Poll worker Jumaine Russell looks over an advanced early voting form at Johns Creek polling station Saturdays March 14, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: Steve Schaefer
Photo: Steve Schaefer

The Jolt: To keep them out of long lines, May 19 absentee ballot forms may be mailed to older voters 

On Saturday, as the national effort required to shut down the new coronavirus became clear, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger postponed the March 24 presidential primary in Georgia, moving it to May 19 – the same day as party primaries for state and local offices.

This morning, Raffensperger is likely to go one step further: His office has plans to mail absentee ballot applications for the May 19 contest to older voters throughout Georgia, in order to keep those most vulnerable away from long lines and touch screens that could expose them to the virus.

Jordan Fuchs, deputy secretary of state, said Sunday that – logistically and financially – the state could not afford to shift to a system in which all balloting is conducted by mail, as some have called for. But it could afford to mail ballot applications to those over 65 or even 60 – whichever is recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Public Health.

Raffensperger, a Republican, made the call to move the presidential primary after consulting with state Sen. Nikema Williams of Atlanta, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia.

The two will explain the decision today at an 11 a.m. press conference in the state Capitol. Also attending will be Janine Eveler, director of the Cobb County elections office. One factor in the decision was the fact that the state’s army of poll workers are drawn from the ranks of older, retired Georgians.

Votes already cast in Georgia’s presidential primaries will be counted on May 19, (Republicans have one, too, but with only Donald Trump’s name listed),

But combining Georgia’s presidential primary with party votes for other offices will have one specific, lagging effect.

Even though we have an open primary system, the shift will prevent any more swing voters who might want to vote in the Democratic presidential contest, and still want to vote Republican in down-ballot primary races. Or vice versa.

Fuchs, the deputy secretary of state, told us that coding will detect voters who have already cast presidential primary ballots. On May 19, upon naming their party of preference, they will be given ballot cards that only contain contests for down-ballot races.

Voters who have not yet cast ballots in the presidential primary, upon naming their party of choice, will be handed ballot cards that include the national contest as well as the state contests.

But they will not be able to vote in the Democratic presidential primary, then shift to the Republican side. Or, again, vice versa.

***

Perhaps the biggest news from last night’s debate: Former Vice President Joe Biden committed to picking a woman as his running mate during his face-off with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. He also said he would nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court.

“If I’m elected president, my Cabinet, my administration will look like the country and I commit that I will, in fact, appoint a woman to be vice president,” the former vice president said. “There are a number of women qualified to be president tomorrow.”

Sanders didn’t go quite as far, but said “in all likelihood" he, too, would do so.

Two Georgians, Stacey Abrams and Sally Quillian Yates, are among the most talked about potential contenders for the spot -- along with former presidential candidates and U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

But with a pandemic raging, health care was a first priority. From the New York Times:

In their first one-on-one debate of the primary race, Mr. Sanders, a democratic socialist from Vermont, demanded sweeping economic reform and the creation of a single-payer health care system to address crises like the virus. Mr. Biden said he would call up the military to help and enact a “multi-multi-billion dollar program” of disease containment and economic rescue, and said that there were more issues at hand that could not wait on reinventing the health care system.

***

Already posted: The state Legislature convenes at 8 a.m. today for a quick special session to ratify Gov. Brian Kemp’s declaration of a state public health emergency. By law, the session is required within two days of such a move:

The vote will make Kemp the most powerful governor in modern Georgia history, at least temporarily, giving his administration the ability to suspend state laws, take “direct” control of civil staffers, restrict travel and limit public gatherings to try to contain the outbreak…

A group of 20 Democratic state legislative candidates want lawmakers to go a step further during the special session and vote to expand the Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, a move Kemp and many other Republicans have cast as too costly in the long run.

Don’t expect lawmakers to do anymore than approve Kemp’s increased authority and leave. The “call” issued by the governor to lawmakers limits the topics they can address.

***

However, Andy Miller of Georgia Health News posted this Sunday piece that addresses the strain the pandemic is likely to place on rural hospitals:

Just hours after Gov. Brian Kemp declared a public health emergency Saturday over the virus, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital officials were notified that seven of its patients tested positive for COVID-19.

…About 30 Phoebe staff members – from doctors and nurses to housekeepers – are self-quarantining at their homes, having had contact with coronavirus patients and showing mild symptoms, said Scott Steiner, CEO of Phoebe Putney Health System.

***

Late Sunday, Gov. Brian Kemp held a conference call with several state lawmakers, who said he gave a sobering assessment of how the coronavirus pandemic will affect the state. The number of cases will rise “exponentially” in Georgia, he said, echoing the assessment of epidemiologists.

The governor said testing sites will be set up around Georgia within “a few weeks,” according to State Rep. Beth Moore, D-Peachtree Corners. They won’t be inside health care facilities because those are already growing too busy.

