Georgia lawmakers return to Capitol with COVID, security on their minds

Rep. Greg Morris, a Republican from Vidalia, sanitizes his hands as lawmakers prepare for their first day of mandatory testing during the 2021 legislative session. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

State lawmakers raised their right hands Monday and swore an oath through face masks as the General Assembly started a new session in the wake of last week’s attack on the U.S. Capitol building and as COVID-19 cases surge in Georgia.

Some Georgia Republicans have said they intend to pursue changes to the state’s election laws in the coming months after Democrats made gains, citing baseless claims of widespread voter fraud in the presidential election. President Donald Trump has relentlessly sown doubts over the legitimacy of the election since his loss here to President-elect Joe Biden.

House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican who has thrown cold water on calls from his conservative colleagues to end no-excuse absentee voting, tried to set a civil tone for those discussions Monday. Absentee voting has spiked as Georgians worried about potential exposure to the coronavirus at polling places.

“We must address the concerns of many Georgians about the integrity of our election system, but this will be done in a thoughtful and responsible manner based on facts,” Ralston said. “Our elections must be fair, free from fraud, secure and accessible. That is our obligation. But equal to that obligation is this one: We must always tell our citizens the truth.”

In the Senate, Democratic Sen. Elena Parent and others blasted the Republican elected officials who they said supported the unfounded election fraud accusations that helped fuel the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The insurrection resulted in the deaths of four participants and two Capitol Police officers and caused Congress to halt the certification of Biden’s win for several hours.

At Trump’s rally preceding the violent attack at the Capitol, the president said Georgia’s Jan. 5 Senate runoffs were “rigged” against the Republicans. Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won those races, depriving the GOP of its majority in the U.S. Senate. Trump had campaigned for Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, standing on a north Georgia stage with Loeffler the Monday before the election.

Georgia Republicans were able to beat back a Democratic push to flip the state House last fall and they still control the state House, Senate and governor’s office.

Parent said too many Republican lawmakers remained silent or fanned the flames of conspiracies despite fellow Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s insistence that there was no widespread voting fraud, backed up by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. attorney general.

GOP-controlled House and Senate committees provided Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani a platform to air unsupported claims of fraud and irregularities at the state Capitol.

There were three tallies of the vote in Georgia – including one hand recount – and a signature audit of absentee ballots in Cobb County turned up no examples of fraud.

“We shouldn’t echo false claims when we know that to do so is to strike at the very heart of our democratic system,” Parent said.

Pro-Trump protests are expected to be held at every state capitol in the days leading up to Biden’s inauguration.

Meanwhile, Congress is moving forward with impeaching Trump for his role in fomenting last week’s violent attacks. Georgia is also likely to factor into the upcoming impeachment proceedings after the president’s phone call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger – where Trump can be heard on a recording pushing state election officials to “find” votes to overturn the election – was cited in the impeachment resolution filed Monday.

This is the contentious backdrop for this year’s legislative session. But even with the post-election tensions, a few State Troopers posted outside with long guns and the COVID-19 safety protocols that continue to upend Gold Dome norms, Monday was also filled with selfie-taking lawmakers celebrating their swearing-in and reunions that transcended the country’s deepening partisan divide.

Masked lawmakers greeted each other with waves and elbow bumps instead of hugs and handshakes Monday as the session began under rules aiming to prevent COVID-19 from spreading during the legislative session.

“It’s great to see so many familiar faces here, and it’s great to see so many new faces,” said Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan. “I just want to continue to encourage this chamber to build relationships, build relationships on the floor, build relationships across every line; party lines, geographic lines, district lines.”

Legislative leaders have expanded the safety protocols that were in place in June, when lawmakers returned to Atlanta to finish a session that was halted last March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Face masks are now required in both chambers – not just in the House – and lawmakers will be required to offer up a saliva sample twice a week for COVID-19 testing in hopes of heading off an outbreak that could disrupt the session. In the House, 180 lawmakers are still spread out across three areas of the Capitol.

Georgia Recorder reporters Stanley Dunlap and Ross Williams contributed to this report.