Capitol Recap: Proposed voting restrictions in Georgia have D.C. roots

Heritage Action, a Washington-based conservative think tank, first proposed many of the election restrictions that became GOP-backed bills in the Georgia Legislature, including limits on the use of drop boxes.
Heritage Action, a Washington-based conservative think tank, first proposed many of the election restrictions that became GOP-backed bills in the Georgia Legislature, including limits on the use of drop boxes.

Think tank pushed election bills, and GOP lawmakers complied

Revamping Georgia’s voting system, for better or worse, has been a primary theme of this legislative session.

But it hasn’t been the homegrown effort many may think.

The calls to change election oversight in Georgia came after then-President Donald Trump claimed voter fraud had denied him reelection. That was even though Republican state election officials have said there’s no evidence of widespread fraud and recounts, conducted both by hand and machine, confirmed that Joe Biden won the state by about 12,000 votes.

Among the first to act on those calls was Heritage Action. The New York Times reports that the Washington-based conservative think tank played a significant role in generating many of the Republican-backed election proposals in Georgia.

“In late January,” the Times wrote, “a small group of dedicated volunteers from the conservative Heritage Action for America met with Republican legislators in Georgia, delivering a letter containing detailed proposals for rolling back access to voting. Within days, bills to restrict voting access in Georgia began flooding the Legislature.

“Of the 68 bills pertaining to voting, at least 23 had similar language or were firmly rooted in the principles laid out in the Heritage group’s letter and in an extensive report it published two days later, according to a review of the bills by The New York Times.

“The alignment was not coincidental. As Republican legislatures across the country seek to usher in a raft of new restrictions on voting, they are being prodded by an array of party leaders and outside groups working to establish a set of guiding principles to the efforts to claw back access to voting.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution tracked down Heritage Action’s voting recommendations — many identical to the GOP proposals in Georgia.

Here are just a few items from the Heritage document:

  • Require voter ID. A voter should be required to validate his or her identity with government-issued photo ID to vote both in-person or by absentee ballot (as states such as Alabama and Kansas require).
  • Government-issued IDs should be free for those who cannot afford one.
  • Limit absentee ballots. Absentee ballots should be reserved to those individuals who are too disabled to vote in person or who will be out of town on Election Day and all Early Voting Days.
  • The use of drop boxes should be severely limited. If authorized, states should require that drop boxes be located in secure settings where they are under 24-hour security, under video surveillance, and located in government buildings.
  • The counting of ballots should continue without pause until all votes have been tabulated.
  • Private interest groups of whatever partisan affiliation should not be allowed to provide funds to local election authorities to defray the cost of elections.

Along with the recommendations, Heritage Action adds this bit of insight: “While there is no accurate information on the extent of these problems, the number of instances in which such issues have occurred and are occurring demonstrates clearly the vulnerabilities in our current patchwork system across the states.”

Vulnerabilities weren’t seen as that big a problem among Georgians, according to an AJC poll of registered voters in January. It showed that most respondents, 58%, didn’t believe there was widespread fraud in the presidential election.

The poll also found that 55% did not favor new restrictions. The lone exception was ID requirements for absentee ballots, with 74% in favor.

A voting group has threatened a statewide boycott against Coca-Cola unless it comes down more firmly against voting restrictions that have been proposed in the Georgia Legislature. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
A voting group has threatened a statewide boycott against Coca-Cola unless it comes down more firmly against voting restrictions that have been proposed in the Georgia Legislature. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Voting group set to pour pressure on one Georgia firm

One voting rights group, in an effort to block the Republican-backed election proposals, is preparing to focus pressure on the business sector.

That means a boycott against one key Georgia business could become a real thing.

Leaders of the AME Sixth Episcopal District say they will call for a statewide boycott of Coca-Cola until it opposes measures that impose new ID requirements for mail-in ballots, limit the use of drop boxes and restrict weekend voting hours. (Weekend voting options actually expanded under Senate Bill 202, the sweeping legislation to overhaul Georgia’s election system that Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law this past week.)

Bishop Reginald Jackson said he wants to send the message that if “Coca-Cola wants Black and brown people to drink their product, then they must speak up when our rights, our lives and our very democracy as we know it is under attack.”

The state’s leading corporations have been guarded in their approach to the various election proposals. They have mostly called for focus group favorites such as “fairness” and “security” while largely avoiding outright opposition to specific provisions.

Coca-Cola has faced more heat than most. Earlier this month, opponents of the voting proposals held a die-in at the company’s downtown Atlanta tourist attraction.

In a statement, Coca-Cola has said it supported a “balanced approach to the elections bills that have been introduced in the Georgia Legislature this session.”

“The ultimate goal should be fair, secure elections where access to voting is broad-based and inclusive,” the company added.

Along with the expanded options for weekend early voting, SB 202 spared no-excuse absentee voting. The statute, however, did incorporate strict controls in other areas of ballot access.

Democrats say SB 202 still makes it harder for Georgians to cast ballots. Republicans — who have expressed no concerns about the integrity of their own elections in November — counter that the new law will restore voter confidence. Of course, any question of voter confidence is rooted in the unsubstantiated claims of fraud advanced by former President Donald Trump and his allies that went nowhere in the court system.

Gun control generates talk, but looser restrictions see action

In response to the Atlanta spa shootings, followed by the mass killing at a Colorado grocery store, Georgia Democrats have stepped up their calls for new gun control legislation.

State Sen. Michelle Au, D-Johns Creek, has proposed Senate Bill 309, which would require universal background checks on all firearms transfers and purchases in the state. State Rep. Sam Park, D-Lawrenceville, is sponsoring House Bill 788, which would institute a five-day waiting period for gun purchases and transfers.

