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Georgia SoS on new elections law, Jim Crow 2.0, Stacey Abrams and other items

Times-Journal staffers recently interviewed Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger concerning Georgia’s controversial new elections law. The law has put the state in the national spotlight as Democrats denounce it as an exercise in voter suppression while Republicans call it common sense. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why don’t we start with you sharing what you believe are the good things about this new elections law the governor signed.

Brad Raffensperger: Top of the list will be the driver’s license ID (requirement) for absentee ballots — moving away from signature match, which is a subjective measure, to driver’s license (ID numbers), which is objective. ... We’ve been sued both by Democrats and Republicans over signature match. In fact, last year, South Carolina lost signature match when they were sued by the Democrat(ic) Party.

What we’re seeing nationwide is that many states, red and blue states, are using driver’s license (as proof of identity) because it’s a unique identifier. In fact, the Minnesota secretary of state and also the Minnesota Democrat(ic) Party have been using this and they embrace it. So I would hope that the Democrat(ic) Party here in Georgia would embrace it as well.

The second one is early voting. We have actually expanded it from a 16-day minimum to a 17-day minimum. And then counties, if they want to, can add two additional weekends of Sunday voting, so that’d be 19 days total. So more early voting. So that makes it more accessible for voters. But the other thing it does, is the more people that vote early, the less people that have to show up on Tuesday on Election Day.

And then we had actually been working hard with counties, especially after the June primary in the middle of the pandemic last year, about long lines. ... And we worked really well on that because our average wait time in the November election, it was a two-minute wait time. But now we set that one hour goal. We’d like to really work towards 30 minutes, but one hour has been set in law. In other words, if you have a precinct in some county where they have long lines, they’ll have to bust that precinct in half, or they’re going to have to go ahead and add additional equipment or poll workers.

I think the other thing that comes to mind is the four-week runoff. We used to have a four-week state runoff and then an eight-week federal runoff. ... We now get a four-week runoff for both elections. And I think that’s a good thing. It’ll be much easier on the counties, also the candidates, and particularly the candidates’ back pocket, because the elections won’t be so expensive. And from the viewers’ standpoint, there’ll be less commercials for you to have to suffer through on TV. So it’s a win-win-win all the way around, we believe.

Q: I’m wondering how you feel about being removed as chair of the state elections board. Doesn’t the law now allow the state legislature to choose who will chair the state elections board? Do you consider this an attack on you? And do you consider this good policy?

A: Let’s set aside the personality. To your question, “Do I consider this good policy?” Absolutely not. I think it’s very poor policy, and here’s why. Since 1960 ... the secretary of state, who holds an elected office as a constitutional officer, who reports to the voters every four years, was the chair of the state election board. And therefore, if the state election board made decisions that the voters did not support, they could hold them accountable. Now you have a 100% unaccountable board that is appointed. ... And that’s a very powerful board, because they’ve increased the powers of that board, to fire county election directors. If (the board) make(s) a mistake, and that doesn’t work out, who are you going to hold accountable? An unelected official? And so if the secretary of state chaired that or some other elected officer, you could then hold them accountable at the ballot box. So you lose a big accountability measure.

Q: The other four members of that board, that stays the same?

A: That stays the same. And they were always unelected. So now it’s a 100% unelected board making very big decisions for the people of Georgia.

Q: Have you talked with the county elections directors, both rural and urban, about how much it might cost to implement these changes to elections law and how those are going to be funded?

A: No, we haven’t. I hope that the General Assembly reached out to the counties and got a budget for that and looked at the impact. ... I think the four-week runoff, that helps everyone from the standpoint of budget(s).

Q: Local elections departments have to take action if certain precincts have lines that are longer than an hour. In the June primary last year, one of the reasons that lines were longer than anybody would like was because it was hard to find elections workers. I’m wondering what happens in an event where the lines are long, but for whatever reason, local elections officials can’t find the workers they need to cut down on those lines. It strikes me as an issue where sometimes even one’s best efforts might not be enough to solve that.

A: I really think we should look at June as a once-in-100-years event. We were ... really, still, in the depths of COVID. In spite of all those issues, I believe Cobb did a good job. I know they had some issues there, but you have a very well-run county. But the challenge that they had was, a lot of the poll workers, (their) average age was 72-plus, so they stepped out because of COVID. And then how do you recruit poll workers? And how do you get them trained? ... But that really was an outlier. I don’t think we’ll see that again.

If you look at the fall election ... we weren’t quite post-COVID, we were still in a COVID environment, but we could actually start recruiting poll workers. We recruited 35,000 new poll workers, got them trained up, and that was good. It made them great spokesmen about what they did see, great spokesmen for election integrity, the security of the vote, because there was a lot of disinformation, misinformation afterwards. But I do think it’s appropriate to have a measure to push counties to have short lines. If you look at Cobb County’s history, they very rarely have those type of long lines. You have a very solid election director who will make sure that if there were any issues, that they’re prepared for the next election. But there are some counties that they’ve been making the headlines in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 1993. And they never seem to get it right.

