06/09/2020 - Smyrna, Georgia - Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks during an interview outside of the Smyrna Community Center during the Georgia primary elections, Tuesday, June 9, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

The Jolt: Secretary of state seeks power to intervene if county election offices fail

Late Wednesday, as primary votes continued to be counted, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said he wants state lawmakers to give him the power to intervene when county election offices aren’t performing up to snuff – and to require counties to pay for that help. From the statement he released:

“I am working with the General Assembly to help give the state greater authority to directly intervene and require management changes, as well as call for the counties themselves to pay for the remedial action.

“My office’s POST-certified law enforcement officers will undertake a complete and through investigation into what happened in Fulton County, including not just what happened yesterday, but also any improperly handled absentee ballot applications.”

There is a possible vehicle for this move. Senate Bill 463 has passed the Senate, and lies in the bosom of the House. As our AJC colleague Mark Niesse reports today, the measure would require county election operations to open more precincts, and add poll workers or voting equipment if voters had to wait in line for more than an hour.

But opponents fear that language in the measure would also allow counties to require that those voting by absentee include photocopies of official identification – which they say would discourage voting by mail during a pandemic.

Raffensperger’s office says this is not so, but feel free to read the bill for yourself.

On Wednesday afternoon, House Speaker David Ralston was on GPB’s “Political Rewind.” The speaker said his chamber would consider SB 463, but he didn’t sound optimistic about its chances for passage when the Legislature returns on Monday after a three-month coronavirus recess.

“We’ve got 11 days left. We’re going to be operating in a climate here at the Capitol with procedures and protocols that are not going to lend themselves a fast-paced finish to the session. It’s going to plod rather than jog,” Ralston said.

Ralston also said that it might make more sense to allow state lawmakers to sort through Tuesday’s voting problems rather than Raffensperger’s office:

“What we had going on yesterday that I found completely unacceptable was this business of pointing fingers, from the state to the counties and the counties back to the state. That is why I thought it was important to have this legislative investigation rather than to turn the investigation over to the secretary of state’s office. And I hope they will further reflect on that and realize that that will produce a more credible outcome…

“We appropriated money for these new machines. We take up legislation now – it seems like every year, or every other year – to make changes in our election laws of our state. We then have an obligation to make sure that some of the problems that we experienced yesterday don’t happen.

“I think we do that by making sure that people have proper training, that they have the resources at the polling station that they need to do their job. And that they have support from not only the counties but from the state in doing that job. The legislature is the proper place to resolve this.”

In an interview with WSB-TV, Gov. Brian Kemp declined to levy any blame for the Tuesday voting debacle. From the website:

“I’m not too worried. I think there is plenty of time to fix the problems," Kemp said. “I think there is a lot of motivation to do that and I’m certainly one to want to see that.”

Over at Decaturish.com, Dan Whisenhunt points us to a Wednesday Twitch-cast featuring Gabriel Sterling from Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office, as well as journalist-who-is-everywhere George Chidi. The topic was Tuesday’s vote, of course.

***

Today’s print edition of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a rare front page editorial on Tuesday’s voting debacle. It includes these lines:

There is adequate blame to go around, and leaders here chose to play the currently fashionable blame game of institutional finger-pointing. Given the magnitude of what happened and the risks for democracy now laid bare, it matters less who screwed up and how.

 What is of paramount importance is to assess what went wrong and fix it before the next election.

The intramural sniping should stop, and the focus needs to shift toward repairing an embarrassing, intolerable mess.

***

Well, scratch that. Yesterday we told you how U.S. Rep. David Scott of Atlanta was among Democratic incumbents who had particularly rough election days. The Associated Press had projected he had been forced into a runoff against former state Rep. Keisha Waites. 

What the AP didn’t account for was a surge of absentee ballots still being tallied in metro Atlanta. And the incumbent has now crept back over the 50% threshold he needs to avoid an overtime runoff.

Several imperiled legislative incumbents who the AP projected to lose or face runoffs have now been declared victors. Our AJC colleague Maya T. Prabhu has the latest in a rundown of the fight for control of the Legislature. 

And there’s much uncertainty about another race that’s destined to draw national media attention. That’s the congressional contest for Georgia’s Seventh District, the slice of suburbia stretching across parts of Gwinnett and Forsyth counties that’s one of the state’s swingiest territories. 

Republican Rich McCormick landed a clear win in his cluttered primary. But the Democratic race is still unsettled. 

The AP early Wednesday projected a runoff between Carolyn Bourdeaux, who narrowly lost the race in 2018, and state Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero. But we’ve heard from three campaigns that warn it’s too early to make any predictions because only 51,000 of the estimated 80,000 or so votes have been tallied. 

That means Bourdeaux, hovering at 46%, still has a shot at an outright win. It means Nabilah Islam, sitting in third place, could make up the roughly 700-vote gap separating her with Romero. We’ve also heard from allies of state Sen. Zahra Karinshak, in last place at 7%, who say the untallied totals in Forsyth County could catapult her. 

As for when they might be counted, no one seems to have a definite timeline — but all hope to have a resolution by Saturday. 

