Bill aims to ban election offices from mailing absentee ballots requests

    Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger this spring encouraged absentee voting – at times to the dismay of his Republican colleagues – as he sent ballot request applications to all 6.9 million active voters. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

    Georgia’s House Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday voted to ban election officials from mailing absentee ballot applications to voters, a Republican-backed proposal that would likely stop a repeat of June’s election when a record 1 million people participated by mail.

    The state encouraged Georgia voters to cast ballots by mail to avoid in-person contact at precincts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    On Wednesday, Senate Bill 463 was amended with a provision that prevents election officials from mailing registered voters unsolicited absentee ballot applications, as Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger did for 6.9 million Georgians this year.

    Democrats and a coalition of voting rights and progressive organizations complain the legislation now removes the discretion of election officials to promote a safe way of voting in the event coronavirus infections spike this fall heading into November voting.

    “Georgia Republicans need to realize that vote by mail is a tool that can benefit either party and that localities, as well as the state, should maintain as many possible tools in their toolbox to promote vote by mail generally and certainly in the midst of a raging, ongoing health crisis,” said a joint statement from Fair Fight Action, the Southern Center for Humans Rights and 16 other organizations.

    Republicans, however, counter that the secretary of state’s unprecedented decision to send millions of absentee ballot applications for the June general primary became a headache for local election offices. Election officials were overwhelmed by the influx of absentee ballot requests, and voters who stood in line for hours during the June 9 primary reported that they wanted to vote absentee but never got a response from their ballot request.

    Raffensperger ordered the large-scale absentee ballot push for the twice-delayed election as Gov. Brian Kemp declared a public health emergency in April as coronavirus cases in the state spiked.

    But the massive number of absentee ballots delayed some final election tallies for days after the last polls closed late June 9. 

    The governor would still be able to direct the secretary of state to send out mass absentee applications if a State of Emergency is declared, said Milledgeville Republican Rep. Rick Williams.

    Georgia law allows voters to request an absentee ballot without an excuse. The bill continues letting outside organizations solicit absentee ballots for voters. And it would potentially streamline the absentee ballot request process for voters by mandating an online portal for voters to sign up.

    Rep. Alan Powell said county elections officials complained to him that absentee ballots caused confusion and took too long to process.

    Voters in the majority of Georgia’s counties outside of metro areas avoided long lines, and the state’s new $104 million voting equipment caused relatively few problems at many precincts, the Hartwell Republican said.

    “They didn’t have problems, per se, except minor glitches and getting through the new machinery,” Powell said. “Everybody gave high marks for this, but what they told me was that even in the more smaller rural counties that the problems they had was with absentees.”

    Raffensperger has indicated he doesn’t plan to do the large-scale absentee applications for August runoffs or the November presidential election. 

    “This is not just about one election in 2020,” said Atlanta Democrat Bee Nguyen during the committee meeting. “It’s setting precedents for the future. It just doesn’t seem like a decision we ought to be making in this current moment.”

    Georgia voters demonstrated the state’s top election chief made the right decision for June when they returned more than a million ballot applications by the deadline, which Raffensperger urged more of them to do in late May.

    “(Georgians) responded favorably in significant numbers to the invitation to apply for an application,” Decatur Democrat Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver said. “I think it’s improper to take away his authority to make that decision.”

     

    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.