Capitol Recap: Georgians will have influence in bill to compete with China

Kia Motors has sometimes had to idle its auto plant in West Point in response to a shortage of microchips. Legislation in Congress would spend $50 billion to boost chip production, but U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has threatened to kill the package to block passage of another Democratic bill. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Kia Motors has sometimes had to idle its auto plant in West Point in response to a shortage of microchips. Legislation in Congress would spend $50 billion to boost chip production, but U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has threatened to kill the package to block passage of another Democratic bill. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Plan to boost microchip production part of legislative package

Georgia will have a say in a final bill aimed at boosting U.S. manufacturing to compete with China — if such legislation is allowed to progress.

The measure’s many goals include spending $50 billion to boost domestic production of microchips to ease shortages that have idled manufacturers, such as the Kia car plant in West Point, for want of the semiconductors. The package would also increase research funding for the purpose of encouraging innovation.

Three Georgians — Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, Republican U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter of Pooler and Democratic U.S. Rep. David Scott of Atlanta — are among the 107 members of a conference committee working on a compromise after the Senate and House passed their own bills.

They say they want to ensure the final package includes resources for Georgia universities and businesses.

But U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell recently cast some doubt on the proposal’s prospects, threatening to kill it if Democrats pursue a separate measure.

Democrats are considering using a process called reconciliation — which would allow for passage without the support of any Republicans — on a package that would likely focus on climate change, prescription drug costs and subsidies to help low-income people buy health insurance coverage on federal exchanges.

If Democrats follow through on the reconciliation package, McConnell wrote, he will withdraw GOP support from the China competition measure, meaning it would probably fail to gain the votes of at least 10 Senate Republicans needed to avoid a filibuster.

The three Georgia lawmakers all have different priorities for the bill.

Warnock is most concerned about the microchip shortage and ensuring money for research and development is used to create technology centers near Georgia colleges, including historically Black colleges and universities.

Scott, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said he would focus on making sure the package includes funding for research aimed at improving farming, boosting food production and dealing with issues in the supply chain for agricultural tools and products.

Carter says he’s concerned about the microchip shortage, but he also sees benefits for Georgia, including money for the state’s ports to address backlogs and an opportunity to help pharmaceutical companies increase domestic production. Carter is a pharmacist.

But he also wants to keep the focus on competing with China.

“China is not our friend, they are not our adversary, they are our enemy,” Carter said. “Now, I know enemy is a strong word, but at the same time, they want to overtake us as the economic leader of the world. We need to keep that in mind.”

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U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, the chair of the state Democratic Party, is the narrator of a video the party produced to persuade the Democratic National Committee to give Georgia an early slot on the 2024 presidential primary calendar. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, the chair of the state Democratic Party, is the narrator of a video the party produced to persuade the Democratic National Committee to give Georgia an early slot on the 2024 presidential primary calendar. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

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U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, the chair of the state Democratic Party, is the narrator of a video the party produced to persuade the Democratic National Committee to give Georgia an early slot on the 2024 presidential primary calendar. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

In pursuit of early primary date, Georgia Democrats go to video

Georgia Democrats are angling for an early spot on the 2024 presidential primary calendar. They just baited their hook with a video.

The Democratic National Committee is allowing states to bid for earlier dates after the 2020 primary season got off to a disastrous start in Iowa. That led some to question whether the majority-white, rural state best represents the party’s diverse electorate.

State party officials say an earlier date will benefit Georgia’s economy, drawing millions of dollars in spending from the campaigns, media outlets and others.

An earlier date, combined with the state’s new status as a battleground state, would also give Georgia voters greater influence in picking the nominee.

Presidential candidates have generally bypassed Georgia in recent primary contests, focusing their attention on building momentum in the early races in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

Georgia is now competing with those four states for either one of their spots or a fifth early date on the calendar.

So are 12 other states and territories: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, Texas and Washington.

To sell the DNC on Georgia, the state’s Democrats produced a video. It features clips of former President Jimmy Carter, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Congressman John Lewis. But then it switches from history to more current events: the party’s creation of a first-ever “voter protection” unit and Democratic victories in Georgia’s 2020 presidential race and the sweep by Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in the 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs.

“Our racial, geographic and economic diversity isn’t just a stat,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, the state party’s chairwoman and also the narrator of the video. “It’s our strength. A strength that’s reflected in our Democratic leaders who are committed to making sure our state’s diversity is represented at the ballot box. A strength that knows how to win.”

