Sen. Bill Cowsert, Rep. Houston Gaines, and Rep. Marcus Wiedower, who represent Oconee County in the Georgia General Assembly, joined their Republican colleagues last week in voting to pass legislation making major changes to the state’s election laws.
The bill restricts absentee voting, alters how local governments can manage early voting, and gives the legislature itself, through the State Elections Board, much more power over local election procedures.
It also authorizes the three legislators to monitor and request a state audit of Oconee County’s and Clarke County’s election operations.
Senate Bill 202, called the Election Integrity Act of 2021, on Thursday passed the House at 12:51 p.m. and the Senate at 5:25 p.m., and was signed by Gov. Brian Kemp shortly after the Senate vote. That same day, it was challenged in federal court as discriminatory.
The Bill argues in a preamble that it is a response to “a significant lack of confidence in Georgia election systems” on the part of voters and the “stress of the elections, with a dramatic increase in absentee-by-mail ballots.”
Not a single Democrat voted in favor of the bill, which passed 100 to 75 in the House and 34 to 20 in the Senate.
In an unrelated, local development, the Watkinsville Council voted 4 to 0 on Thursday evening to make Brian Brodrick Acting Mayor following the abrupt resignation of Bob Smith as mayor on March 17.
Brodrick stepped down as Post 1 Council member, and the Council passed a resolution calling for a special election on June 15 to select individuals to finish out the terms of mayor and of Council Post 1, which expire at the end of this year.
Brodrick announced he will run for mayor in the June 15 special election.
Qualifying dates and early voting procedures have not yet been specified, but Oconee County Board of Elections and Registration Director Rebecca Anglin has said she would like to hold early voting and election-day voting at City Hall.
Kemp held a signing ceremony in his office shortly after passage of Senate Bill 202 on Thursday and posted on Twitter a picture of himself flanked by three white men on each side.
|Official Picture Of Signing Ceremony|
The ceremony was closed to the public, and also circulating on Twitter and Facebook on Thursday was a video of Rep. Park Cannon, a Democrat from Atlanta, being arrested for knocking on the door of Kemp’s office, asking that she be allowed to witness the ceremony.
Cannon is African-American. The state troopers who arrested Cannon and escorted her away from the signing ceremony were white.
Senate Bill 202 had one primary author and 23 co-authors, all Republicans and including Frank Ginn, who represents part of Athens-Clarke County. All also are white, and 23 of the 24 are men.
The Bill passed by the House and Senate would give the General Assembly, through the state Board of Elections, the power to replace local election officials, including those in Atlanta, with its large African-American population.
It also will force changes on how Atlanta has conducted its elections.
The preamble makes clear that the Senate Bill 202 is a response to the 2020 election, in which Democrat Joe Biden won the presidential vote in Georgia and, after runoffs that carried over into 2021, Democrats John Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won two U.S. Senate seats.
Absentee ballots were more likely to be Democratic, even in Oconee County, which overwhelmingly voted for Republicans in all three of those races.
Calls for major changes to the state’s elections laws have come exclusively from Republicans, though the preamble to SB 202 suggests otherwise.
The preamble states the law is necessary because of “electors concerned about allegations of rampant voter suppression and many electors concerned about allegations of rampant voter fraud.”
“The changes made in this legislation in 2021 are designed to address the lack of elector confidence in the election system on all sides of the political spectrum, to reduce the burden on election officials, and to streamline the process of conducting elections in Georgia by promoting uniformity in voting.”
Prior to passage of SB 202, local election offices ran elections in response to local needs, and there was great variability from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Control Of Elections
“Elections in Georgia are administered by counties, but that can lead to problems for voters in counties with dysfunctional election systems,” the preamble continues.
|This Led To An Arrest|
“Counties with long-term problems of lines, problems with processing of absentee ballots, and other challenges in administration need accountability, but state officials are limited in what they are able to do to address those problems,” the preamble states.
“Ensuring there is a mechanism to address local election problems will promote voter confidence and meet the goal of uniformity,” it continues.
