The Jolt: Atlanta business lobby weighs in on voting restrictions

Members of the Georgia House Election Integrity Committee listened to testimony from Aunna Dennis, executive director for Common Cause Georgia, on Thursday, March 18, 2021. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

Members of the Georgia House Election Integrity Committee listened to testimony from Aunna Dennis, executive director for Common Cause Georgia, on Thursday, March 18, 2021. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

For weeks, voting rights advocates have blasted Georgia’s most powerful companies and their lobbies for tiptoeing around the debate over election restrictions and offering few specifics even when they wade in.

On Friday morning, hours after House leaders abandoned attempts to severely limit who can vote by mail and restrict Sunday voting, the powerful Metro Atlanta Chamber spelled out areas of focus that specifically addressed absentee voting, drop boxes, weekend voting and ID requirements.

In the statement, Chamber chief Katie Kirkpatrick said the business lobby wanted to be an advocate for “positive change.” Said Kirkpatrick:

“The bills under consideration impact a range of election related issues. We have prioritized addressing absentee voting, drop boxes, weekend voting and voter ID laws. We will continue to work with legislators to take steps that maximize voter participation, remove obstacles and maintain election integrity.

“Like many in our community, our interest in these issues began long ago and reflects our collective belief that every eligible Georgia voter — regardless of background or political views — should engage in the voting process.

“We will continue to use our voices to keep accessibility, convenience and security at the center of any discussions about changes to our election process.”

The emphasis on maximizing voter participation and removing obstacles is one of the strongest voting rights stances yet from any of the leading businesses in Georgia’s corporate world, and the focus on drop boxes and ID restrictions -- still intact in several pending proposals -- is a sign that the Metro Atlanta Chamber is making preserving ballot access a priority.

Updates: House Speaker David Ralston’s office indicated it was simpatico with the Chamber. From Ralston spokesman Kaleb McMichen:

“The Metro Atlanta Chamber’s statement reflects our mutual desire to ensure that Georgia’s elections are as accessible and secure as possible.  Just yesterday, the House proposed a substitute to SB 202 that would expand access to early voting statewide and, for the first time, provide in law for dropboxes as a means of returning ballots.  We appreciate our on-going dialog with the business community as well as civic organizations and citizens on this topic.”


Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger issued a letter Thursday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democrats in Georgia’s Congressional delegation objecting to a review of a contested House race that could potentially overturn a Republican victory in Iowa.

Republican Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks has been representing Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District since January, but only as a provisional member until Democrats complete what they say is a Constitutionally required review of the race. Miller-Meeks won the race by six votes and the state of Iowa has certified her election.

Wrote Raffensperger:

“In light of what Georgia has gone through over the last few months, and what members of my office and our great state and local election workers sacrificed, I am greatly alarmed that members of Congress would consider overturning the will of the voters as certified by the state, as narrow as it is. …

“As members of the leading party in the House of Representatives, Georgia’s congressional delegation has a special obligation to speak up on behalf of the sanctity of the will of the people in another state when it is to be so blatantly violated by their colleagues.”


President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will be in Atlanta Friday afternoon, as scheduled, but their visit will be dramatically different than the one planned just a few days ago.

The duo’s visit had originally been built around a rally at Gwinnett’s Coolray field, where Biden and Harris would tout the passage of the $1.9 trillion Covid relief package,

But the White House quickly pivoted after a shooting spree in Atlanta killed eight this week, including six Asian women.

Biden and Harris will now go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for an update from public health officials about the pandemic. They will later meet with Asian-American leaders on the campus at Emory University to discuss ongoing attacks and threats against Asian Americans. Biden will then deliver remarks at Emory.

State Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, tweeted Thursday night, “See you tomorrow, Mr. President & Madam Vice President! Eternally grateful for new leadership in the White House.”

For those planning their commutes around the Metro area Friday, expect delays near Peachtree Dekalb Airport and the Emory area in the afternoon and evening.


The Washington Post writes that prosecuting the Asian spa murders will be an early test for Georgia’s new hate crimes law.

The General Assembly passed the bill from Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, last year following the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.

From the Post:

“Thank goodness law enforcement will have the ability to charge this as a hate crime if the facts support that," (Efstration) said in an interview.

“Protected categories under the law include not only race but also gender, religion and national origin. That makes it relatively broad, said Georgia State University law professor Jessica Gabel Cino, and potentially applicable to this week's shootings.

“It could certainly be the watershed moment of having a law on the books versus actually using the law on the books," she said.

- The Washington Post

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Chris Joyner also detailed the specifics of the law earlier this week, including language that requires a judgement from local law enforcement about the nature of the crime:

“The state statute does rely on local law enforcement to submit what is called a “bias crime report" as part of the investigation. Some authorities involved in the investigation have signaled there's not enough evidence yet to make that call."

- The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


Under the Gold Dome:

  • The General Assembly is in recess until Monday;
  • Ahead: Look for a crush of activity, including three dedicated committee work days, between Monday and Sine Die, now scheduled for March 31st.