DNC officials are expected to prepare a final recommendation in August. A DNC vote on the early-voting schedule is expected in September.

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Susan McWethy of Decatur speaks against the use of bar codes and QR codes in vote printouts during public comment period. Georgia election officials are considering a design change to ballots that would eliminate the bar codes, replacing them with ovals placed next to candidates' names. Some election integrity advocates say that the bar codes, unreadable by the human eye, make it impossible for voters to verify that a ballot reflects their choices. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Susan McWethy of Decatur speaks against the use of bar codes and QR codes in vote printouts during public comment period. Georgia election officials are considering a design change to ballots that would eliminate the bar codes, replacing them with ovals placed next to candidates' names. Some election integrity advocates say that the bar codes, unreadable by the human eye, make it impossible for voters to verify that a ballot reflects their choices. BOB ANDRES  /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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Susan McWethy of Decatur speaks against the use of bar codes and QR codes in vote printouts during public comment period. Georgia election officials are considering a design change to ballots that would eliminate the bar codes, replacing them with ovals placed next to candidates' names. Some election integrity advocates say that the bar codes, unreadable by the human eye, make it impossible for voters to verify that a ballot reflects their choices. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Ballots could shed their bar codes

Stripes could be out as Georgia election officials consider design changes to the state’s ballots.

Bar codes, also called QR codes, are unreadable by the human eye. That has drawn the scrutiny of election integrity advocates who say voters, unable to verify the text of their ballots are read correctly by machines, can’t be sure their votes are being counted. They warn that bar codes could be manipulated by hackers, though there’s no evidence that has ever happened.

“If the QR code is manipulated,” said Alex Halderman, a computer science professor at the University of Michigan, “you don’t have a chance that any individual voter is going to be able to look at that QR code and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, there’s a problem with this ballot.’ "

Oval “bubbles,” placed next to candidates’ names, could replace the bar codes.

Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer of the Georgia secretary of state’s office, said ballot changes have been discussed for more than a year. Security, costs and the challenges of printing a longer ballot are all factors under consideration.

Georgia began using printed-out paper ballots in 2020, following the purchase of $138 million worth of voting equipment manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems. Paper ballots provide a way to hand count and audit results.

The voting system relies on a combination of touchscreens and printers, which produce a sheet of paper that includes a bar code and a list of the voter’s choices. Once voters have made their choices, they insert their ballots into optical scanning machines that read the bar code, which counts as the official vote.

Haldersman said that a return to “the traditional ballot format” will allow voters to verify ballots ensure their votes are counted.

Other election authorities see it differently. Eliminating QR codes, they say, won’t make the vote more secure.

Ben Adida, executive director of VotingWorks, a company that assisted Georgia in its manual audit of the 2020 presidential election, called the debate little more than a distraction.

“If the attacker is able to change the way a ballot-marking device prints the ballot, the attacker can just as easily flip the names on a bubble ballot,” Adida said. “The QR code changes nothing in the security of the system.”

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U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock recently held a field hearing of the Senate Aging Committee in Fayetteville to highlight the problems of high prices for prescription drugs. He talked about how some of his congregants at Ebenezer Baptist Church ration their insulin because of the cost. “No one should be forced between affording their medication and putting food on their table. But these decisions are all too real for Georgia’s seniors,” Warnock said. (Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock recently held a field hearing of the Senate Aging Committee in Fayetteville to highlight the problems of high prices for prescription drugs. He talked about how some of his congregants at Ebenezer Baptist Church ration their insulin because of the cost. “No one should be forced between affording their medication and putting food on their table. But these decisions are all too real for Georgia’s seniors,” Warnock said. (Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Combined ShapeCaption
U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock recently held a field hearing of the Senate Aging Committee in Fayetteville to highlight the problems of high prices for prescription drugs. He talked about how some of his congregants at Ebenezer Baptist Church ration their insulin because of the cost. “No one should be forced between affording their medication and putting food on their table. But these decisions are all too real for Georgia’s seniors,” Warnock said. (Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Warnock focuses hearing on prescription drug costs

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock used a recent field hearing of the U.S. Senate Aging Committee in Fayetteville to turn the spotlight on the prices of prescription drugs.

The Democrat, who is seeking reelection, has pushed to limit the cost of insulin to $35 a month for patients with insurance and cap the out-of-pocket costs of prescription drugs covered through Medicare at $2,000 a year. He also wants to give Medicare more power to negotiate drug prices.

