Opinion: A state Capitol about to come to grips with the aftermath of 2020

06/26/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), center, congratulates members of the House after they passed HB 793 on Sine Die, day 40, of the legislative session in Atlanta, Friday, June 26, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
06/26/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), center, congratulates members of the House after they passed HB 793 on Sine Die, day 40, of the legislative session in Atlanta, Friday, June 26, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Yes, Georgia’s two endless, soul-crushing U.S. Senate races are finally done. It’s all over but the counting, the recounting — and the lawyering.

Even so, 2020 isn’t finished with us. On Monday, by constitutional mandate, this year’s session of the Legislature begins.

The scars from an ongoing pandemic will be obvious. The after-effects of a tumultuous year in politics, in this state and beyond, are likely to be more subtle.

“We’ve started in the middle of blizzards and ice storms, because we have to be here, and the pandemic’s no different,” House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, told me on Monday. “I’m hoping we’re able to stay on some sort of normal schedule, but obviously, that’s weighing on me. The safety of the members of the House, the staff — and even the media. I care about y’all, you know.

“I’m all for wearing masks. I’ve got a few members — many of whom now are gone, that chose to give me some problems over that, but when I threatened to throw them out, they got over their problem,” Ralston said.

In Ralston’s chamber as well as the Senate, lawmakers and staff will be subject to mandatory, twice-a-week COVID-19 tests. Spectators will be discouraged from entering the state Capitol.

Spending plans will need to be adjusted, with more money for public health operations and the National Guard troops assisting the effort. A state law shielding businesses from legal liability if workers or customers contract COVID-19, passed last year, is set to expire in July. It will probably be extended, Ralston said.

Then there are the political lessons of 2020.

I told the speaker of a conversation I’d had last week with a member of Gov. Brian Kemp’s staff about the inevitability of some sort of legislation that would tighten Georgia’s no-excuse absentee ballot law — which Democrats used to great effect in both 2020 and 2018.

Given a defeated President Donald Trump’s post-Nov. 3 campaign against mail-in votes, tightening the use of absentee ballots has become a new litmus test for Republican state lawmakers, perhaps even topping abortion, we had decided.

“I think that’s a good comparison. I think that’s very fair,” Ralston said. The speaker acknowledged no-excuse absentee ballots as a target. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has endorsed a return to a system in which absentee ballots would be restricted to the physically disabled and the geographically distant.

“We had some election reforms that a Republican General Assembly passed in 2005. Now I think there’s going to be a move to modify that to some extent,” Ralston said.

But that isn’t his first priority. “I’m more concerned about the mailing out of universal applications for absentee ballots than I am the no-excuse provision, frankly,” the speaker said.

Ralston sharply disagreed with Raffensperger’s decision last spring — as the pandemic began to take its toll — to mail out absentee ballot applications to every active voter in the state, ahead of the June 9 primary.

It was the first time in years that more voters picked up Democratic ballots than GOP ones — a clear sign of Georgia’s shifting political winds. It also helped Democrats identify and expand their base ahead of the November general elections.

Ralston has not entirely backed off his support for a measure, announced last month, that would allow the Legislature to select the secretary of state — a position now subject to a statewide election.

“I think it’s worth a conversation. After the recent developments, it may be the only way we can find somebody to do the job — is to appoint them,” the speaker said. “If you look at what that office does, it’s primarily ministerial, in terms of the licensing function and the election function. I think it’s a worthy idea. We’ll see how much traction it gets.”

But it will probably not happen. An amendment to the state Constitution would be required, necessitating a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers — a margin that Republicans don’t have in either the House or Senate.

Even if legislative hurdles were overcome, approval by voters in the November 2022 general election would be required. Gov. Brian Kemp, seeking re-election, will also be on that ballot, and a rematch with Democrat Stacey Abrams is a near certainty.

If that’s the case, an effort to put the secretary of state beyond the reach of voters could become an effective club Abrams might use against Kemp, who was secretary of state in 2018 even as he pressed his gubernatorial ambitions.

Ralston is urging caution when it comes to tweaking Georgia’s voting laws. “I keep telling people, some of these changes that we’re talking about could come back and run over us,” the speaker said.

But Ralston did mention one wholesale change he intends to pursue. He wants to do away with the “jungle primary” requirement that saw U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, the Rev. Raphael Warnock and 18 other candidates in a formally nonpartisan blender that guaranteed Tuesday’s runoff for Loeffler’s seat.

“We’ve got to abolish that. The money that was spent because of that would have fed a lot of hungry people,” he said.

Last year was filled with examples of Republicans changing their ways to accommodate President Trump. But 2020 also showed the Georgia GOP how to survive him.

The Nov. 3 election was something of a miracle for Republicans in the state Capitol. Democrat Joe Biden may have claimed Georgia’s 16 electoral votes, but Democratic gains in the Legislature were minuscule. They will have no seat at the table when a special session to address the redrawing of the state’s political boundaries is held.

On Nov. 3, Trump received 49.25% of the Georgia vote. Biden hit 49.51%. At the same time, Republican candidates earned 51.2% of votes cast in state House races.

One of the reasons Republicans were able to survive an anti-Trump headwind was Ralston’s decision to allow suburban members of the House Republican caucus to pursue legislation that would appeal to more moderate voters.

“In August, I told our caucus to take the issues that we passed this year and remind people that it was a Republican-controlled House that led the charge on the hate crime bill,” Ralston said. Then there was House GOP legislation to address Georgia’s horrific maternal mortality rate. And paid parental leave legislation – which passed the House but failed in the Senate.

Ralston will urge House Republicans down the same path starting next week. In particular, he wants to address mental health care.

“That’s something I want to make a real priority, particularly in rural Georgia. We are so lacking in resources and treatment options — I had someone tell me several months ago, when I was in southeast Georgia, that the only way they can get mental health care is to be arrested for a crime and be put in jail,” Ralston said.

Then there is state Rep. Chuck Efstration’s second act. Efstration, a Republican from Dacula, was the author of the hate crime bill that Ralston mentioned, passed in the aftermath of the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery last February.

The three white men charged in the shooting death of Arbery, who was Black, originally sought to escape prosecution by invoking the state’s law allowing citizens to make arrests.

Efstration wants to seek changes to that law — and Ralston intends to back him.

Ralston and I were talking as news of President Trump’s hourlong conversation with Raffensperger — demanding that the secretary of state find enough votes to overturn his defeat in Georgia — was at a fever pitch. I asked the speaker what he thought of the matter.

“I don’t really know what the president expected to accomplish by calling the secretary, after he had tried 18 times, unsuccessfully, to get him to answer a call,” Ralston said. “Having said that, I’m not a big fan of surreptitiously recording phone calls, and, frankly, I think it’s a little disrespectful of the office, regardless of who is president.”

I asked what his constituents in Blue Ridge, an overwhelmingly red part of north Georgia, were telling him. “I’m beginning to hear more and more people, even there, say that it’s just time for it to be over. I think there is a fatigue factor setting in. And if it’s setting in there, I’ve got to believe it’s setting in elsewhere.”

And that’s when 2020 will be done with us.

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