The Jolt: The bipartisan alliance behind Georgia’s hate crime law takes a hit

Rep. Chuck Efstration (R-Dacula), left, and Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus) shake hands as they wait for a press conference after HB 426 passed the House on day 37 of the legislative session at Georgia State Capitol on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. HB-426 passed. The bill would implement stiffer penalties if those guilty of crimes are found to have been motivated by hate. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

On Thursday, we told you of a flap between Georgia NAACP president James Woodall and state Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, who had used a photo of Woodall along with a quote in which he referred to Efstration as a “good leader” for his authorship of a hate crime bill that was passed into law two months ago.

Actually, the situation is more serious than that. Efstration has included a photograph of state Reps. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, and Karen Bennett, D-Stone Mountain, in his literature as well.

Smyre is the longest-serving member of the Legislature, and by far the most influential Black lawmaker in the state Capitol. Bennett chairs the Legislative Black Caucus. And both are steaming, because Efstration faces significant November opposition in the form of Democrat Nakita Hemingway, also of Dacula.

Smyre and Bennett publicly chastised Efstration in a letter made public on Thursday:

"As legislators, we are expressing our disappointment with the actions by Rep. Chuck Efstration to knowingly and without consent or authorization, use our image on a campaign mailer to imply our support for his re-election campaign.

Let us both be clear; we do not endorse his reelection campaign. The photo used in the campaign mailer was taken by the House photographer on the House floor immediately after passage of HB 426 to celebrate passage of the hate crimes legislation. [Note: Not the photo above.]

Being it was a bipartisan piece of legislation, we worked together in the best interest of the state and its citizens. We advocated for sound public policy to protect all Georgians from being the victims of hate crimes.

We regret the politicization of the hard work of many House members to achieve passage of the hate crimes bill. We call on Representative Efstration not to use our image on any future campaign material, digital or otherwise, without first receiving approval. We have earned at least that much respect."

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Why is this tiff important? Efstration is currently working on legislation that would address Georgia laws that permit citizen arrests. Should he win re-election, he’ll need to work closely with both Smyre and Bennett.

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Over at Politico.com, Garrett Graff has a piece well worth your time on this particular day. The gist:

Across the country, the 13,238 Americans born on September 11, 2001, represented the few rays of hope and happiness on the country’s darkest day. Now, 19 years later, many graduated from high school this spring and are beginning their adult lives—either jobs, if they can find them, or college—in the midst of a world-altering pandemic. This group’s worldview has been shaped by the 21st century’s most momentous events. And now they are becoming more than bystanders. For the first time, they will get to vote in a presidential election.

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The most recent poll of Georgia’s twin U.S. Senate races gave several candidates reason to crow and caused others to fret. The poll was conducted for the AARP by Fabrizio Ward/Hart Research Associates, a respected Republican-aligned firm.

It showed U.S. Sen. David Perdue (47%) and Democrat Jon Ossoff (48%) in a neck-and-neck race, one of several recent surveys that suggested a tight contest.

But the more interesting news came in Georgia’s other U.S. Senate contest. U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who once trailed the field, led the pack with 24% followed by fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins at 20%.

After a Loeffler ally mocked Collins' standing and dissed him for dividing the Georgia GOP by staying in the race, Collins campaign adviser Chip Lake responded on Twitter:

“Collins first broadcast buy was yesterday after being outspent $25-30 million to ZERO on TV. That’s not a typo, $25-30 million to ZERO. The fact that Kelly is only in low to mid 20′s after 7.5 months of unchallenged TV is problematic for her. #RentFree”

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Right up there in the top tier is Democrat Raphael Warnock (19%), the party-backed candidate and church pastor who is beginning to distance himself from Matt Lieberman (10%), his most formidable Democratic rival.

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One number to keep in mind when thinking about the U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff: 45,000. That’s roughly how many Republicans skipped over President Donald Trump in the June 9 primary to cast a vote for Perdue. Both Perdue and Trump were unopposed.

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Our AJC colleague Mark Niesse reports that the state Board of Elections passed a rule Tuesday that sets thresholds for how scanners count absentee ballots in Georgia, discarding votes that fill in less than 10% of an oval:

The rule overrides the default settings on Georgia optical scanners, a component of the state’s new voting system.

Election officials must change the settings so that ovals that are at least 20% filled will always be counted, and ovals filled less than 10% won’t be, according to the rule. Ovals between those thresholds will be manually reviewed. The factory settings on the scanners discarded ballots with less than 12% of the oval filled and always counted those that were over 35% completed.