Neither of those bills was even proposed before Crossover Day, making it highly unlikely that they will become law this year.

Legislation that stands a far better chance of passing in the Republican-controlled General Assembly would loosen restrictions on firearms.

The full House and a Senate committee have approved House Bill 218, legislation proposed by state Rep. Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton, that would, among other things, recognize concealed carry licenses from other states without requiring gun owners to get a license in Georgia.

There’s no guarantee HB 218 will pass before the General Assembly adjourns Wednesday, but at this point, it’s still in play while measures to tighten restrictions on guns are going nowhere.

The case of Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck was cited often in debate over a Senate resolution that in the future would -- if Georgia voters back it in 2022 -- stop the payment of salaries and benefits to indicted lawmakers and state officials who have been suspended. Beck was suspended after he was indicted in May 2019 on charges he swindled $2 million from a former employer. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that by June 30, Beck will have received nearly $400,000 in compensation since his suspension. (PHOTO by EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com)</p>
The case of Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck was cited often in debate over a Senate resolution that in the future would -- if Georgia voters back it in 2022 -- stop the payment of salaries and benefits to indicted lawmakers and state officials who have been suspended. Beck was suspended after he was indicted in May 2019 on charges he swindled $2 million from a former employer. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that by June 30, Beck will have received nearly $400,000 in compensation since his suspension. (PHOTO by EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com)</p>

Credit: � 2019 Cox Media Group.

Credit: � 2019 Cox Media Group.

Voters will choose whether to pay indicted officials

It’s now up to Georgia voters to decide whether to pay state officials who have been suspended from their jobs while facing felony charges.

The question will appear on the 2022 ballot after the Georgia House gave final approval to Senate Resolution 134. The Senate backed the resolution earlier this month.

The legislative votes came nearly two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars after Georgia Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck was charged with fraud and suspended by Gov. Brian Kemp.

Beck was indicted in May 2019, a few months after taking office, on charges alleging that he swindled his former employer out of $2 million, in part to fund his campaign for office. He has denied the charges and awaits trial.

SR 134 was proposed a few weeks after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that by June 30, the state will have paid about $400,000 in salary and benefits to Beck.

That doesn’t include salary and benefits to John King, Kemp’s choice to do Beck’s job while he is under suspension.

During what amounted to debate on SR 134 — the House approved it on a vote of 169-0 — state Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven, said Beck “is about to go a whole term without doing a job Georgians put their trust in him to do, but the taxpayers have been on the hook for his salary, health care and benefits the whole time.”

“If you can’t do the job, you shouldn’t get paid for it. I think he should have resigned,” Wilson said. “But since no one can be compelled to that end, we’ve got to make it so public corruption doesn’t get so comfortable you can just hang around picking up a paycheck until the clock runs out.”

While the legislation is all about Beck, it also has nothing to do with him.

SR 134 would apply to state officials who are indicted on charges related to their performance in office, while the allegations against Beck involve activity that took place before he became the insurance commissioner. Plus, the law would apply to future cases.

Under SR 134, indicted officials who are exonerated would return to their jobs and receive back pay.

The insurance commissioner’s job will be back on the ballot in 2022. If Beck is cleared of the criminal charges, he is entitled to take back the post and stand for reelection.

Fiscal 2022 budget is taking shape

Negotiations are still in play before the General Assembly calls it quits on Wednesday, but figures are starting to harden for the fiscal 2022 budget.

The Senate this past week approved its version of the $27.2 billion spending plan, which shares a lot in common with Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposal at the beginning of the session, as well as the budget the House approved earlier.

It would backfill many of the cuts lawmakers made in 2020, when they reduced spending by 10% because they feared a plunge in tax collections during the COVID-19 pandemic. That didn’t happen: Tax collections, instead, improved with Georgia’s economy. The state is also receiving $4.7 billion from the latest federal coronavirus relief plan, although Kemp will decide how that money will be spent.

The House and Senate plans include pay raises in areas where there is high turnover in state government, such as for staffers in the Department of Driver Services and prison and juvenile justice guards.

Both chambers have also backed plans to spend $40 million on a rural innovation fund and $10 million to extend high-speed internet in rural areas.

They also both support restoring 60% of the education spending they cut last year.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, noted that Georgia schools will get $4.2 billion in federal relief, which means schools will have far more money to spend next year than they did before the COVID-19 spending cuts.

Gov. Brian Kemp signs HB 593 and HB 114 to cut taxes for Georgians and increase incentives for adoption. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Gov. Brian Kemp signs HB 593 and HB 114 to cut taxes for Georgians and increase incentives for adoption. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Kemp puts his stamp on two tax breaks

You can slot a couple of tax breaks under finished business.

Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law a small state income tax cut for Georgians who use the standard deduction when they file their returns.

The governor also put his name to House Bill 114, which will increase the tax credit for families that adopt a child from foster care from $2,000 to $6,000 per year for five years.

The more wide-ranging cut under House Bill 593 is relatively modest in size.

It will increase the standard deduction for a single taxpayer by $800, while married couples that file jointly could deduct an extra $1,100. Georgians who are over 65 or blind would get an additional $1,300 deduction.

It would mean less than $100 for a married couple that files jointly.

The plan will cost the state $140 million a year, although the new, higher deductions won’t take effect until 2022.

The General Assembly approved HB 593 despite a provision in the federal $1.9 billion relief plan that Republicans worried would scuttle it.

For a short time, the tax break was in doubt after Congress put a provision into its coronavirus recovery plan that said money sent to states couldn’t be used for tax cuts.

But the U.S. Treasury Department then said the prohibition on tax cuts wouldn’t necessarily apply to those that didn’t use COVID-19 relief funds. HB 593 was in the works before Congress passed the relief bill, so state officials maintain it won’t use relief funds.

In Other News