The Jolt: Behind the fight between the House speaker and Georgia’s secretary of state

201203-Atlanta- Rudi Giuliani listens to testimony during a subcommittee of the state Senate judiciary committee meeting at the State Capitol on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Giuliani brought fellow lawyers and witnesses who alleged serious voting problems in Georgia and asked that the State Legislature chose GeorgiaÕs electors. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
201203-Atlanta- Rudi Giuliani listens to testimony during a subcommittee of the state Senate judiciary committee meeting at the State Capitol on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Giuliani brought fellow lawyers and witnesses who alleged serious voting problems in Georgia and asked that the State Legislature chose GeorgiaÕs electors. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Judging by the press release that went out from David Ralston’s office late Thursday, you’d have thought that the House speaker was ready to vault from his third-floor office in the Capitol down to Brad Raffensperger’s second-floor habitat and give the secretary of state more than a piece of his mind. Our AJC colleagues Mark Niesse and David Wickert have the details:

House Speaker David Ralston said Thursday that he will seek a constitutional amendment for state legislators — not voters — to choose Georgia's top election official, an attempt to blame Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for perceived election problems.

Ralston's proposal came after a hearing in the state House of Representatives where supporters of Donald Trump made unsubstantiated claims of illegal voting following the president's loss to Democrat Joe Biden by about 12,000 votes.

While the secretary of state’s office sent emissaries to a similar hearing by senators last week, Raffensperger and his staff stayed away the House hearing – in which President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani spoke of Fulton County election workers passing around “USB ports as if they were vials of heroin or cocaine.”

We’re assuming that Giuliani meant thumb drives rather than “USB ports.” And given that the election workers he was referring to were primarily Black, the remark was particularly offensive.

In justifying their absence, officials connected with the secretary of state’s office said they had no appetite for another disinformation session, but also pointed to the lawsuit filed against Raffensperger by Trump and state GOP chair David Shafer, seeking to overturn the Nov. 3 presidential vote – filed on Monday. Staff lawyers told them to keep mum.

But Ralston is very protective of his chamber’s status. His press release included this:

“I have great personal respect for our current Secretary of State; however, I cannot ask the members of the House of Representatives to face questions about our elections and their integrity without the cooperation of the Secretary of State's Office."

And in a Twitter message, Ralston spokesman Kaleb McMichen focused on this paragraph in a third-party report on the flap:

“Although Ralston said the decision wasn't made with ill will, he blasted the Secretary of State's office for declining to take part in the House Governmental Affairs meeting on Thursday that delved into elections processes and false allegations of voter fraud."

There are reasons to think that, while Ralston’s threat was more than theater, the likelihood that it will become real is fairly distant. It’s more likely that House appropriators will use the secretary of state’s budget to make the speaker’s point.

First of all, a two-thirds majority in each chamber would be required to put a constitutional amendment on a November 2022 ballot. Republicans no longer have that clout in either chamber.

Secondly, as a rule, governors are jealous creatures. If anyone is to appoint a secretary of state, Gov. Brian Kemp would probably want to seize that power for himself. Even if it revives the conflict-of-interest issues that were so prominent in 2018, when Kemp oversaw the election that made him governor.

Thirdly, even if it were to be placed on a ballot, voters have historically been disinclined to give up their power to choose. It’s why we still have a state school superintendent who is elected statewide, even if the governor controls the budget of the state Department of Education.

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On Tuesday afternoon, Attorney General Chris Carr and his team of attorneys filed Georgia’s answer to the lawsuit filed by Texas – and joined by President Trump – asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the presidential results in Georgia and three other states. We have your copy here:

A couple good lines for those who don’t have time to read the entire thing:

“[T]he public consequences here would be enormous. Texas worries about ‘sowing distrust in federal elections,' but imagine the distrust and discouragement that would bloom here if voters understood that their votes could be nullified by a different state."

And this:

“,,,The novel and far-reaching claims that Texas asserts, and the breathtaking remedies it seeks, are impossible to ground in legal principles and unmanageable. This Court has never allowed one state to co-opt the legislative authority of another state, and there are no limiting or manageable principles to cabin that kind of overreach. If this Court were to entertain Texas's attack on Georgia's sovereignty, it would trample the ‘historic tradition that all the States enjoy equal sovereignty.'"

