Ralston said Thursday that everyone should vote in Georgia's primary, but mainly at polling places after the coronavirus subsides. He wants the May 19 primary to be postponed until June.
>>MAP: Coronavirus cases in Georgia
>>DASHBOARD: Real-time stats and the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak
Every active voter in Georgia is being mailed an absentee ballot request form, an accommodation by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for voters to avoid human contact at the polls. Voters who return the absentee ballot request form will then receive an actual ballot for the Democratic or Republican primary on May 19.
Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, said he's concerned that so many absentee ballots create the potential for voting fraud.
“It’s really not a question about higher turnout,” Ralston said Thursday. “It’s just that the election needs to be secure and it must have integrity. If it doesn’t, I think our chances obviously are problematic.”
No Republicans are in danger of losing to Democrats in May’s election because it’s a primary. Republicans won’t face Democrats until the general election in November.
Ralston’s concern about voting by mail is broader. If the May primary sets a precedent, more voters may demand absentee ballots in future elections. About 6% of Georgia voters cast absentee-by-mail ballots in the 2018 general election, a number that will likely skyrocket in the primary.
Raffensperger, a Republican, said absentee voting is necessary to protect the health of Georgians. He said he will aggressively investigate voter fraud allegations in the May 19 primary.
"If Speaker Ralston believes that the COVID-19 situation is not going to lead to a huge increase in voters who prefer to exercise their long-existing right to vote absentee in this election, no matter if it is in May or June, then he is showing that he is completely out of touch with the situation on the ground in Georgia,” Raffensperger said Friday.
Ralston’s comments earlier this week echoed President Donald Trump, who criticized proposals by Democrats for changes in elections such as increased voting by mail and same-day voter registration.
“They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” Trump said Monday on “Fox & Friends.”
Fraud is rare in Georgia elections, but Ralston said voting by mail is less secure than voting in person. He said opponents of Republican candidates could conduct “ballot harvesting,” where people could collect and mail in absentee ballots to defeat his party.
The same problem could face Democratic candidates.
A Georgia law passed last year prohibits ballot harvesting. Only voters, their family members or people living in their households are allowed to mail their absentee ballots, according to House Bill 316.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia said the election should continue in May with absentee-by mail voting.
“Our democracy must not be a victim of this pandemic,” said Andrea Young, executive director for the ACLU of Georgia. “It is deeply troubling when politicians openly admit that they want fewer people to vote so that they can win elections.”
Any voter in Georgia has been allowed to request an absentee ballot without having to provide an excuse since 2005.
>>Related: Georgia doctors plan for wrenching choices amid slim ventilator supply
>>More: Complete coronavirus coverage
What's different this year is Raffensperger's initiative to send absentee ballot request forms to 6.9 million voters, making it easier for them to participate in the primary.
Besides his concern about fraud, Ralston also said that legislators should have been able to decide on expanded absentee voting before it was unilaterally implemented by Raffensperger in response to the coronavirus.
The Georgia General Assembly is unable to weigh in because it's suspended during the public health crisis.
Ralston's initial comments came Wednesday in an interview with Fetch Your News, a North Georgia news publication:
“Members of these groups are not content with just voting by mail, but they want the state to give them a stamp. The price just keeps going up and up and up, so a multitude of reasons why vote by mail in my view is not acceptable.
“But you’re absolutely correct. The president said it best. This will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia.
“This will be the first time we’ve had this, and it’s going to be every registered voter in Georgia. Let me say that again. Every registered voter is going to get one of these. Now, I ask you, because I know you keep up with this, what was the turnout in the primary back in 2018? 2016? Was it 100%? No. It’s way way way lower, and so you know this is going to, this will certainly drive up turnout.”