Georgia leaders reject calls for special session to change runoff voting rules

10/16/2020 -Macon, Georgia - Georgia Governor Brian Kemp speaks at a President Donald Trump rally at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon, Friday, October 16, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
10/16/2020 -Macon, Georgia - Georgia Governor Brian Kemp speaks at a President Donald Trump rally at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon, Friday, October 16, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said Tuesday he won’t call a special legislative session to tighten residency requirements for the Jan. 5 runoffs, despite pressure from some supporters of President Donald Trump to make it harder for new residents to cast their ballots in the consequential election.

He and Georgia’s two top legislative leaders - Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston - released a joint statement that threw cold water on the idea that lawmakers could overhaul voting rules this close to the twin runoffs that could determine control of the Senate.

“Any changes to Georgia’s election laws made in a special session will not have any impact on an ongoing election and would only result in endless litigation,” the three Republicans said.

“We share the same concerns many Georgians have about the integrity of our elections. Therefore, we will follow the coming audit and recount closely and will work together to keep Georgia’s elections safe, accessible and fair.”

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State Rep. David Clark, who was crushed this week in a bid to oust Ralston as new speaker, is among several Republicans who urged the governor to call lawmakers back to Atlanta. He said legislators should make it harder for newly-arrived Georgians to cast their ballots in the runoffs to prevent outsiders from “interfering in our elections.”

State law allows new residents to register to vote with county officials by Dec. 7. It also makes it a felony to vote if you are in the state briefly with the intention to move away.

Clark and other critics say it opens the possibility for a wave of out-of-state residents to move to Georgia for the dual runoffs, which pit U.S. Sen. David Perdue against Jon Ossoff and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler against the Rev. Raphael Warnock.

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There’s no evidence of a crush of out-of-state residents moving to Georgia for the election, though former presidential candidate Andrew Yang announced he would move to the state for the runoffs and encouraged his supporters to follow him. It’s not clear if Yang intends to register to vote.

Kemp had earlier announced a special session to fix a legal problem in a Hurricane Michael relief measure, though he also pointedly added at the time that he could direct lawmakers to also tackle “budgetary and oversight issues.” The timing of that session is still uncertain.

There’s still a chance that rank-and-file lawmakers could force a ballot access debate this year: State officials note that legislators can bring themselves in for a special session with a three-fifths vote. But it’s seen as highly unlikely since it requires a significant number of Democratic support.

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Anthony Kreis, a constitutional law professor at Georgia State University, said any effort to change voting laws at this stage would have been soundly rejected by the judicial system.

“Let’s be clear,” he said. “Calls for the Georgia General Assembly to be convened in a special session for the purpose of altering absentee rules to suppress the vote are grotesquely un-democratic, an abuse of power and a constitutionally suspect form of racial discrimination.”

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