SB 202 removes the Secretary of State as chairperson of the State Election Board and replaces the Secretary of State–elected directly by the voters–with a chairperson elected by the General Assembly.
The bill gives the State Election Board the power to suspend county or municipal election superintendents and appoint an individual to serve as the temporary superintendent in the local official’s stead.
The law also removes from local election boards the ability to accept any funding from grants or other sources other than the local, state, and federal government.
Local Legislators And Reviews
The law also gives Cowsert and either Wiedower or Gaines the ability to request a performance review by the State Elections Board of the work of Rebecca Anglin, director of Elections and Registration in Oconee County.
Gaines represents the 117th House District, which includes parts of Oconee, Clarke, Jackson, and Barrow Counties.
Wiedower represents the 119th House District, made up of parts of Oconee and Clarke counties.
Cowsert’s Senate District includes all of Oconee and parts of Clarke and Walton counties.
In Athens-Clarke County, two of the three member of the House representing the county and both of the members of the Senate would have to agree to challenge the county’s election performance.
That means that Gaines, Wiedower, Cowsert, and Ginn, all Republicans, have the ability to challenge the election office of the heavily Democratic county. Democrat Spencer Frye from House District 118 isn’t needed to make that happen.
Ginn represents the 47th Senate District, which includes parts of Clarke, Jackson, and Barrow counties, and all of Madison County.
Such a challenge has the potential to lead to the state taking over the local election operation on wholly partisan grounds.
Democrats in Congress, making exactly the same argument as Republicans in the Georgia General Assembly about the need for intervention, are proposing legislation to restrict what Georgia can do.
Other Local Directives
The Bill also directs local election boards to reduce the size of precincts under certain conditions and requires them to purchase additional voting equipment or hire poll workers under other conditions.
It prohibits the use of mobile election facilities unless the Governor has declared an emergency.
The bill prohibits offering food and water to people standing in line to vote.
At present, local election offices have discretion on how weekends are used during early voting, but the law removes that discretion.
Instead, it mandates that two Saturdays be set aside for early voting (rather than the one, as is most common at present), and allows for two Sundays of early voting.
Senate Bill 202 is a remake of House Bill 531, and an early draft of that bill had eliminated all Sunday voting.
Senate Bill 202 as passed also specifies the times during which early voting may be held, rather than allowing local variation.
Early voting “shall occur only on the day specified in this paragraph and counties and municipalities shall not be authorized to conduct advance voting on any other days,” the law states.
The bill also shortens the period between elections and runoffs to 28 days, and it shortens early voting accordingly.
The biggest changes in the law have to do with absentee balloting.
Absentee ballot applications have to be received at least 11 days prior to the date of the election. At present there is no such restriction.
In the application, the applicant must provide a driver’s license number, or state identification card number, or a photo copy of some other identification document, such as a passport.
Voters can obtain a state identification card free of charge at county boards of elections and state drivers services locations.
At present, the applicant signs a form and the signature is matched with that on a form on file before the ballot is mailed to the applicant.
Third parties that send out forms to persons to be used in requesting an absentee ballot cannot send them to anyone who already requested a ballot, received a ballot, or already voted.
At present absentee ballots can be sent out 49 days in advance of the election. The new law restricts that mailing to 29 days before an election.
Senate Bill 202 allows election offices to open and scan absentee ballots beginning at 8 a.m. on the third Monday prior to the election day.
Results cannot be released to the public until polls are closed on election day.
Election offices can receive absentee ballots only in a building “that is a branch of the county courthouse, a courthouse annex, a government service center providing general government services, or another government building generally accessible to the public, or a location building that is used as an election day polling place.”
|Now A Historic Relic|
Election officers can “establish” a drop box to receive absentee ballots, but the number of boxes is restricted based on population and on number of advanced voting locations.
For Oconee County that would mean only one box.
The drop box would have to be inside the elections office or inside the building used for advanced voting. If it is at the location of advanced voting, it would be accessible only during the times of advanced voting.
Under any circumstance, the drop box would no longer be able to accept ballots after advanced voting ends, on the Friday before an election.
