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Opinion: The GOP needs to rescue the reputation of the absentee ballot

Absentee ballots, envelopes and privacy sleaves are being mailed to Georgia voters for the state's primary on June 9, 2020.
Absentee ballots, envelopes and privacy sleaves are being mailed to Georgia voters for the state's primary on June 9, 2020.

Our election-year pandemic has resulted in the vilification of two inanimate objects that are neither good nor bad, Republican nor Democrat. They simply are.

There will be a price to pay for saddling both with undeserved reputations.

The first is the face mask. Somehow, we turned a piece of cloth worn out of courtesy to our neighbors into a symbol of oppression dictated by tyrannical public health experts.

Faced with a surge of COVID-19 cases across the South, Republican leaders are now working overtime to persuade skeptics to mask up.

In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp has said college football Saturdays depend on it. We do not know why, but the governor neglected a far stronger argument — that a face mask not only hinders the spread of the virus, but also allows a Southern Baptist to walk into any liquor store without being recognized.

The second besmirched item in this shelter-in-place era is the once-overlooked absentee ballot. President Donald Trump’s attitude toward face masks has been passive aggressive, but when it comes to voting by mail, he has been overtly hostile from the get-go.

Statewide mail-in voting “doesn’t work out well for Republicans,” the president said via Tweet in April. The attitude has taken root in many corners of the GOP. It’s the sort of messaging that could cause Republicans a great deal of pain in November.

Even and especially in Georgia.

This spring, in anticipation of the June 9 primaries, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger mailed absentee ballot applications to nearly 7 million registered voters. A record 1.1 million voters used them rather than risk standing in line.

Many Republicans were infuriated by Raffensperger's $5 million initiative, including House Speaker David Ralston of Blue Ridge — who ultimately cited what he believes is an increased risk of fraud.

Last month, the House Governmental Affairs Committee passed a bill to forbid the secretary of state from doing any such thing again. Local governments as well would have been prohibited from sending out mass mailings of ballot applications.

The measure failed to pass, but the message had been sent.

At a Wednesday meeting of the state Board of Elections, Raffensperger confirmed that his office would not send out mass mailings absentee ballot applications for either the Aug 11 runoff or the Nov. 3 general election. Cost is an issue, he said.

Instead, the Secretary of State’s office plans to have an internet portal operating in time for November balloting that would allow voters to apply online for mail-in ballots.

“When the Speaker told us to do nothing, we knew that wasn’t an option in the middle of the pandemic. This is a team that will continue to put voters above the politically driven demands of either party,” Raffensperger told me Thursday.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger introduces a plan to avoid long lines on Election Day on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. He spoke outside Park Tavern in Piedmont Park, where voters waited for hours before being able to cast their ballots in the June 9 primary. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger introduces a plan to avoid long lines on Election Day on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. He spoke outside Park Tavern in Piedmont Park, where voters waited for hours before being able to cast their ballots in the June 9 primary. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

You can understand the GOP worry. The June 9 primaries were intra-party affairs, but the raw turnout numbers were stunning. Democratic ballots out-numbered Republican ones —1,086,347 to 947,347.

On Election Day, 74,905 more voters chose Democratic rather than Republican ballots. And when it came to mail-in votes, Democrats had a 56,295 ballot advantage.

The November electorate in Georgia could be more than twice as large as the one in June. If those disparities stand, Republicans could be in for a world of hurt.

But here’s the thing: Chances are very good that coronavirus precautions will extend into winter.

Taking state-mailed absentee ballot applications off the table doesn’t mean that mail-in voting will be any less popular in November. It merely means that the secretary of state has, in essence, privatized the application process.

Political parties, or their stand-ins, will pick up the slack. With two U.S. Senate races in play, Democratic operatives assure us that this will be the case. They will be building on the emphasis Stacey Abrams put on absentee ballots in her 2018 run for governor.

“Right now, our approach is to strongly urge Raffensperger to change course and take the common-sense step to send applications to all registered voters in the state,” said Seth Bringman, spokesman for Fair Fight Action, the voting rights group founded by Abrams.

Bringman said it was too early to say what entity would step up if that pressure doesn’t work. “But we will leave all options on the table to make sure that Georgians don’t have to choose between their health and participation in our democracy,” he said.

The question is whether Georgia Republicans will be able to answer in kind. As we have mentioned many times before, the no-excuse ballot in Georgia is a GOP invention that at one point catered to older, Republican voters. Success has reduced the party’s reliance on it.

“If a political party does only one thing to drive voters to the polls, it should be an absentee ballot program. Obviously, we should do more than one thing, but that is first,” David Shafer said last year during his successful run to become chairman of the Georgia GOP.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who faces Democrat Jon Ossoff and Libertarian Shane Hazel in November, is alert to the situation. “Senator Perdue‘s top priority is ensuring that every legally eligible voter can freely cast their ballot and have their voice heard,” said campaign spokeswoman Casey Black.

Stephen Butler is a Republican consultant with a number of candidates in this election cycle. He’s giving his clients a very specific message: Pay attention to voters who cast their ballots by mail.

“Absentee voting has become the single largest factor in determining elections since the 2018 cycle,” Butler told me this week. “Absentee voting accounted for more than half of the votes cast in the 2020 primary, and Democrats had roughly 60,000 more votes than Republicans statewide. Democrats also have a multi-million dollar project dedicated to turning out more absentee voters.

“It will be interesting to see what the Republican Party does to counter this,” Butler said.

The big question: Can you build an operation that emphasizes the absentee ballot at the same time the president at the top of your ticket is demonizing it as intrinsically corrupt?

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