Opinion: Why the debate over vote-by-mail is far from over in Georgia

A poll worker wearing protective gloves waits to assist voters during special election voting at city hall to fill an empty city council seat on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Dacula. The voting happens to on a day that was supposed to be the test run for the state's new election system before coronavirus COVID-19 caused it to be called off.

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

A poll worker wearing protective gloves waits to assist voters during special election voting at city hall to fill an empty city council seat on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Dacula. The voting happens to on a day that was supposed to be the test run for the state's new election system before coronavirus COVID-19 caused it to be called off.

The Spanish flu made its American debut in the spring of 1918, embarked on a European tour of World War I trenches, then made the return trip across the Atlantic in a more virulent form.

By mid-September, public health officials in Atlanta had learned that troops in nearby Camp Gordon, a training facility located where Peachtree-DeKalb Airport now stands, were under quarantine.

Days later, in early October, the city of Atlanta itself was locked down. Schools, libraries, theaters, movie houses, dance halls, and churches were shuttered.

This 102-year-old lesson is why our vote-by-mail debate is far from over. Because we don’t know where this coronavirus pandemic is headed.

And because fighting over who is worthy enough to cast a ballot is largely what Georgia politics has been about for the last 150 years or so.

Last week, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger moved Georgia's primaries for state and local offices – along with two presidential primaries that have lost nearly all meaning – by three weeks to June 9.

Local election officials feared that the original May 19 date would still have 8,000 mostly elderly poll workers sheltering in place, still wary of large crowds. House Speaker David Ralston echoed those worries as he pushed Raffensperger to move the date.

But Ralston would say more, too.

At roughly the same time, up in Washington, President Donald Trump had condemned efforts made by Democrats to insert funds in a stimulus package that would have allowed states to enhance vote-by-mail operations. “They had things, levels of voting that if you ever agreed to, you would never have a Republican elected in this country again,” the president told the “Fox & Friends” trio.

In an interview with a hometown news outlet, Fetchyournews.com, Ralston concurred with Trump. "The president said it best. This will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia," the House speaker said.

Ralston would later amend his remarks to emphasize that he wasn’t worried about increased voter turnout, but increased misbehavior. “You send a ballot application into a home on a mass scale. You don’t know who’s going to vote the ballot,” he said. “The possibility of fraud is very concerning to me.”

Likewise, Raffensperger – who had just mailed absentee ballot applications to 6.9 million Georgia voters – quickly announced that he would create a task force to investigate voter fraud rising out of widespread use of mailed-in ballots in the June 9 primary.

It would be hard to find a topic more steeped in moral relativism than absentee balloting in Georgia.

If the system is currently open to fraud, then the fraud is the result of Republican design. Until 2005, a request for an absentee ballot had to be accompanied by a proper excuse – that the voter was disabled, or would be out of town on Election Day.

That year, the GOP-controlled Legislature approved House Bill 244, which established "no excuse" absentee voting in Georgia. David Ralston, then a mere House member, was among those who supported it.

There was coherent legal and political strategy behind the move. HB 244, and a measure that followed the next year, mandated that voters bring photo ID with them to the polls. Democrats complained, in the state Capitol and ultimately a federal courtroom, that the requirement disproportionately affected the elderly and minority voters – many of whom didn’t have a driver’s license.

The “no excuse” absentee ballot, which required no photo ID, was the GOP answer to charges of discrimination. In fact, it would be Secretary of State Cathy Cox, a Democrat then running for governor, who said that “allowing individuals to vote absentee ballots without showing identification and removing the conditions previously required for obtaining absentee ballots opened a gaping opportunity for fraud.”

At the time, the accusation didn’t concern Republicans. Because they were the ones who most often used absentee ballots, not Democrats.

In his 2007 testimony, Edward DuBose, then president of the Georgia chapter of the NAACP, stated that “many African-American voters, particularly elderly voters, are afraid of voting by mail, as they are concerned that their vote will not be counted.”

Georgia’s voter ID law, with expanded “no excuse” absentee voting, was upheld that year by a federal judge.

Times change. People adapt. Tables are turned.

In 2010, African-American candidates for the first time won a majority of seats on the Brooks County school board. They did it through an organized absentee ballot effort that generated close to 1,000 votes.

Armed GBI agents and representatives of Secretary of State Brian Kemp descended on tiny Quitman, Ga., to question more than 400 voters, a small percentage of whom said they did not fill out their own ballot or could not recall doing so.

A dozen organizers, all of them African-American, were indicted for more than 100 election law violations, each of which carried penalties up to 10 years in prison. Four years later, only one defendant was tried. She was acquitted after two mistrials. One defendant died while under indictment. The remaining cases were dropped.

But the attempted prosecution represented a clear shift in GOP attitudes toward absentee balloting.

In 2018, Democrat Stacey Abrams built her gubernatorial campaign around mail-in votes. Her campaign sent out 1.6 million absentee ballot applications to targeted voters.

That contest, against then-Secretary of State Kemp, devolved into a series of courtroom battles over access to ballots and authenticity of voter signatures on the outside of absentee ballot envelopes. At one point, election officials in Gwinnett County were discarding nearly one in 10 absentee ballots, allegedly mismatched signatures, incomplete forms or missing residential addresses.

Some of those issues have been addressed, but the 2020 general election is likely to present more of the same. With a pandemic, which may or may not be under control, adding its own complications.

Many Republicans are, in fact. acknowledging that voting-by-mail will be an inevitable part of this electoral season. David Shafer, chairman of the Georgia GOP, says his party has directed “a significant expenditure of funds” to urge targeted Republican voters to use the U.S. Postal Service to cast a ballot.

In Jackson County, an overwhelmingly Republican stronghold northeast of Atlanta, the local elections board last week approved a resolution, with a 4-to-1 vote conducted via Zoom, recommending that the June 9 primary be conducted entirely by mail.

“Voting by mail in the current COVID-19 pandemic is the only guaranteed method to protect voters, poll workers, and others involved in the voting process,” the resolution reads.

Erma Denney is a former mayor of Hoschton and one of two Republicans recommended for membership on the election board by the local party. She’s the one who first pushed the resolution endorsing vote-by-mail.

The chairman of the Jackson County GOP immediately demanded her resignation, which Denney refused. I checked in on her Tuesday, to see if there’d been any further blowback.

Hard to say, she said, what with social distancing, spotty cellphone coverage, and the tornadoes that blew through on Sunday night. But she later sent me an email.

“I have no dog in the political fight over whether a state should use this method on an ongoing basis. My role is to encourage use of this mechanism during this pandemic,” she wrote.

Within two or three weeks, we will know whether the recent Republican push for in-person voting in Wisconsin will result in a coronavirus spurt there. And only last week, she noted, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended the “no sail” order for cruise ships into July. “It isn’t difficult to predict that late May/early June is still going to be a trying time for Georgians,” Denney wrote.

“How many tragedies include the words, ‘If we had only known,” she pointed out. “What I would tell lawmakers is, you better make the correct decision, because you don’t get to play dumb afterwards when addressing the inevitable fallout from in-person voting in Georgia.”