Kemp’s office confirms he told the lawmakers that capacity for testing is increasing but people will still need referrals from health care providers such as clinics or doctors.

Our AJC colleague Ariel Hart reports that’s not unusual. But with tests so scarce, scarce compared to the need, they will still rationed. Doctors who want to order tests will get priority for patients who are health care workers, first responders, and those over 65 with a fever and respiratory symptoms.

Those are guidelines issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Kemp’s office said.

Supplies are being shipped to the states on Monday. The state Department of Public Health has asked each health district in the state to identify sites for temporary testing facilities 

***

Immediately after the U.S. House voted early Saturday on a coronavirus stimulus bill to help families and businesses affected by efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the phrase “40 Republicans” began trending on Twitter.

That was a reference to the final 363 to 40 on the measure, which provides funding for limited sick leave for some workers, meals for seniors and free coronavirus testing. 

The “no” votes were all cast by Republicans -- two from Georgia.

U.S. Reps. Jody Hice of Monroe and Barry Loudermilk of Cassville both released statements to your Washington Insider that said their votes against the bill should be considered protests of a process that excluded the House GOP caucus from negotiations.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her deputies negotiated directly with the White House, primarily through Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. That not only left House GOP members out, but both Hice and Loudermilk argued they didn’t have enough time to review and ask questions about the measure that was unveiled shortly before the post-midnight vote.

***

The coronavirus pandemic has forced most Georgia candidates off the campaign trail, but a few contenders are still at it. 

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, who is challenging Sen. Kelly Loeffler, held an event late Saturday in south Georgia. And Democrat John Eaves, a Seventh District congressional candidate, posted pictures of himself in close quarters with voters at a Jamaican restaurant.

***

Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff took to Twitter late Sunday to swipe at U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler for a “long weekend vacation” amid the coronavirus outbreak.

He called on them to return to Washington in a “remote session if needed” to develop more legislation to respond to the crisis. 

Matt Whitlock of the National Republican Senatorial Committee swiftly responded that the “House bill has mistakes they’re fixing tomorrow” and called him “wrong on process” in the chamber.

***

President Donald Trump has suspended interest on federal student loans as part of the national response to the coronavirus outbreak. But one Republican candidate challenging U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler says that’s not enough.

“For as long as the economy struggles, the President should suspend student loan payments, also. Hundreds of thousands of Georgians work by the hour, and the crisis may quickly impact their paychecks,” said Wayne Johnson, a former U.S. Department of Education administrator.

***

A Fulton County judge could rule as early as today on whether an election should be held for a Georgia Supreme Court seat that is opening up soon.

Former U.S Rep. John Barrow and former state Rep. Beth Beskin sued the Georgia secretary of state after the election for Justice Keith Blackwell’s seat was cancelled.

Although Blackwell isn’t vacating his seat until Nov. 18, which is after the scheduled election date, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger cited statutes that require elections to be canceled if the governor can appoint a replacement within six months. More from the AJC’s Amanda C. Coyne on the Friday court hearing:

An attorney for the state argued Friday that Blackwell’s seat was in fact considered legally vacant once Gov. Brian Kemp accepted Blackwell’s resignation. A section of Georgia law says a state office is vacated as the result of seven different scenarios, including “by resignation, when accepted.”

But because Blackwell is still hearing cases and writing opinions, the seat is not actually vacant, lawyers for Barrow and Beskin argued.

“Gov. Kemp and (Raffensperger) have acted as if this future tender acts as an immediate vacancy which they have the duty to fill,” said Cary Ichter, an attorney for Beskin. “The notion the state can cancel an election due to a resignation that won’t be effective for another eight months … is simply ludicrous.”

Lester Tate, an attorney for Barrow, argued that if the election is not held, it would set a dangerous precedent for justices resigning early and giving the governor the power to choose their successors instead of Georgia voters.

***

Tim Echols, a member of the state Public Service Commission, continues to make the conservative case for electric vehicles. At Power, a website/magazine devoted to the energy business, Echols has paired with Chris King of Siemens Digital Grid for an article that includes this paragraph on the current surplus in supply:

Today’s electricity system of generation, transmission, and distribution operates at a capacity factor of less than 50% – compared to the U.S. all-industries average of nearly 80%. The reason is that the system has been built to ensure utilities can serve the highest annual peak demand, which lasts only a few hours each year. It’s the same concept as building a massive NASCAR track that will fill up once a year for a race, but is completely underutilized the entire rest of the year.

***

Memorial service details have been released for Rebecca Chase Williams, the former mayor of Brookhaven and an Atlanta-based TV reporter, who died last week after a long bout with cancer. Visitation will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at H.M. Patterson & Son-Oglethorpe Hill Chapel, 4550 Peachtree Road NE, Atlanta.

A funeral mass will be held at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at St. Jude the Apostle Catholic Church, 7171 Glenridge Drive, Atlanta.

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