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Maggie Lee

Expect Gold Dome debate on voting, ballot access

File photo: a ballot drop box

By Maggie Lee

This year’s election drama means voting will be on everybody’s mind when the state Legislature meets in January — and there’s every reason to expect rancorous partisan splits.

For example, Georgia is not among the 21 states that have enacted same-day voter registration laws.

When presented with the idea, Fulton’s four Democratic county commissioners endorsed it at a meeting last month.

And three Republican county commissioners voted “no” to it.

The parties inched closer on the idea of allowing ballot dropboxes at private colleges, such as Atlanta’s HBCUs.

The four Democrats were for it and two Republicans were against it. (Republican Lee Morris’ vote wasn’t recorded, but he said he has no problem with dropboxes anywhere.)

Fulton is also repeating its ask for some kind of “vote center” legislation — letting people vote at any polling place in their county on Election Day, just like they can during early voting. Right now, folks have to go to their home precinct on Election Day.

Democrat south Fulton District 6 Commissioner Joe Carn supports the whole list and he said he hopes there’s interest in some of these things from other counties.

“I think we want to send the message collectively that we want Fulton County to be the simplest place to vote, the most trouble-free place to vote, the least-prescriptive place to vote in the state,” Carn said.

DeKalb is considering a similar request on vote centers — a panel of county commissioners endorsed the idea last month.

Now, county commission actions won’t change anybody’s voting experience because counties can’t change those voting rules by themselves. Only the state can make those changes.

But those votes do mean same-day voter registration and ballot dropboxes on private college campuses are now on Fulton’s official annual wish list for the state Legislature, albeit by a split vote. And that DeKalb might also be interested in voting centers.

And those Democratic thoughts from the metro preview a bit of the partisan split you can expect in the state Legislature next year. Because leading Republicans aren’t chatting about the same kinds of ideas.

State government has the opposite party makeup to heavily blue Fulton and DeKalb. The state Legislature is mostly Republican, and the GOP has held all state elected offices for years.

So far, some of the state’s top Republicans have called to broaden the state’s voter ID law.

The state’s top voting official, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, has said he’ll renew his push for a law to require that voters include a copy of a photo ID when they return absentee ballots.

He characterized it as a move from a “subjective” system of verifying absentee ballot envelopes via a voter’s signature-on-file to an “objective” system of matching an ID.

(And he entirely expects Democrats will call that “voter suppression.”  When Raffensperger talked about this proposed legislation earlier this month month, almost the first thing he said is that studies disprove the Democrats’ argument. His office provided this study, which says strict voter ID laws indeed don’t stop voters, but also that they have no effect on real or perceived fraud.)

The state’s previous top voting official, and now governor, Brian Kemp, has also said that “voters casting their ballots in person must show photo ID, and we should consider applying that same standard to mail-in balloting.”

Legislation might pop up that would require Georgians to give some reason for requesting an absentee mail-in ballot.

Right now, Georgia’s one of 29 states that will send any voter a mail-in absentee ballot upon request.

But some states, like Alabama and Mississippi, require an excuse to vote absentee, like disability, or actual absence from the county on Election Day.

Voting will be top-of-mind for legislators for several reasons.

One is absentee ballots. About 1.3 million Georgians chose to vote by absentee ballot year — about a million more than did so in November 2018. It was driven by some mix  of pandemic safety precautioning, just trying something new or maybe the really strong Democratic party messaging for absentee voting, a tack Republicans didn’t take. Maybe to Republicans’ detriment.

Oh and another reason voting will be on folks’ minds is the relatively small number 12,670. That’s the number of votes by which votes Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since Bill Clinton in 1992.

Is it the state turning legit blue? Or are there just a relative handful of Republicans who temporarily turned their backs due to a divisive incumbent president?

Either way, margins have been tightening up since Republicans were spooked in 2016, the year Donald Trump failed to carry once-red Cobb and Gwinnett counties.

When margins are that close and shrinking, there’s always some faction that’s going to think it’s worth trying to tweak the rules to get a win — to keep some people from voting, to get different people voting. We’ve seen it before in Georgia and it’s not limited to either party.

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Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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1 Comment

  1. Bill Bozarth December 20, 2020 10:10 pm

    It is amusing that Republicans now have great concern about the integrity of Mail-in Absentee ballots. When they took control of the Georgia legislature in 2005, one of the first things they did was to pass a law requiring in-person voters to show a picture ID, even though there was hardly any evidence at all of in-person voting fraud. In that same bill, they established no-excuse absentee voting, thus opening that voting method to more people. To the extent there was any abuse of the voting process in those years, it was the occasional case of someone filling out another’s ballot for them before mailing it, perhaps forging their signature in the process. There wasn’t much of that, but in the voting method where we did have some problems, the Republicans chose to loosen the rules, and where there essentially were none, they tightened the rules.

    It wasn’t totally obvious at the time, but as we saw these same Voter-ID laws play out in other states, it was clear that Georgia’s new Republican majority was following the ALEC/Heritage Foundation/Hans von Spakovsky playbook: carefully crafted tactics to tilt the voting electorate to a permanent Republican majority which would be more sympathetic to the low tax low regulation agenda of big business and the wealthy class.

    What they didn’t count on was that Democrats in Georgia would learn how to use the mail-in voting method to motivate their base. Covid-19 kept people away from in-person voting and was the main reason so many more voters chose to vote by mail this year. There were no doubt some people who cast a vote on a mail-in ballot that was not theirs, and the signature check did not catch it. We cannot know how much of that occurred. There is no evidence that catching these illegally cast ballots would have affected the presidential vote outcome. There is no evidence that there were more Democratic cheaters than Republican cheaters. But apparently our legislative leadership is willing to assume that was the case, and that there was enough of it to swing the state to Biden. Therefore, expect to see them trotting out more restrictive requirements to discourage the same voting method they themselves opened up sixteen years ago. They will deny it, but there can be no question that this is a calculated move at voter suppression to gain partisan advantage. We need to call it what it is.Report

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