Lee Baker, a former president of the AARP’s Georgia chapter, was among the advocates, medical experts and older Georgians who spoke at the hearing.

“We can’t wait because we’re in the midst of a longevity revolution,” Baker said, urging Congress to take quick action on the cost of prescription drugs. “People are going to live longer and longer — and in most instances, they’ll be taking medication for a longer period of time.”

Warnock, who is also the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, said rising pharmaceutical costs have forced some of his congregants to ration their insulin.

“No one should be forced between affording their medication and putting food on their table,” he said. “But these decisions are all too real for Georgia’s seniors.”

Gretchen Spring, a Marietta retiree, said her family’s out-of-pocket costs climbed to roughly $12,000 a year after her husband, Peter, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016.

She said she maxed out credit cards with high-interest debts. She also used $60,000 in pension funds to pay for lifesaving drugs.

“We were in our golden years,” Spring said, “but the only people seeing gold were the pharmaceutical companies.”

Judge to determine whether PSC elections are discriminatory

A federal judge could issue a ruling before mid-August on whether statewide elections for the Georgia Public Service Commission discriminate against Black voters.

Almost all the candidates who have won seats on the commission in its 143-year history have been white, and U.S. District Judge Steven Grimberg said he’s struggling to determine whether that was a matter of race or partisan politics.

Commission members must live in one of five districts, but voters from across the state vote for all commission seats.

That setup, plaintiffs in the case allege, denies Black voters an opportunity to elect their preferred candidates. Over 30% of Georgia voters are Black, but they’re always outnumbered by the state’s white majority that tends to elect Republicans. Just one Black candidate has ever won an election to the PSC, Democrat David Burgess in 2000, after he was first appointed to the post.

An attorney for the state, Bryan Tyson, said Black voters have been able to participate in the political process. Just because their candidates haven’t won, he said, doesn’t mean the voting system is discriminatory.

Black candidates can win statewide elections in Georgia, Tyson said. Four have done it since 1998: Burgess; Thurbert Baker, who won elections for attorney general in 1998, 2002 and 2006; Michael Thurmond, who was elected labor commissioner in 1998, 2002 and 2006; and Raphael Warnock, who won his race for the U.S. Senate in January 2021.

Plaintiffs in the suit, which is based on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, are members of the NAACP, Black Voters Matter and Georgia Conservation Voters.

If Grimberg ordered district elections in Georgia under a map the General Assembly approved this year, four districts would have white majorities. However, those majorities are small in three of those districts, making up between 52% and 54% of the population, according to the Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office.

Political expedience

  • A haul of nearly $7 million: Republican Gov. Brian Kemp collected roughly $6.8 million between May 1 and June 30 as he prepares for a tough rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams. Kemp’s campaign said it collected roughly $3.8 million in campaign contributions along with an additional $3 million through a leadership committee, a new financial vehicle created by a Republican-backed state law that can accept unlimited donations. Kemp has about $7 million in cash on hand, which includes $6.4 million from his campaign account and $650,000 from the leadership committee.
  • Big spenders: A media buyer calculated that Democrat Stacey Abrams has already spent $15.5 million on digital, radio and television ads in her campaign to unseat Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock went a little further in his bid for reelection, shelling out roughly $16 million as he tries to fend off a challenge by Republican Herschel Walker.
  • Soros backs Abrams: George Soros, the financier often targeted for derision from the right, gave $1.5 million near the end of June to support Democrat Stacey Abrams’ campaign for governor. A political action committee run by Soros’ son reported the contribution to Abrams’ leadership committee in its latest campaign finance report. The PAC had earlier reported that Soros gave $1 million to Abrams’ leadership committee in March. The Republican-led General Assembly passed legislation last year creating leadership committees as a way to collect unlimited contributions to support Abrams’ opponent, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. But Abrams, a prolific fundraiser during past campaigns, has shown a knack for using leadership committees, too.
  • Fighting fire with fire: State Sen. Burt Jones, who was at odds with Gov. Brian Kemp at the time, was one of the few Republicans in the General Assembly who opposed legislation last year to create leadership committees to raise unlimited amounts of campaign cash. But Jones is seeing the committees in a new light now that he’s the GOP candidate for lieutenant governor. He created one, too, which was just a matter of common sense, his campaign said. “While Sen. Jones had some initial objections to the bill,” campaign spokesman Stephen Lawson said, “now that it’s the law of the land, it’s important for our campaign to be on the same level playing field as the other candidates in this race — and this move helps ensure that.”

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