June, but debate continues over how much the state should lean on absentee voting as an alternative to casting a ballot in person during the COVID-19 crisis.

Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced Thursday that he would reschedule the May 19 primary election to June 9. The move came the day after Gov. Brian Kemp extended his public health emergency declaration to May 13, overlapping with early voting.

“I certainly realize that every difficulty will not be completely solved by the time in-person voting begins for the June 9 election, but elections must happen even in less than ideal circumstances,” Raffensperger said in a statement.

“Just like our brave healthcare workers and first responders, our county election officials and poll workers are undertaking work critical to our democracy,” he added. “And they will continue to do this critical work with all the challenges that the current crisis has brought forth.”

The delay, he said, buys election officials more time to make the preparations needed to safely conduct a primary election amid a pandemic without affecting the Nov. 3 election.

Raffensperger, who was under pressure from Republican officials to delay the primary, had already sent all of Georgia’s 6.9 million active voters an application for an absentee ballot, which is likely to spur a jump in voting by mail.

Georgia has had no-excuse absentee voting since 2005, but voters normally have to initiate the process on their own. In 2018, only about 6% of voters voted by mail.

It will cost about $13 million to send out the applications and ballots, and that’s with voters providing their own stamp. And those ballot applications will still be accepted, even though they were printed with the earlier date.

Raffensperger, though, is under pressure from Democrats to more fully embrace absentee voting at a time when both poll workers and voters are wary of being potentially being exposed to the novel coronavirus at polling precincts.

“Virus isn’t going anywhere. For elections this year, virus may be a problem, but voting by mail is the remedy,” House Minority Leader Bob Trammell tweeted Thursday, calling state-funded return postage “a must.”

But House Speaker David Ralston, a top Republican official who has been a vocal proponent of delaying the election, says he’s wary of voting by mail. He criticized Raffersperger for not acting sooner to delay the primary.

“Having arrived at this inevitable conclusion after unnecessarily spending millions of additional taxpayer dollars, we can now move forward on a more realistic timeline that inspires confidence on the part of poll workers and voters alike,” the Blue Ridge Republican said.

The speaker said that he and “many members of the House” had already received reports of potential fraud and abuse. Ralston’s spokesman declined to elaborate.

Ralston was recently criticized by civil rights groups for saying that a surge in voting by mail would be “devastating” to Republicans. He later said he was referring to the potential for voter fraud.

“This is not about opposition to absentee ballots. In fact, I encourage people to reach out directly to their county election office to request an absentee ballot as they have done for years,” Ralston said.

Raffensperger announced earlier this week that he would form a voting fraud task force to accompany the likely increase in absentee voting. A move that voting rights groups have decried.

“Rather than improving election administration amid this pandemic, he is wasting time and resources on a so-called ‘fraud’ task force to intimidate voters,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO of Fair Fight Action, which is a group started by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

“COVID-19 will remain a threat to our democracy, and will likely be present this entire year, so there is plenty that the Secretary of State could be doing to provide for safe and accessible voting both by mail and in person so that every eligible Georgian’s vote can be cast and is counted,” she said.

Key dates for the now-June 9 primary:

Georgians must be registered to vote by May 11.

Early voting will begin on May 18.

Run-offs will be held Aug. 11.