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Friendly fire: A group of 15 state senators, one state senator-elect and a dozen state House members signed onto an amicus brief in support of the improbable Texas lawsuit seeking to overturn Georgia’s election results.

Separately, four Georgia congressmen were among the 106 Republican House members who filed a separate amicus brief backing the long-shot attempt to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s win in Georgia and three other battleground states.

Rick Allen, Buddy Carter, Drew Ferguson, Austin Scott and 102 others signed onto the brief that cites “irregularities” they say cast doubt upon the outcome of the election and the integrity of the system. What is not said: All four of these Georgia House members won contests on the same ballot.

Interestingly, two of Trump’s most vocal supporters in the Georgia delegation — U.S. Reps. Doug Collins of Gainesville and Jody Hice of Monroe — did not sign onto the brief.

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This week’s Sunday column focuses on the divide caused by President Trump’s refusal to concede his defeat, between Republicans in the state Capitol and Georgia Republicans in Washington.

Threats of violence against the former group are part of the equation. Earlier this month, election official Gabriel Sterling loudly condemned threats made against a contract worker at the Gwinnett County elections officer. That’s now been underscored by a Thursday press release from the Gwinnett County solicitor general that starts with these paragraphs:

“As a reminder for early voting, which is set to begin on December 14, the Gwinnett County Solicitor General's Office will prosecute all individuals who threaten or assault election workers, election officials, elected officials, volunteers and contractors.

“Any individual who would threaten or endanger the life of local election staff, elected officials and volunteers, if convicted of the stated offenses, will receive a recommendation of up to 12 months confinement and/or a $1,000.00 fine per conviction pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 16-11-39.1 (Harassing Communications) and O.C.G.A. § 16-11-37 (Terroristic Threats). State and Recorder's Court Judges maintain and enact all sentences."

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President-elect Joe Biden echoed many other Democratic party leaders when he urged civil rights activists to watch their words about plans to overhaul policing until after the Jan. 5 runoffs in Georgia.

In a recording obtained by The Intercept, the former vice president told the activists that Republicans misrepresented their position on the issue to “beat the living hell out of us across the country, saying we’re talking about defunding the police. We’re not. We’re talking about holding them accountable.”

Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock both oppose efforts to defund the police, but that hasn’t stopped Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue of raising the prospect to energize voters.

Biden, who is visiting Georgia next week, urged the activists to tread lightly and not “get too far ahead of ourselves on dealing with police reform.”

“Anything we put forward in terms of the organizational structure to change police -- which I promise you will occur, promise you -- just think to yourself. And give me advice whether we should do that before Jan. 5.”

The candidates might also prefer that U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez also lower the temperature. Wearing a shirt with the slogan “Tax the Rich,” she went on Instagram Live, offering that a Georgia victory would help pave the way for more generous stimulus checks.

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The More Than A Vote organization started by NBA superstar LeBron James and a group of other prominent Black athletes and entertainers released a video Friday encouraging Georgians to cast ballots in the Jan. 5 runoffs.

The minute-long video features former NBA star Grant Hill and Atlanta Dream forward Elizabeth Williams urging voters to participate in the critical elections. They’ll be running on TV during Atlanta Hawks games this weekend. Watch it here.

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Trey Kelley, the Georgia House GOP whip, has been indicted on charges related to a fatal hit-and-run he was involved with in 2019, our AJC colleague Maya T. Prabhu reports.

Kelley has been charged with reckless conduct, a misdemeanor, on allegations in connection with the assistance he gave his friend Ralph Dover III after Dover hit a bicyclist and left the scene in September 2019. Dover is charged with felony hit-and-run and reckless conduct.

Polk County District Attorney Jack Browning said arrest warrants will be issued for Kelley and Dover.

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Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin will campaign today on Loeffler and Perdue’s behalf with stops at the Cobb County GOP office in Marietta and a craft beer pub in Gainesville.

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