***

This didn’t go unnoticed in legal circles: In the days leading to Tuesday’s election, the Georgia Supreme Court’s official Twitter handle tweeted biographies of the two sitting justices facing competition. 

On Monday, it was the bio of Justice Sarah Warren, who easily defeated her opponent. Early Tuesday, the handle tweeted the write up on Justice Charlie Bethel, who appears to have more narrowly fended off a challenge from former state Rep. Beth Beskin. 

The court might just be tweeting bios of all sitting justices - on Wednesday, David Nahmias was featured - but the timing of the first two tweets raised eyebrows from several of our sources.

***

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York magazine. But in another life, he was an aide to Gov. Zell Miller. On Wednesday, he pointed to Georgia’s GOP congressional races for the Ninth and 14th Districts – to replace the exiting Doug Collins and Tom Graves, respectively. This was Kilgore’s lede:

Aficionados of political craziness may have felt a bit sad today with the news that former Georgia congressman Paul Broun Jr. failed in his comeback bid in the June 9 primary. Broun gained fame as the House Science Committee member who called evolution “a lie straight from the pit of hell.” He also once killed and ate a lion on safari.

But never fear, Kilgore adds. Tuesday’s vote leaders in the two races – businesswoman Marjorie Greene in the 14th and state Rep. Matt Gurtler of Tiger are perfectly capable of carrying on Broun’s legacy.

***

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump rejected the idea of renaming military bases whose names honor Confederate military figures – including Fort Benning in Columbus and Fort Gordon in Augusta. From the Washington Post:

Trump said he would “not even consider” changing the names of U.S. military bases named for Confederate generals, even as his own defense secretary, Mark T. Esper, has said he would consider such proposals and as prominent former military figures, including retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, have suggested that such a step is overdue.

The U.S. Senate may force the issue anyway. 

The chamber’s Armed Services Committee adopted an amendment Wednesday that inserts language into a military funding bill requiring the Pentagon to rename military bases and other federal properties named after Confederate generals, according to a report by CQ Roll Call. Trump has threatened a veto.

The AJC’s Jeremy Redmon has more about the men for whom the two Georgia bases were named:

Located in Augusta, Fort Gordon is named after John Gordon, who commanded half of Robert E. Lee’s army for a time. Wounded five times at the Battle of Antietam, Gordon went on to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate before serving as the state’s governor. He also owned slaves, fought Reconstruction and was generally recognized as the head of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia.

Fort Benning, which sits just outside of Columbus, was named after Henry Benning at the request of the Columbus Rotary Club, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia. Nicknamed “Old Rock” for his steadfastness in battle, the Confederate general became an associate justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. He was an ardent secessionist before the war, warning that if slavery were abolished there would be “black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything.”

***

Only an hour or so after President Trump said he wouldn’t “even consider renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations," NASCAR announced it would ban the display of the Confederate battle flag from “all NASCAR events and properties.”

And U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed the removal of Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol.

All of which prompted Bryan Miller, grandson of the late Gov. Zell Miller, to send us the C-SPAN version of Miller’s 1992 state-of-the-state speech, in which he launched his unsuccessful effort to remove the Confederate battle emblem that had been “imposed” on the state flag in 1956, during the fight to end segregation.

“I cannot accept the idea that the brief, violent and tragic period of the Confederacy is the only part of our long history that defines our identity,” Miller said. Watch it here, starting at the 35-minute mark:

“It’s one of the best written, most significant, and consequential speeches of his career. And probably the one I’m most proud of,” Bryan Miller told us last night.

The battle emblem’s domination of the state flag was ultimately ended by Gov. Roy Barnes in 2001, and it was a large factor in his 2002 defeat when he sought re-election.

***

Dale Russell of Fox 5 fame has a piece out looking at a 2019 summer trip to the Georgia coast taken by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, “in which part or all of his lodging was free.” From the TV station’s website:

The lieutenant governor says speaking at trade events allows Georgians to hear directly from their elected officials. But, some of the hotel payments were only made months later after our I-Team started asking questions

***

NBA phenom LeBron James is taking the plunge into politics. And he’s teaming up with some familiar Georgia faces. 

The New York Times reports that the Lakers star and other black athletes have started a group tasked with the protection of African American voting rights. Another co-organizer of “More Than A Vote” is Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young, one of the breakout players in the league. 

“If people my age see that I’m going out and I’m voting and I’m talking,” Trae told The Times, “maybe the next 21-year-old will.”

The organization also plans to team up with Fair Fight Action, the voting rights group founded by Stacey Abrams. 

***

Current Atlanta City Council president Felicia Moore and four of her predecessors have endorsed the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, in the special election for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s seat.

The former presidents who are also backing Warnock are: Lisa Borders, 2004-2010; Cathy Woolard, 2001-2004; Robb Pitts, 1997-2001; and Marvin Arrington, Sr., 1990-1997.

***

In other endorsement news:

-- The National Defense PAC, which supports military veterans seeking federal office, is backing Rep. Doug Collins in his campaign to unseat fellow Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler. 

-- Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s TogetherFUND has endorsed U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath in her Sixth District congressional race against Republican Karen Handel.

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