Capitol Recap: Georgia targets double-voters

Some voters waited two to three hours at the Park Tavern polling place to cast their ballots in the June 9 Georgia primary. Now, about 1,000 voters from 100 of Georgia's 159 counties are facing investigation after they both turned in absentee ballots and voted at precincts for the primary. They face the possibility of up to 10 years in prison and fines as high as $100,000 for double-voting. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Some voters waited two to three hours at the Park Tavern polling place to cast their ballots in the June 9 Georgia primary. Now, about 1,000 voters from 100 of Georgia's 159 counties are facing investigation after they both turned in absentee ballots and voted at precincts for the primary. They face the possibility of up to 10 years in prison and fines as high as $100,000 for double-voting. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Investigation underway after 1,000 voted twice in primary

About 1,000 Georgians are facing investigation after they both sent in absentee ballots and showed up at polling places to vote in the June 9 primary, according to the state.

Now, these double-voters — who cast ballots in 100 of Georgia’s 159 counties — could be looking at one to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $100,000.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger didn’t seem too sympathetic when announcing the investigation.

“A double-voter knows exactly what they’re doing, diluting the votes of each and every voter that follows the law,” he said. “Those that make the choice to game the system are breaking the law. And as secretary of state, I will not tolerate it.”

Others, though, came to their aid.

“They only did what they thought was right to make sure their vote was counted,” said Aklima Khondoker, the Georgia director for All Voting Is Local, an organization that’s advocating for more absentee ballot drop boxes and recruiting poll workers. “Voters are not criminal.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia also offered a hand, urging anyone who is “being threatened with prosecution for exercising your right to vote” to contact the organization.

You may remember the primary. It was termed a debacle created by a combination of the coronavirus pandemic, high turnout and difficulties operating new voting computers. Precincts closed, poll workers quit and social-distancing restrictions limited the number of people who could vote at any one time.

The primary also saw record numbers of people casting absentee ballots, which at times overwhelmed county election officials. Nearly half of all primary voters used absentee-by-mail ballots, up from about 5% of voters who typically cast absentee ballots in state elections.

In all, about 150,000 people who requested absentee ballots showed up at polling places on election day, often because they never received their absentee ballots in the mail or decided to instead vote in person. They’re allowed to do that as long as they cancel their absentee ballots before they have been received by election officials.

But the process of checking and canceling absentee ballots sometimes broke down. Voting records weren’t always updated, or poll workers weren’t able to get through clogged phone lines to confirm that an absentee ballot had been returned.

“During the primary election, we could not reach anyone for hours on election day,” said Todd Faircloth, a Fulton County poll worker. “We had no choice but to have the voter sign an affidavit and let them vote.”

The number of double-votes amounts to about 0.09% of the 1.15 million absentee ballots cast in the primary. The secretary of state’s office reported that about 60% of the double-voters requested Democratic Party ballots and 40% asked for Republican ballots. Raffensperger said double-voting did not determine the outcome in any election.

Appeal seeks to overturn ruling extending mail-in ballot count

Raffensperger also filed an appeal this past week aiming to block a federal judge’s ruling that would allow the counting of absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will consider the case following U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross' ruling that nullified a Georgia law requiring absentee ballots to be received at county election offices by 7 p.m. on Election Day.

The timing of Ross' decision so close to November’s election was one of the issues raised by attorneys for Raffensperger.

“Changing the deadline to return absentee ballots will introduce delay and confusion in the election process. This, in turn, risks delaying the Electoral College process and disenfranchising voters in Georgia, including preventing voters from casting ballots in runoff elections,” they wrote in a motion seeking a stay to Ross' preliminary injunction while the appeal is pending.

Delaying the deadline for absentee ballots gives election officials little time to certify results by Nov. 20, the state’s attorneys wrote. In addition, voters might have less time to correct problems with their absentee ballots, such as missing signatures, mismatched signatures or a failure to provide required information.

Ross' ruling involved a lawsuit filed by the New Georgia Project, a voter registration organization. The group argued that voters needed to be protected during the coronavirus pandemic, when record numbers of Georgians are expected to cast absentee ballots.

If her decision stands, it could result in tens of thousands more absentee ballots being counted. Ross ordered election officials to accept absentee ballots if they’re postmarked by Nov. 3 and delivered up to three days afterward.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, shown speaking before the Georgia House in January, gained support for his U.S. Senate campaign from nearly 50 state lawmakers and soon-to-be lawmakers following his endorsement by Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, right. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, shown speaking before the Georgia House in January, gained support for his U.S. Senate campaign from nearly 50 state lawmakers and soon-to-be lawmakers following his endorsement by Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, right. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

After Ralston endorses Collins, others follow

It wasn’t much of a surprise when state House Speaker David Ralston announced he was backing U.S. Rep. Doug Collins' bid for the U.S. Senate in November’s special election — they’re longtime friends — but it opened the door for other state legislators and soon-to-be legislators to register their support for the Gainesville Republican.

