The Jolt: On Tuesday, an offer of hot chocolate to a shivering voter could become a crime

12/14/2020 —  Marietta, Georgia — A man peers down a winding line as he waits to cast his ballot during early voting at the Cobb County Elections and Voter Registration Office in Marietta, Monday, December 14, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
12/14/2020 — Marietta, Georgia — A man peers down a winding line as he waits to cast his ballot during early voting at the Cobb County Elections and Voter Registration Office in Marietta, Monday, December 14, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

Note to readers: This is the last Jolt of 2020, and thank goodness. We’ll resume on Monday, Jan. 4. Happy New Year to all!

Weather forecasters tell us that the temperature will be right around 32 degrees Fahrenheit when polls open at 7 a.m. Tuesday for a final day of voting in two U.S. Senate runoffs.

Even so, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger wants you to know that anyone who offers a cup of hot chocolate to any voter standing in line – and any voter who partakes of said cup of warmth – could be guilty of a felony under Georgia law.

Raffensperger made the point Tuesday in a bulletin to county election officials. From the press release recounting the event:

Political organizations or advocacy groups will use the giveaways or gifts, known as “line warming," to inappropriately influence voters in the crucial final moments before they cast their ballots. Such efforts violate the protections Georgia law has placed on campaigning near a polling location or voting line and the prohibitions on providing rewards to voters that were enacted to stop pay-for-vote schemes.

Georgia law establishes a buffer zone around polling locations to “create an atmosphere of calm and non-interference for voters who are contemplating exercising one of their most basic constitutional rights." Georgia law prohibits individuals from soliciting votes within 150 feet of a polling location or within 25 feet of a voter standing in line to cast their ballot (OCGA § 21-2-414).

The bulletin also reminds elections officials that offering food, drinks, or other items of value to voters waiting in line or those who have already voted is forbidden under Georgia law (OCGA § 21-2-570). Georgia law explicitly states that “Any person who gives or receives, offers to give or receive, or participates in the giving or receiving of money or gifts for the purpose of registering as a voter, voting, or voting for a particular candidate in any primary or election shall be guilty of a felony."

But there are those who think Raffensperger may be interpreting Georgia law more strictly than need be. Here’s a passage from a piece on the topic that our AJC colleague Henri Hollis turned just before the Nov. 3 vote:

At the crux of the issue are both federal and state laws meant to prevent special-interest groups from “rewarding" voters for casting their ballots. The law is meant to prevent groups from buying votes through money or other means. However, according to attorney Dara Lindenbaum, counsel for the nonprofit voting rights group Fair Fight Action, there's a loophole: As long as anyone, such as poll workers or passers-by, can partake in the offerings, the food and drink are clearly not a reward to voters.

Volunteers also must obey all laws against campaigning near polling places and voting lines. As long as they are not campaigning and offering their snacks to all comers, Lindenbaum said in a memo, the practice should be legal.

In the real world, election officials tolerate volunteers giving out food and drinks at polling places as long as there is no partisan influence.

***

An audit of 15,000 randomly selected mailed-in ballots in Cobb County turned up not a single instance of fraud -- contradicting widespread GOP claims of rigged voting, according to our AJC colleague Mark Niesse:

There were 10 absentee ballots that had been accepted but voter signatures didn't match or signatures were missing, according to the report. But agents from the GBI and investigators with the secretary of state's office contacted those voters and confirmed they had submitted those ballots.

In one case, a voter's wife signed her husband's ballot envelope. Another voter signed the front of the envelope instead of the back. Eight voters had mismatched signatures, but the voters told investigators the signatures were legitimate.

***

Despite the results of the audit cited above, Republican state lawmakers will attempt to sharply curtail the use of absentee ballots when they convene in Atlanta next month. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger himself has endorsed putting an end to no-excuse voting, approved by a GOP-controlled Legislature in 2005.

But one wonders if -- depending on the outcome of Tuesday’s vote count -- whether other changes might be in store as well. In Tuesday’s Jolt, we told you of some comments made by U.S. Sen. David Perdue, the Republican locked in a runoff with Democrat Jon Ossoff. Said Perdue:

“I won this election by two points. Do y'all realize that's a bigger win than a lot of people who have already been in the United State Senate?" In almost any other state, he'd be back in the Senate by now, Perdue said, adding, “But here we are in a runoff."

Perdue barely missed an outright victory on Nov. 3, earning 49.73% of the vote.

In 1992, U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler, D-Ga., received 49.23% of the vote, and was defeated in a runoff by Republican incumbent Paul Coverdell. Soon afterwards, a Democrat-controlled Legislature amended the state law requiring victors to pass the 50% mark in statewide contests. In 1996, Democrat Max Cleland was elected to the Senate with 48.9% of the vote -- beating Republican Guy Milner, who finished some 30,000 votes behind.

Republicans restored the majority-vote requirement when they took control of the state Capitol. It will be interesting to see if they’ve gotten tired of it -- particularly given the fact that the 2022 race for governor is already a three-party contest. Libertarian Shane Hazel said earlier this month that he’s in.

***

Already posted: On Monday, the penultimate day in an endless election season, President Donald Trump in Dalton and President-elect Joe Biden in Atlanta. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be in Georgia on Sunday.

***

This has been posted, too: Senate candidate Jon Ossoff’s closing TV argument is a call to action centered on Black voters’ struggles with injustice and the coronavirus pandemic. One 30-second spot includes flashbacks to the stories of five Black Georgians his campaign featured in earlier ads.

But Ossoff is also airing a minute-long spot featuring former President Barack Obama and John Legend. The latter croons “Georgia On My Mind.” The former sticks to narrating.

***

More than a few window panes are cracking in the glass houses occupied by some GOP campaign workers in Georgia.

Old social media posts by junior staffers for important Republican figures have bubbled up over the past several months -- and have been passed over, because what one Tweets and posts on Facebook in middle or high school doesn’t necessarily reflect what one thinks as an adult.

But this week, Republicans are focusing on a rapper who performed a single song at a Monday rally for Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. Specifically, Fox News and Breitbart are pointing to Tweets posted in 2012, when the young man was a teenager -- though critics also highlighted some of his more recent social media messages.

But if the rules are changing, the new ones will need to apply to all parties on all sides. Let this serve as a reminder to anyone working in politics. Scrub those accounts before hitting the main stage -- or maybe don’t tweet stuff you wouldn’t want your grandma to read in the first place.

***

Our AJC colleague Allyssa Pointer has an excellent photo essay on young voters drawn into the 2020 election season. A taste:

Georgia had one of the highest turnouts in the nation for voters between the ages of 18 and 29, according to Tuft University's Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

About 15% of Georgia voters were born after 1991, according to data analyzed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

***

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman says she flew into town this week to give “moral support” and her thoughts on elections to Georgia officials.

Wyman, a Republican from a vote-by-mail state out west, is in Atlanta at the invitation of her counterpart, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

She’s impressed that election workers here were able to handle a quick ramp-up in absentee voting. The number of absentee voters jumped from 6% in 2018 to 49% in this year’s primary, then dipped to 26% in the general election.

“The real proof in the pudding was that you didn’t have lines on Election Day in Georgia in the same way as earlier elections,” Wyman said in an interview Tuesday. “That’s huge. That really shows how well county election officials focused on the issues.”

But Georgia isn’t moving toward everyone voting by mail, as in Washington state. Georgia is more likely to go the opposite direction.

Unlike Wyman, Raffensperger has proposed limitations on absentee voting. He recently asked Georgia lawmakers to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting and require ID when casting an absentee ballot.