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U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins traded fire over a fundraiser on Sea Island this week organized by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which backs her campaign.

Collins sent out a mocking press release touting the “luxury fundraising retreat with Washington and Georgia lobbyists” at the resort. It included, as a contact, the number for Loeffler spokesman Stephen Lawson.

At a campaign rally hours later, Collins took direct aim at Lawson at a campaign rally. He made reference to Lawson’s quote critical of House Speaker David Ralston after he endorsed the congressman’s campaign last week.

“Their campaign is so vicious with me, I’m used to that. But when they attack the speaker of the House, as they did -- Stephen Lawson, their spokesperson said what he did about the Speaker of the House and continued to double down on that … It’s just wrong.”

In a statement, Lawson fired back:

“The fact that a sitting congressman and U.S. Senate candidate is attacking a staffer at a press conference tells you all you need to know about where the Collins campaign is headed.”

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David Perdue, Kelly Loeffler and all but one Republican U.S. senator voted in favor of the “skinny” COVID stimulus bill backed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But with Democrats holding firm against the package on the grounds that it didn’t provide enough aid to individuals and businesses still reeling from the pandemic, the measure died on Thursday in a 52-47 vote. (The measure needed 60 votes to proceed.)

A possible result: No additional relief until after the November election even as the virus continues to spread, the death count rises and businesses fail.

Both Loeffler and Perdue pointed fingers at Senate Democrats who rejected the package because it didn’t go far enough. The Senate Republican measure had an estimated price tag of $500-$700 million, compared to the $3 trillion package approved in the House three months ago and supported by Democrats in both chambers.

Said Loeffler: “It’s time for Democrats to stop politicizing the virus and start prioritizing the American people.”

Purdue appeared on Fox Business prior to the vote: “Democrats really believe it’s in their best interest not to have a solution before November,” he said.

The vote was the first attempt by Congress to move forward with a new round of COVID-19 relief after their summer break. Jon Ossoff, Perdue’s opponent in the general election, declared himself unimpressed.

“Yesterday, after an unearned monthlong summer break, [Perdue] failed to deliver any help for our state,” Ossoff said in a statement. “Georgia doesn’t need political theater. Results are all that matters.”

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Campaign workers for the Democratic Party of Georgia’s 2020 Coordinated Campaign and Legislative Victory Fund are now unionized. The Teamsters Local 728 in Atlanta announced that they were now representing the political workers through this year’s election cycle.

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The Savannah Morning News reports that a Democratic runoff for a state House seat has finally been decided by a hand recount. In the race for the House District 163 seat, Derek Mallow beat Anne Allen Westbrook by 19 votes. The recount started last week, and included the last-minute discovery of a cache of unprocessed absentee ballots.

Westbrook was backed by Georgia WIN List, an organization that backs women candidates who support access to abortion. Melita Easters, founder and executive director of the group, tapped out some concerns she had about the recount process. To wit:

The court-ordered recount process in Savannah was not transparent. It was “messy” and problematic at every turn. This first-ever in the era of new machines points to the need for establishing better and consistent statewide processes -- not just for recounts, but also for handling each category of ballots before the November election documents are mailed out and begin to return.

For example, some of the Savannah voters received letters saying their votes were not counted because of signature issues, and a failure to respond when notified of these issues. These voters had not been contacted and their names were not the list supplied in response to a FOIA request by Anne Allen Westbrook’s campaign. She diligently worked to “cure” absentee and provisional ballots – not knowing if the voters had voted for her – in the days following the election. The legally required process around absentee ballot disqualification needs to be clearly established statewide so all the groups and candidates hoping to “cure” ballots will be able to work with voters to do so.

Tally sheets during a recount should be available to both campaigns during the recount process, not guarded as some secretive part of the process. The discovery of 1,000 or so additional ballots which “still” needed to be counted after four days of recount was troubling. The counting and recounting of the same set of ballots until the numbers “balanced” the earlier certified results – ignoring several other attempts which came up with different numbers -- is hard to explain. Why not seek the correct number?

The Savannah process clearly demonstrates the need for statewide guidelines on how the ballots received by each county elections office are handled, stored, duplicated as necessary and counted. When proper processes are in place and correctly implemented, there will be less room for error or later allegations of fraud by elections officials. This is an election year like no other, with so many more voters planning to vote by mail -- and because those who vote in person will do so on machines new to Georgia.

Making sure proper procedures are clearly defined and followed is the only way voters can possibly have confidence in Georgia’s November elections. What happened in Savannah over the past 10 days does not inspire confidence in the election system or the Chatham County officials who manage the process.

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