Several provisions of the bill have to do with transparency of the voting process, particularly involving absentee ballots.
Election offices would have to report publicly “the number of persons to whom absentee ballots have been issued, the number of persons who have returned absentee ballots, and the number of absentee ballots that have been rejected.”
The bill also requires the public reporting during early voting of the number of persons who have voted at the advance voting sites in the county or municipality.
The bill also requires reporting on provisional ballots.
I already obtain and report these data from the Oconee County Board of Elections and Registration routinely during early voting.
The new law states that by 10 p.m. on election day, the election superintendent shall report publicly the number of ballots cast at the polls, the number cast during advanced voting, and the number of absentee ballots returned.
In Oconee County, this information already is readily available by the end of election day.
Reticence Of Legislators
Discussion of changes in the state’s voting laws has been prominent in the legislative session, which is now in its final days, but it would be hard to know that from the columns that Gaines and Wiedower write each week in The Oconee Enterprise.
Only the column in the March 11 issue of the paper gives any prominence to the debate. About a quarter of the column deals with House Bill 531, and a link to a summary of the bill at that time was included.
I have offered to Gaines and Wiedower numerous opportunities since January to comment on what they wanted to accomplish with any changes to the state’s election laws and on the bills being discussed.
I also posed specific questions about the 2020 elections.
After passage of SB 202 on Thursday, I offered them a chance to comment on the bill passed.
I had sent similar requests to Sen. Bill Cowsert, and he provided some initial feedback.
Gaines and Wiedower have not responded to any of my requests, preferring a low profile as the debate progressed.
Complexity Of Issue
In the Nov. 3 election, 23.1 percent of Oconee County voters used absentee ballots.
In the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoff, that figure was 18.6 percent.
Only 14.0 percent of the voters in November cast a ballot at the polls on election day. In January, that figure was 24.2.
So any effort to force voters back to election-day voting by making early voting and absentee balloting more difficult is going to get some resistance.
And while in Oconee County voters who used an absentee ballot in both November and January were more likely to vote Democratic than those who voted early or on election day, about a half of those who used an absentee ballot voted Republican.
So taking away the public drop box, as just one example, is going to adversely affect Republicans as well as Democrats.
The danger is that by accommodating a group voters that wants to make absentee balloting and early voting more difficult, the legislators can alienate many–perhaps a majority–who do not.
In the March 11 column, Gaines and Wiedower say one of the things they wanted included in House Bill 531 was legislation "to ensure what occurred in Athens-Clarke County last year...doesn’t happen again.”
Incumbent District 6 Commissioner Jerry NeSmith died in an accidental fall in his home the weekend before the election, but he received 57 percent of the vote on election day.
Athens-Clarke County Attorney Judd Drake said state law provided that challenger Jesse Houle should be declared the winner.
Houle, a progressive challenger to NeSmith, currently holds the seat.
Senate Bill 202, as passed, changes the rules for any future election.
“In the event of the death of a candidate on the ballot in a nonpartisan election prior to such nonpartisan election, such candidate's name shall remain on the ballot and all votes cast for such candidate shall be counted,” the bill now signed into law states.
“If the deceased candidate receives the requisite number of votes to be elected, such contest shall be handled as a failure to fill the office,” it continues, necessitating another election.
Watkinsville March 25 Meeting
The Watkinsville Council had quickly made Brodrick, then mayor pro tem, acting mayor after Smith read his letter of resignation and walked out of City Hall 17 minutes into the Council meeting on March 17.
City Attorney Joe Reitman said at the March 25 that the March 17 appointment of Brodrick was “by consensus” and that the Council should take a formal vote, consistent with the city charter, to make Brodrick acting mayor.
Following that action, Brodrick stepped down from Post 1, necessitating the election on June 15 to fill both slots.
The Council then passed a resolution calling for the special elections.
The city will have to pay the county about $14,000 to run that election, unless, Reitman said, no one steps forward to challenge Brodrick and only one person qualifies for the Post 1 position.
In that case, no actual election would take place.
Qualifying dates have not yet been set.