The Jolt: Third-party candidates say state law requiring thousands of signatures puts their lives at risk

FILE- In this June 2, 2019 file photo, a volunteer in Omaha Neb., collects signatures for a petition to place a medical marijuana measure on the Nebraska 2020 ballot. Petition drives to legalize medical marijuana, allow casino gambling and lower property taxes face an uncertain future now that the new coronavirus has forced group leaders to stop collecting signatures. The groups are waiting for the pandemic to subside, but some said they still believe they can qualify for the 2020 ballot. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)
FILE- In this June 2, 2019 file photo, a volunteer in Omaha Neb., collects signatures for a petition to place a medical marijuana measure on the Nebraska 2020 ballot. Petition drives to legalize medical marijuana, allow casino gambling and lower property taxes face an uncertain future now that the new coronavirus has forced group leaders to stop collecting signatures. The groups are waiting for the pandemic to subside, but some said they still believe they can qualify for the 2020 ballot. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

Credit: Nati Harnik

Credit: Nati Harnik

The coronavirus pandemic is giving Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the man in charge of Georgia balloting, quite the workout.

On Thursday, via letter, House Speaker David Ralston asked Raffensperger to postpone the state's May 19 primaries until June 23 at the earliest. A Sunday column on the topic has already been posted. Wrote Ralston:

"It would make our highest priority the health and safety not only of voters, but our hard-working poll workers and elections officials."

But wait, there's more. Also on Thursday, two candidates for the U.S. House – one a Libertarian, the other a member of the Green Party – filed suit in federal court, saying Georgia's petition requirements would require them to risk their lives, and those of voters.

Door-knocking has become too hazardous.

Georgia has some of the highest third-party hurdles in the nation. In order to secure a place on the ballot, in addition to paying a qualifying fee, third-party candidates for Congress are required to submit petitions signed by 5% of the number of registered voters eligible to vote for that office in the last election.

It’s a requirement that hasn’t been met since it was adopted in 1943.

One of the plaintiffs, James L. “Jimmy” Cooper III, is the Georgia Green Party’s nominee the Eighth District. (Currently held by Republican Austin Scott of Tifton) He’s required to produce 20,719 verified signatures.

The other, Martin Cowen, is the Libertarian Party’s nominee for the 13th District. (Currently held by Democrat David Scott of Atlanta.) Cowen must produce 24,503 signatures.

The deadline for the petitions had been July 14, and the secretary of state has extended that to Aug. 14. But Raffensperger doesn’t have the authority to reduce or eliminate the requirement for petition signatures.

Group gatherings of more than 10 people are now forbidden in Georgia, so setting up a table in a crowded shopping center is out of the question. Cities across the state are laying down a patchwork of shelter-in-place edicts, which rules out a door-to-door campaign.

“The result is that the plaintiffs have no reasonable opportunity to qualify for the ballot without endangering their own lives and the lives of others,” the lawsuit says.

More details from our AJC colleague Mark Niesse can be found here.

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Some grim news out of Dougherty County, via the Albany Herald:

Two local first responders have tested positive for the virus, and hospital staff also are falling ill as the number of confirmed cases continues to grow.

The Dougherty County School System also reported on Thursday that six employees and a second-grade student have tested positive for the coronavirus.

"It's been a difficult day so far," Albany Mayor Bo Dorough said during a Thursday-afternoon news conference. "I have received notice that two first responders are in serious condition. We also know some nurses at Phoebe Putney (Memorial Hospital) are ill."

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif, today will attempt to expedite approval of the emergency $2 trillion relief bill intended to tamp down financial panic caused by the coronavirus. Both want a voice vote that wouldn't require 430 House members to gather in the U.S. Capitol.

But there's a fly in the ointment. From the Washington Post:

[A]t least one lawmaker is considering upending the plans for swift passage. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said Thursday that he opposed the bill, approved unanimously by the Senate on Wednesday, as it would add to the national debt.

The libertarian lawmaker also is concerned that voting without a quorum present — the majority of the House chamber — would violate the Constitution. He said he has yet to decide whether to press the issue, which could delay a House vote until late Saturday or Sunday.

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Gov. Brian Kemp might have some backup with his more restrained coronavirus strategy. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the stay-at-home order for all of his state wasn't necessarily the right approach. From Fox News:

In a press conference in Albany, Cuomo said the smartest way forward would be a public health strategy that complemented a "get-back-to-work strategy."

"What we did was we closed everything down. That was our public health strategy. Just close everything, all businesses, old workers, young people, old people, short people, tall people," said Cuomo. "Every school closed, everything."

"If you rethought that or had time to analyze that public health strategy, I don't know that you would say quarantine everyone," Cuomo admitted. "I don't even know that that was the best public health policy. Young people then quarantined with older people was probably not the best public health strategy because the younger people could have been exposing the older people to an infection."

In an hourlong TV session on Thursday night, broadcast across the state, Governor Kemp defended his decision not to order the entire state to stay in place, shutting down all non-essential businesses. That may be right for the city of Atlanta, Kemp said, but Jeff Davis County in south Georgia hasn't reported a single case of coronavirus.

We’re pretty sure that public health experts would note that, given the dearth of testing, no one can be sure where the coronavirus is in Georgia, and where it isn’t.

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And yet, Fannin County officials are considering whether to bar cabin rentals to strangers -- from Georgia coronavirus hotspots, according to fetchyournews.com.

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Senate candidate Teresa Tomlinson is blasting Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger's plan to send ballot applications to active Georgia voters for the May 19. The fact that voters will be required to buy their own stamps constitutes "a modern poll tax," she says.

“Voting provides access to civic power and it must be free,” she said. “In this public health crisis, people should not have to choose between either standing in line at the post office or standing in line to vote. Anything we do that assigns a cost to voting - either in terms of money or health - suppresses voter participation and that is unacceptable.”

Supporters of the idea note that it was announced with the backing of the state Democratic party and that all other existing forms of voting, including in-person balloting, remain available.

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State Rep. Matthew Gambill is the first member of the Georgia House to test positive for COVID-19, joining five other state senators that we know of.

Gambill, a Republican from Cartersville, received his positive test results 10 days after being tested, Speaker David Ralston said.

Gambill has been quarantined at home since March 13 after exhibiting mild symptoms of the coronavirus.

Another House member, Rep. Rep. Angelika Kausche, D-Johns Creek, said a doctor told her to presume she contracted coronavirus because her husband tested positive, and she had similar symptoms. Kausche has not been tested.

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Postcards containing tips on how to stop the spread of COVID-19 have started landing in mailboxes across the country, including in Georgia. Politico reports that the mailings did indeed come from Atlanta's U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with input from the National Institutes of Health and the White House.

But some are wondering if this wording might be a little over-the-top, given that he’s running for re-election: "PRESIDENT TRUMP'S CORONAVIRUS GUIDELINES FOR AMERICA.”

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