Georgia House Speaker asks for new primary election delay until summer

    House Speaker David Ralston huddled with his chamber's leaders March 12 just before the General Assembly suspended its 2020 session out of concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 virus. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

    A high-ranking Georgia Republican wants the state’s May 19 primary election delayed at least one month due to the COVID-19 outbreak that recently forced lawmakers to abruptly suspend the 2020 legislative session.

    House Speaker David Ralston sent a letter requesting the delay to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Thursday, just two days after Raffensperger announced that all of Georgia’s 6.9 million active voters would be sent an absentee ballot request form as a way of encouraging more people to vote by mail during the pandemic.

    Raffensperger announced earlier this month that he would postpone Georgia’s March 24 presidential primary because of the threat posed to voters and poll workers gathered in close quarters. He aligned it with the May 19 primary election, when partisan voters choose their candidate for county commissions, the statehouse and congressional seats.

    Now, Ralston argues that both should be delayed, since it remains unclear how long the outbreak will last.

    “Pushing the primary back a month or more gives us more time to allow the situation to improve so that voters can vote in the manner in which they are most familiar,” Ralston wrote. “More importantly, it would make our highest priority the health and safety not only of voters, but our hard-working poll workers and elections officials.”

    Ralston noted that several other Southern states have already pushed their primary run-offs into the summer months. Their primaries had already been held.

    And the Blue Ridge lawmaker asked Raffensperger to conduct the election as he normally would, allowing lawmakers a chance to review any changes to voting procedures.

    “I realize you have developed plans to accommodate any continuing public health concerns,” Ralston wrote. “While I commend the goal, I respectfully submit that many of these measures deserve full and thorough legislative consideration before implementation.”

    The delay would also help lawmakers who are now unable to raise money for their re-election bids, since the rest of legislative session remains in limbo. They cannot accept campaign donations during the session, and the outbreak also severely limits their ability to hit the campaign trail, knocking on doors and shaking hands as they normally would.

    Only a small number of Georgians typically vote absentee. About 5% of them voted by mail in the last two fall elections, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. Voters would still have to return the forms – their own postage affixed – in order to receive a ballot.

    For those voters who still want to cast a ballot in person, whether early or on Election Day, Raffensperger has said extra precautions will be taken to keep precincts clean and he said he was working with counties to hire additional – and younger – poll workers. Older people are more likely to suffer the worst consequences of contracting COVID-19, which is sometimes fatal.

    As of Thursday, more than 1,600 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia and 56 had died.

    Jill Nolin
    Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.