For Republicans, the specter of new transplants flooding the state echoes a talking point long pushed by U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue: That “outsiders” from Democratic-leaning states are trying to push Georgia in a more liberal direction.
While some Republicans have also talked of moving to Georgia to vote, rank-and-file lawmakers have urged Gov. Brian Kemp and other GOP officials to tighten residency requirements and crack down on new arrivals. A story in the San Francisco Chronicle about how some Californians will “descend” on Georgia to promote Democratic campaigns was the talk of Republican circles here.
And some officials have urged a more sweeping response. Georgia GOP chair David Shafer recently called on state elections officials to investigate each new person who signs up to vote between Nov. 3 and the Dec. 7 voter registration deadline.
“These unlawful attempts by outsiders to influence our elections are potentially criminal, offend fundamental notions of a fair election process and must be stopped,” Shafer wrote in a Nov. 12 letter to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
Perdue made a similar argument, claiming on Fox News that Democrats are “willing to do anything – lie, steal, cheat – to win this election” even though there’s no evidence of any concerted attempt by the party to relocate voters to Georgia.
Moving to Georgia solely to vote could have serious consequences. It’s a felony to vote in Georgia without establishing legal residency, or to move here with the intention of voting and then quickly leaving.
But there’s a legal gray area in terms of how long a person needs to stay in the state to avoid being prosecuted. It’s also unclear if anyone has been prosecuted for doing it. Or if people are actually moving to the state to vote.
The attorney general’s office noted last week that anyone found guilty of breaking the law could be subject to up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
The dire GOP warnings echo a longstanding Republican strategy of casting Democrats as puppets of liberal national figures. And they ignore the fact that some prominent conservatives have used provocative language to advertise their plans to head to Georgia, too.
Leo Terrell, a Los Angeles attorney and outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump, said he was going to Georgia and that he expects an “invasion of Trump supporters from all over the country to join me.” His message was quickly amplified by Loeffler’s campaign.
‘Fight it out’
The hoopla began after former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang announced on Twitter a few days after the election that he was moving to Georgia to campaign for Ossoff and Warnock. Yang urged his supporters to follow suit.
“We will be getting organized - but in the meantime if you have a room available in Georgia for volunteers, post it here,” Yang tweeted. “We are going to fight it out in GA.”
Days later, Yang clarified he did not plan to vote in Georgia, but the political damage had already been done. New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman said on CNN that he hopes people move to Georgia and vote for Ossoff and Warnock, and some users floated the prospect on social media.
Soon, several state lawmakers called on Kemp to convene a special session of the Legislature to make it harder for new residents to cast ballots.
Kemp and the statehouse’s top GOP leaders quickly declined, arguing such moves “would only result in endless litigation,” but the offices of the attorney general and secretary of state subsequently issued warnings to anyone eyeing even a brief move to Georgia.
“Make no mistake about it, I will seek to prosecute those who try to undermine our elections to the fullest extent of the law,” Raffensperger said Monday, adding that “outside groups who seek to interfere with democracy in Georgia should be forewarned that the consequences will be severe.”
It’s common for competitive campaigns to attract a surge of volunteers ahead of a key election, including some from out-of-state offering to help with door-knocking, voter registration and canvassing. But most are only visitors who work for a few days or weeks who never formally move.
‘Please stay home’
The back-and-forth is putting some of the Senate campaigns in a delicate position. All four are looking for new voters, and they don’t want to turn off eligible would-be supporters.
“We will be registering voters. We follow the law,” said Brian Barrett, regional political director for the Republican National Committee.
Ossoff’s campaign has tasked a team with registering new voters ahead of the Dec. 7 deadline and specifically to engage with young people who have turned 18 since the general election. His team believes the latter category may include as many as 23,000 new voters.
That figure doesn’t include the indeterminable number of people who were thinking about permanently moving to Georgia before the election.
One of those voters is Gisela Baker, a 72-year-old retiree who recently relocated from northwest Indiana to be closer to her grandchildren. The pandemic had delayed Baker’s plans to move to Georgia this spring, but the runoffs provided an incentive to relocate this month.
“I was coming once a month to see my grandchildren and visit my sister and it got to the point where I said ‘I’m going to miss out on a lot flying back and forth,’” she said.
Baker drove down on Election Day and moved in with her sister in Smyrna as she looks for a house closer to her grandkids in Fayetteville. She’s raced in recent days to secure the documents needed to declare residency so she can cast her ballot for Warnock and Ossoff.
“I’m just thrilled Georgia is turning almost blue,” she said. “I’m anxiously trying to get everything set up so that our address is here.”
Wary of the backlash, Democrats have sharpened efforts to discourage out-of-state supporters from trekking to Georgia, though their statements have been more focused on the still-raging coronavirus pandemic.
“Please stay home,” Seth Bringman, an aide to Abrams, who cast it as a public health issue. “If you are not a Georgian or you don’t have a specific role with an organization on the ground, you can help from where you are.”