POSTED: The AJC’s Mark Niesse has the latest on Senate Bill 202, the new omnibus elections bill introduced in a state House committee meeting Wednesday:

“Leading Georgia lawmakers said Thursday that they plan to maintain Sunday voting and no-excuse absentee voting but pursue strict controls on other areas of voter access and ballot counting.

“Voting rights advocates continued to oppose the legislation during a three-hour hearing, saying it would still create obstacles by limiting drop boxes, setting earlier absentee ballot request deadlines and requiring more ID to vote absentee.

“A committee vote on the expansive legislation, Senate Bill 202, could come as soon as Monday, setting up final decisions on changes to Georgia's voting laws within days.

- The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


The New York Times writes that efforts in states across the country to restrict early voting, including in Georgia, have become the new “center of gravity” for conservative groups that usually focus their efforts on cutting taxes or anti-abortion and anti-transgender policies:

“The Family Research Council, which advised the Trump administration on policies like ending military eligibility for transgender people and expanding the definition of religious freedom, recently dedicated one of its regular online organizing sessions, the “Pray Vote Stand Townhall," to encouraging people to lobby their state legislators.

Tony Perkins, the group's president, expressed optimism about the number of voting bills that were moving along and suggested that last year's election results were tainted. “We've got 106 election-related bills that are in 28 states right now," he said to the audience. “So here's the good news: There is action taking place to go back and correct what was uncovered in this last election."

- The New York Times


State legislators have turned down a request from the Savannah City Council to increase the local hotel occupancy tax from 6% to 8%, the Savannah Morning News reports.

“Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, who chairs the local delegation, said the timing just wasn’t right...

“‘It just makes more sense in these strange times while a lot of the hotels are hanging on by their fingernails anyway, that we would just put this issue off until next year,’ Stephens said.”


Other state action on bills this week:

  • The Senate Public Safety Committee approved a bill to increase penalties for people who commit crimes during a protest;
  • The House passed Senate Bill 34, one of several measures from First Lady Marty Kemp to crack down on human trafficking. That now heads to the governor’s desk;
  • The House passed House Bill 114, which extends a tax credit for families that adopt children out of foster care.
  • The Senate passed the House-approved state income tax cut bill, House Bill 593. That will now go to the governor for approval.


Banking executive Latham Saddler, a Navy SEAL and former White House fellow, is said to be building a campaign team and making calls toward challenging U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock next year.

The Republican is the second former University of Georgia student-body president who has made political news in as many days. We reported yesterday that state Rep. Houston Gaines, another SGA veteran, is considering a House bid.

In a 2019 video produced by the Terry College of Business, UGA President Jere Morehead called Saddler “the most impressive student I’ve ever encountered” in his 33 years at the university.


Also eyeing a statewide run in 2022 is state Rep. Erick Allen. The Smyra Democrat confirms he is considering a challenge to Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan.

“2022 will be an important election year and I am keeping every option on the table for how I can best serve my community and my state,” Allen tells us.


Mike Dudgeon, a former state lawmaker who is the policy director for Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, is returning to the private sector to work as an executive for the LifeBell healthcare company. He says he plans to remain as a part-time adviser to Duncan.


The Atlanta area spa shootings on Tuesday night continue to have reverberations in Washington. The U.S. House Judiciary Committee already had a hearing on violence against Asian Americans on the books for Thursday, but the deaths of eight people, six of them Asian women, gave that meeting new urgency.

Georgia U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson reflected on uncertainty surrounding the shooters’ motives and how, even without clear answers, the incident reflects the likelihood that many factors could be at play. And he said they reflect deeper issues in America.

“Whether the massacre in Atlanta was sex-based or race-based, it was hate-based and directed at Asian women; no question about it,” he said. “If genocide against Native Americans and slavery are our nation’s original sin, then harassment and violence against Asian Americans is its progeny.”


Gwinnett County Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks will be leaving the district with one year left on his contract.

The county school board voted 3-2 along party lines Thursday to part ways with Wilbanks, the nation’s longest-serving superintendent in a large school system. During his 25 years in the job, he has overseen its growth to become the nation’s 13th largest, and increasingly diverse, school district.

The AJC’s Alia Malik has more on what may be factors playing into Wilbanks’ forced departure, including the 2020 election of two new Democrats to the board. Both joined chairman Everton Blair, Jr., also a Democrat, in the vote to remove Wilbanks:

In the past two years, Wilbanks has been criticized for statistics that show students of color are disproportionately disciplined in Gwinnett and for a merit pay system many teachers say penalizes those who work at high-poverty schools. His decision to reopen schools in the fall amid the coronavirus pandemic sparked a firestorm of public opinion on both sides.

- The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The school district has twice won the Broad Prize for Urban Education, thought of as the most prestigious national award for traditional public school districts, due to high student performance and success narrowing gaps with low-income students and students of color.