The Jolt: Floodgates open on GOP election bills

2/26/19 - Atlanta - Rep. Barry Fleming (left), R - Harlem, answers questions from the floor after he presented the bill.   The Georgia House passed a bill Tuesday to buy a new $150 million election system that includes a paper ballot printed with a ballot marking device. But opponents to the bill, including many Democrats, say it would still leave Georgia's elections vulnerable to hacking and tampering.   Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
2/26/19 - Atlanta - Rep. Barry Fleming (left), R - Harlem, answers questions from the floor after he presented the bill. The Georgia House passed a bill Tuesday to buy a new $150 million election system that includes a paper ballot printed with a ballot marking device. But opponents to the bill, including many Democrats, say it would still leave Georgia's elections vulnerable to hacking and tampering. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

It’s getting hard to track the onslaught of elections proposals that have surfaced in the Legislature. But Thursday brought the arrival of one of the most important — and most controversial — measures yet.

Introduced by Republican Rep. Barry Fleming hours before a hastily-called House hearing, House Bill 531 would restrict absentee voting, limit the use of mobile voting units and ban counties from holding early voting on Sundays, often called “souls to the polls,” which is popular with Black voters

Unlike some other measures pushed by back-bench legislators, this one has juice. Fleming is a rival to House Speaker David Ralston with his own power center, and chairs a special committee set up to handle elections proposals.

Among the other provisions in the measure: a requirement for photo ID for absentee voting, a more limited timeframe for voters to request absentee ballots, and restrictions on where ballot drop boxes could be placed.

Today, Fleming scheduled an hours-long hearing that could stretch through the afternoon to vet the bill. Voting rights advocates and Democratic groups are incensed.

A coalition of 28 groups, led by Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight Action, urged Fleming to delay the hearing until at least Monday to give advocates more time to analyze the measure.

“It contains a set of proposals that would have devastating consequences for voting rights in Georgia, and it is absolutely unacceptable that legislators, voting rights advocates, and the people of Georgia have been blindsided by its release,” they wrote in a letter to Republicans.

The release of the Fleming proposal Thursday overshadowed votes in the Senate Ethics Committee on a more consensus-driven package promoted by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan. A measure requiring ID for mail-in ballots passed on a party-line vote, but other measures earned more backing.

More from our AJC colleague Mark Niesse’s story:

  • Election workers would be required to open and scan absentee ballots starting eight days before election day under Senate Bill 40. Vote counts couldn’t be reported until after polls close on election day.
  • Records showing who voted in each election would have to be finalized within 30 days after an election, according to Senate Bill 184.
  • No election results could be reported until county election officials publicize how many total ballots have been received, according to Senate Bill 188.
ExploreComplete coverage: Georgia voting bills

***

Under the Gold Dome Friday:

  • The House and Senate are in recess Friday, returning Monday;
  • 9:30 am: The House Special Committee on Election Integrity meets to consider Rep. Barry Fleming’s omnibus elections bill. It will also be Livestreamed.

***

As Crossover Day draws closer, lawmakers are picking up the pace to move legislation through at least one chamber to ensure their bills have a chance to be considered by the second chamber this session. (Bills that pass neither this session will get bumped to 2022.)

Our Capitol team has the details on notable movers this week:

  • On criminal justice reform, Senate Judiciary Chairman Brian Strickland introduced SB 105 to ease probation requirements for some offenders;
  • A House committee approved House Bill 247, to add penalties for texting and driving. The House passed HB 165, to let people mount cell phones on car windshields, which is currently illegal. Who knew?

For even deeper info on the bills here and the people behind them, be sure to check out the AJC’s Georgia Legislative Navigator.

***

Dalton Republican state Rep. Casey Carpenter got a rousing response in the House Chamber Thursday for his rap skills.

After he recognized recording artist Dr. Dre for Black History Month, Speaker David Ralston asked Carpenter for a few lines, which Carpenter obliged. (GBP’s Lawmakers has the video.)

Carpenter’s bill to allow in-state college tuition for Georgia-resident DREAMers is scheduled to be in front of the House Education Committee this morning at 9:30.

Could Carpenter’s clout be climbing? We’ll report back.

***

State Rep. Houston Gaines is having some week. On Tuesday, the House passed his legislation to give three weeks of paid parental leave to all state employees, including teachers.

By Thursday, the Athens Republican was on Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends touting HB 286, his bill to prevent local governments from cutting more than 5% of funds from their police departments, with some exceptions.

The House Governmental Affairs Committee hotly debated the bill, with dissent from Reps. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur), Bee Nguyen (D-Atlanta), and others. The committee eventually passed HB 286 by substitute.

***

State Rep. Carl Gilliard, D-Garden City and the CEO of a Savannah-area hospital system are asking Gov. Brian Kemp for Black and Latino residents in Georgia to be given priority for the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Savannah Morning News.

“We have seen the studies that show how this group of individuals are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” Gilliard and St. Joseph’s/Candler CEO and President Paul P. Hinchey wrote in a letter to Kemp. “More importantly, we have seen this first hand through the demographics of those being hospitalized in our facility, as well as through the number of deaths in our congregations.”

Kemp’s office acknowledged the racial disparities of vaccinations in minority communities, but did not announce plans to change the current plan for vaccine distribution.

***

‘Tis the season for campaign trial balloons. But there’s one rumor we might be able to pop before it’s even been floated.

There’s scattered buzz in Georgia political circles about a comeback attempt by former Gov. Sonny Perdue, the former agriculture secretary for former President Donald Trump, challenging Gov. Brian Kemp.

It would make quite the storyline, especially if cousin David Perdue also decides to run for U.S. Senate next year. Sonny Perdue was once one of Kemp’s biggest champions and appointed him as secretary of state in 2010.

But we’re told by three people close to the former governor that he has no plans to challenge Kemp, and that they recently had lunch together to catch up.

***

Congress is wrapping up its week-long President’s Day recess.

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff has been back in the state meeting with Georgia Food Banks, Atlanta’s Grady Health System, and others about COVID-19 relief.

***

The mayor of Valdosta is pushing back on a complaint from four groups that said his side gig as a talk radio host, on a radio station he owns, violates the city’s ethics rules.

The Valdosta Daily Times reports Mayor Scott James Matheson said that he’s hosted his show for 19 years, including during the time before, during, and after he sought the mayor’s job. He added that there is no specific rule that anyone has shown he’s violated.

The City Council will review the complaint later this month at an open meeting.

***

POSTED: If you’ve seen Gov. Brian Kemp speak at an event, you’ve probably also seen David Cowan, the state of Georgia’s beloved sign language interpreter.

Cowan has been a constant presence by Kemp’s side at public events throughout the COVID-19 crisis and once went viral for his exuberant interpretation of a Beyonce song.

Cowan surprised South Fulton County Fire Chief Andrea Hall earlier this week at a city recognition for her performance of the Pledge of Allegiance at the Inauguration of Joe Biden.

Since Chief Hall’s father was deaf, she also used sign language for the Inaugural Pledge. Cowan’s surprise appearance brought her to tears.

In Other News