Some on the list of 48 supporters that Collins unveiled this past week included lawmakers who had earlier backed Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler in the contest for her seat, a free-for-all whose 21 candidates also include Democrats Matt Lieberman, Ed Tarver and Raphael Warnock. At least four House Republicans have flipped from Loeffler following Ralston’s announcement. Another early Loeffler backer, state Rep. Ron Stephens, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he’s now neutral in the race before declining to comment further.

Polls have generally put either Collins or Loeffler at the top of the field, with the other placing second in a race that will probably be settled in a January runoff between the top two vote-getters in November. As a result, they have each fought hard to portray themselves as the true conservative in the contest.

Loeffler also notched some new endorsements.

First, Labor Commissioner Mark Butler, one of the last of the statewide officials to pick a side, announced his support for her. Then Loeffler’s campaign released a list of 16 state legislators — including state Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan — to join the dozen or so who had already backed her.

Legislator takes aim at testing for Zell Miller scholarship

The University System of Georgia, bowing to conditions forced upon it by the coronavirus, last month waived the SAT and ACT requirements for spring, summer and fall 2021 admission to its 26 campuses over uncertainty about scheduling the tests during the pandemic.

State Rep. David Wilkerson is ready to take it a step further: The Democrat plans to introduce legislation in January to permanently eliminate the testing requirement for the Zell Mill scholarship, which covers full tuition on Georgia’s public campuses.

“With SAT and ACT exams being canceled across the country, it is time to revisit the 2011 decision to have a testing requirement for the Zell Miller scholarship,” Wilkerson said in a statement. “A student who graduated high school with a 3.7 GPA has already demonstrated academic excellence. A three-hour test should not be more important than 12 years' worth of classroom work.”

As part of its effort to pare back the HOPE scholarship in 2011, the Legislature created a two-tiered system with the Zell Miller scholarship at the top. To qualify, students must have a high school grade-point average of 3.7 or higher, plus a 1,200 on the SAT or an ACT composite score of 26. The average ACT score for the class of 2019 was 21.4. The average SAT score was 1048.

The regular HOPE scholarship requires a 3.0 GPA but has no test score component. The award, however, varies each year depending on available Georgia Lottery funds. It usually covers between 80% and 90% of tuition.

Former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates has joined a 15-member advisory panel picked by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden to assist with his transition into office, should he win November's election. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)
Former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates has joined a 15-member advisory panel picked by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden to assist with his transition into office, should he win November's election. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

Biden picks Yates to help if transition is necessary

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has named a 15-member advisory board to assist with his transition — should he win November’s election.

One Georgian is on the board, former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates. Others on the panel, according to CNN, include Biden’s onetime rival for the nomination, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former national security adviser Susan Rice.

Candidates, endorsements, etc.:

— U.S. Rep. Doug Collins has picked up the support of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 623 in his bid for the U.S. Senate in November’s special election. The Atlanta police union’s endorsement comes after Collins called for the removal of Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard from an investigation into the shooting of Rayshard Brooks that led to charges against two officers.

— The Georgia American Federation of Labor is backing Raphael Warnock’s campaign in November’s special election for the U.S. Senate. Among the things the union highlighted in announcing its decision was the Democrat’s union-friendly stance and his pledge to push for expanded Medicaid.

The Brady PAC, a gun control group, has endorsed Democratic state Sen. Nikema Williams’ bid to replace the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta in the 5th Congressional District.

— Former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, trying to restore Republican control of the 6th Congressional District, has won the backing of the National Federation of Independent Business, a conservative group for small employers.

— The conservative Club for Growth has started running new digital ads supporting Republican Rich McCormick’s campaign in the 7th Congressional District. The ads are part of the group’s $3 million online effort to support a half-dozen candidates across the country. Club for Growth has also reserved $10 million in television airtime.

— Carolyn Bourdeaux, the Democratic candidate in the 7th Congressional District, has won the support of the Georgia chapters of the AFL-CIO and the United Food & Commercial Workers.

— Jon Ossoff, the Democratic nominee in one of Georgia’s two U.S. Senate races in November, is throwing his support behind Dana Barrett in her race against U.S. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, in the 11th Congressional District.

— Democrat Stacey Abrams dished out dozens of endorsements to candidates in local and legislative races, primarily to contenders in competitive contests. What may be most notable is the races she skipped. She did not back Democrat Quentin Howell, who is running against state Rep. Rick Williams in a swingy district based in Milledgeville. She also did not pick a contender among the four candidates running in the special election for the seat state Sen. Nikema Williams is giving up to run in the 5th Congressional District. Seeking to replace Williams are Zan Fort, Sonya Halpern, JoAnna Potts and Linda Pritchett.