The Jolt: Image of lawmaker’s arrest spoils victory lap on election law

Rep. Park Cannon (D-Atlanta) is placed into the back of a Georgia State Capitol patrol car after being arrested by Georgia State Troopers on day 38 of the legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
Caption
Rep. Park Cannon (D-Atlanta) is placed into the back of a Georgia State Capitol patrol car after being arrested by Georgia State Troopers on day 38 of the legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Talk about mixed messages.

Even as Gov. Brian Kemp was denying charges that the sweeping elections changes he just signed into law didn’t suppress the vote, authorities outside his office were dragging away a Black legislator who knocked on his office door during his remarks.

The arrest of state Rep. Park Cannon — who faces two felony charges — far overshadowed the victory lap that Kemp and other Republicans hoped to take with the signing Thursday of Senate Bill 202, legislation that imposed new ID requirements, limited drop boxes and instituted other restrictions.

The image of Cannon, an Atlanta Democrat, being forcibly dragged from the statehouse lobby was hard to watch and the arrest could be legally questionable, since state law protects sitting lawmakers from arrest during a session except for charges of treason, felonies or breach of the peace.

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Not only will the encounter add to the charged atmosphere at the Statehouse during the final days of the legislative session, but it will also play into the expected 2022 rematch between Kemp and Stacey Abrams, who called Park’s arrest as SB 202 was signed into law a “reminder of Georgia’s dark past.”

Gov. Brian Kemp signs the elections overhaul into law at the Capitol, flanked by legislative leaders.
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Gov. Brian Kemp signs the elections overhaul into law at the Capitol, flanked by legislative leaders.

The bill itself did not fully satisfy GOP grassroots conservatives, who pined for more sweeping changes, such as severe new limits on mail-in ballots. One veteran GOP activist worries that Republicans “seem to have done the impossible.”

“Passage of a bill that does nothing substantive to address concerns of GOP voters while maximizing blowback from Democrats which will be amplified in the press,” the activist said.

Still, facing a likely Republican challenge backed by former President Donald Trump, Kemp politically had little choice but to sign the measure, which he broadly endorsed in a Fox News interview ahead of the final vote.

In the immediate aftermath, statewide Democratic contenders and potential candidates seized on the issue as a 2022 dividing line.

Democratic state Rep. Erick Allen, who plans to run for lieutenant governor, panned incumbent Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan. State Rep. Bee Nguyen, a potential candidate for secretary of state, tore into the bill on social media and from the floor of the House.

Business groups, which have been pilloried for staying on the sidelines through much of the debate, offered a guarded reaction to the new law. The Metro Atlanta Chamber highlighted the expansion of weekend voting and the preservation of no-excuse absentee balloting — both targeted in earlier versions of the measure.

“Still, concerns remain in our region and across the state with aspects of SB 202,” said the chamber. “We will carefully monitor this legislation’s implementation, and we will lend our voice to help ensure that every eligible Georgia voter — regardless of political views, race or background — can engage in our voting process.”

Coca-Cola, facing boycott threats, said it has “sought improvements that would enhance accessibility, maximize voter participation, maintain election integrity and serve all Georgians.”

“We will continue to identify opportunities for engagement and strive for improvements aimed at promoting and protecting the right to vote in our home state and elsewhere.”

About our coverage

Providing the facts and context that help readers understand the current debate over voting laws is a priority for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For a better understanding of the issues driving Legislative action, click on these links.

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The New York Times writes an analysis that SB 202 will have “an outsized impact on Black voters” in Georgia, and includes comments from Stacey Abrams that feel like the beginning of a 2022 message:

“Rather than grappling with whether their ideology is causing them to fail, they are instead relying on what has worked in the past,” Stacey Abrams, the voting rights activist, said as the bill made its way through the Legislature, referring to what she said were laws designed to suppress votes. “Instead of winning new voters, you rig the system against their participation, and you steal the right to vote.”

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The Wall Street Journal’s write up includes Republican lawmakers’ reasons for pushing through SB 202, with this candid observation from state Sen. Larry Walker, R-Perry:

GOP state Sen. Larry Walker said the legislation was necessary to ease the concerns of many voters, especially Republicans, who worried that fraud might have taken place this past election season, when absentee voting was much more popular because of the Covid-19 pandemic. No court or legislative body has found evidence of widespread voter fraud.

“Those are the concerns my constituents have,” Mr. Walker said. “Whether they are overblown, it’s hard to say.”

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03/25/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia —Gov. Brian Kemp leaves the Georgia State Capitol Building after signing SB 202 behind closed doors on day 38 of the legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
03/25/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia —Gov. Brian Kemp leaves the Georgia State Capitol Building after signing SB 202 behind closed doors on day 38 of the legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

A hint at what’s to come?

Gov. Brian Kemp told CBS News in an interview that he could eliminate social distancing and business restrictions “sooner rather than later” as more Georgians get vaccinated against COVID-19.

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Under the Gold Dome:

  • 10:00 am: Senate committee meetings begin;
  • The House and Senate are in recess. Legislative action will resume Monday, March 29.

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Black farmers from Georgia speaking at a Thursday U.S. House committee hearing said that many of the barriers they face, including lack of access to federal loan programs and feeling overlooked by the Department of Agriculture, are yearslong issues that previous administrations have failed to address.

The House Agriculture Committee, led by Georgia U.S. Rep. David Scott, held a hearing on issues facing black farmers on Thursday. Among the panelists was Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who in his opening remarks credited Georgia’s U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock for championing programs for disadvantaged farmers that were included in the latest coronavirus relief bill.

Ahead of his committee appearance, Vilsack told the Washington Post that just 0.1% of coronavirus relief money allocated to farmers during former President Donald Trump’s administration went to Black farmers. Of the roughly $26 billion available in two rounds of payments, Black farmers received $20.8 million, the Post reported.

Recent estimates put the number of farms in America that are Black-owned around 2% percent of the total.

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Georgia House Speaker David Ralston announced Thursday that the state could take action to stem Atlanta’s dangerous rise in violent crime.

From the AJC’s Joshua Sharpe:

State House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, announced that a House committee plans hearings this summer to determine if state troopers should be brought in to help police Atlanta.

The speaker cited the city’s increase in violent crime, including a devastating spike in homicides in 2020, when Atlanta saw more homicides than it had in two decades. Ralston also complained that numerous state lawmakers have had vehicles stolen and apartments burglarized.

While Atlanta’s increased crime rate is well-documented, it’s not alone among major U.S. cities.

A recent study of the rising violent crime and homicide rates during the coronavirus pandemic indicates that the health crisis itself contributed to the issues. The study was done by Arnold Ventures on behalf of the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan criminal justice think tank.

First, the pandemic has disproportionately affected vulnerable populations, placing at-risk individuals under additional physical, mental, emotional, and financial stress. Secondly, the pandemic has strained the institutions charged with responding to violent offenses, including police agencies, courts, hospitals, emergency medical services, and community-based groups that productively engage at-risk individuals. Most evidence-informed violence reduction efforts depend heavily on proactive outreach to at-risk people and places, and such outreach has been largely curtailed by the ongoing risk of infection.

The report also addresses why protests about policing last summer may also have had an impact, describing it as the two-part “Ferguson effect.”

The first connects violence to “de-policing,” a pullback in proactive law enforcement by officers who fear they will be unfairly scrutinized and could lose their jobs. The second connects violence to “de-legitimizing,” positing that disadvantaged communities drew away from police due to breached trust and lost confidence.

Other potential factors to increased crime rates that the study outlined include the increased number of firearms sales during the pandemic and reductions in jail populations.