Ralston wants review of perceived Georgia election issues

House Speaker David Ralston will appoint a special committee to examine election issues in Georgia, with an eye toward making changes during the legislative session that starts next week.

At a press conference Thursday, Ralston said he wants to address the concerns of Georgians who believe widespread voting fraud occurred in the November elections — accusations that are unsubstantiated and have been frequently denied by state election officials and shot down by the courts.

But Ralston expressed skepticism for a proposal by fellow Republicans to significantly curtail absentee voting. And he made it clear he doesn’t buy the fraud allegations peddled by some of his fellow Republican lawmakers.

“People are concerned, and I think we have to speak to those concerns,” Ralston told reporters. “But I think we have to tell them the truth (about fraud). And I think they have not been given the truth all the time on this.”

The speaker’s comments are the latest evidence that voting will be a dominant theme in the General Assembly this year. The issue has gained prominence following a tumultuous year that featured a bitter presidential contest, two U.S. Senate runoff elections that gave Democrats control of the chamber and Georgia’s debut as a swing state of national prominence.

All of it took place amid a coronavirus pandemic that boosted absentee voting to record levels.

Encouraged by President Donald Trump’s allegations of voting fraud, Georgia lawmakers held a series of hearings that publicized such claims — no matter that Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Trump’s own attorney general have found no evidence of widespread fraud.

On Thursday, Ralston expressed his own skepticism of the fraud claims.

“The facts are, we’ve had three recounts. We’ve had an audit. We’ve had more than six — I’ve lost count, I know there’s at least six — lawsuits that have been filed, all of which have been dismissed,” the speaker said. “Which kind of begs the question, if there were, in fact, significant wrongdoing, would it not have been disclosed?”

Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, says election integrity issues will be "front and center" in the upcoming legislative session. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/AJC

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer/AJC

But Ralston said his own views are less important than the perception of many Georgians who supported Trump. That’s why he’s appointing a committee to examine election security and recommend changes to shore up confidence in Georgia elections.

There’s no shortage of ideas.

Raffensperger and some Republican lawmakers have proposed eliminating “no-excuse” absentee voting. Since 2005, any Georgia voter has been able to vote absentee for any election. Until recently, it was an option often used by older Republican-leaning voters. But the use of absentee ballots became more widespread during the pandemic — fueling Trump’s allegations of voting fraud.

Ralston said he was reluctant to do away with no-excuse absentee voting. “Somebody’s going to have to make a real strong case to convince me,” he said.

But the speaker said he wants to ensure that absentee voting is as secure as voting in person early or on election day. One idea that’s already been floated is requiring voters to submit a photo ID when they return their ballot, instead of relying on signatures to confirm their identities.

“I want elections to be open,” Ralston said. “But I want them to be fair, and I want them to be secure.”

Ralston expects to name the members of the election committee next week.

Though he expects elections to be “front and center” during the legislative session, Ralston has other priorities as well.

He wants lawmakers to address the pandemic and its economic fallout. One example: Ralston wants to extend pandemic-related lawsuit protections for businesses another year.

He also wants to expand access to mental health care, especially in rural areas. In education, Ralston wants to recognize dyslexia as a learning disability.

As he contemplated the coming session, the speaker also was mindful of Wednesday’s shocking attack by Trump supporters on the U.S. Capitol. He said he wanted to move beyond partisan divisions, and he congratulated Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who won U.S. Senate races this week.

Ralston said the Republican Party nationally and in Georgia needs “a lot of discussion” about its path forward.

“Our Republican Party and, frankly, our government, is at its best when it is working for our people, when we address fundamental issues that make people’s lives better,” he said. “We have to turn our attention from those seeking to divide us and focus our attention on the work that brings us together.”