Q: The new law limits the use of ballot drop boxes. I know that before the pandemic, ballot drop boxes weren’t even a thing. Drop boxes will also only be available during early voting days and hours rather than 24/7 as they were during the previous election. How do you feel about that?

A: It’s not a measure that I would have supported as currently written. Many of the counties, actually many of the red counties, strong Trump counties, even those election directors have stood up and said, “I would have preferred to have one drop box for every early voting location.” And that seems to me to be a very reasonable measure ... And that way, it makes it easier for voters. But I’m sure that’s something that the General Assembly will come back and review at some point. It’s the first time it’s ever been put into state law. And so I guess it’s dipping their toes in the water. And I would think that at some point, they’ll look at that again in the future if it needs to be revised upward.

Q: There have been a number of critics of the new law, from Sen. Raphael Warnock to Stacey Abrams. Also, just today, several major businesses within Georgia have criticized the law — Delta’s CEO sent a note that was critical of the law to Delta employees, Microsoft issued a statement that took aim at the drop box change and narrowing the window to request and complete an absentee ballot. Some Democrats have called this an attempt at voter suppression, Jim Crow 2.0, etc. How do you respond to those accusations?

A: I didn’t write the law, and so every measure that’s in that bill is not obviously something that I supported. ... But the General Assembly has spoken. And we will implement the law as currently written. I’m more than happy to discuss with any CEO concerns or questions that they might have. I believe at the end of the day that we’ll still have record turnout in 2022. And candidates have every opportunity to win their races. They just have to run their races.

Q: Let me follow up on that question. For Abrams and Sen. Warnock to call this law “Jim Crow in a suit” is a very serious accusation. Is that fair, in your opinion, to call it this?

A: No, it’s not fair, but look at Stacey Abrams, she never plays fair. Because if you look at what she did in 2014, she went out and poll-tested a bunch of terms and phrases, and what she found as the emotional hook were the words “voter suppression,” taking people back to pre-1965. ... I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if she’s poll-tested the words “Jim Crow 2.0,” because she’s looking for emotional hooks, so she can raise money. I believe she’s sitting on $90 million right now, and has a tremendously lavish lifestyle. But as I said, I’d be willing to debate her on the issues if she’d like to come on down to the Carter Center. We could talk about this and go through this one, point by point.

There may be areas that I’d actually agree with her, but I doubt there’d be very many of them. As I’ve stated, I would probably have modified a few things — I would not have changed the state election board chair, I probably would have also done a few other different things in that area. But it’s easy to second guess the General Assembly. Our job now is to implement (the law). But what she said is not helpful, because it’s really playing with people’s emotions.

Q: One of the measures in the bill that has drawn the most attention is the ban on distributing water and food to those who are standing in a voting line. Can you speak to that?

A: For a long standing law, we had a 150-foot exclusionary zone: no politicking, no electioneering in that 150-foot zone. And what we were finding and what other political parties were finding is that other candidates, they were having their people, you know, coming into that zone, handing out water, snacks, things like that.

First off, in November on Election Day, we had average wait time of two minutes. So there weren’t many long lines. But second of all, they were doing electioneering, they were handing out the water, you knew who it came from, it was a way to touch a voter before they went into the ballot box.

Going forward, if you want to hand out water, (if) you want to make sure they have a snack, then give it to the precinct workers. And they’ll hand it out in a nonpartisan, bipartisan measure, so that there’s no potential hint of electioneering in that 150-foot safe zone.

Q: Do you believe this law was in reaction to former President Donald Trump saying the election was stolen from him?

A: When I ran in 2018, I wanted a secure way of identifying absentee ballots. The problem with the absentee ballots was that in 2005, long before I got here, we had no excuse absentee voting with signature match. Signature match is very subjective. I always saw that as a potential weakness, and so did the Carter-Baker Commission of 2005. I wanted to go to a very objective measure. So therefore, I’m grateful that the General Assembly passed that measure so we will now have objectivity for voter identification, a secure way for that process. Early voting number of days, we’ve actually added the number of days, so no one should have an issue with that. Shortening the lines, we already had worked with the counties on that, but now it’s codified in law. And that’s a good thing. And a four-week run off with ranked-choice voting ... I think those are all good measures.

There may be a few more tweaks that we could have done, such as having additional absentee ballot drop boxes. But already there’s three lawsuits that have been filed on these bills. They’ll all be litigated, and I believe at the end of the day, this law will stand.

Q: Now that you’ve had a chance to digest it, what’s your take on President Trump in his famous phone call asking you to find more votes to allow him to win Georgia?

A: We knew the numbers. We had the data. And the numbers just weren’t there. There wasn’t systemic voter fraud of the magnitude that would overturn the results of the race. And in fact, the proof of all that is what Sydney Powell’s lawyer stated two weeks ago, when he in effect said in a filing that “no reasonable person should have had cause to believe the statements that Sydney Powell made.” We knew that they weren’t supported in fact but many people did (not). And that led to a very difficult time in our American history because of that. And therefore what we say as it relates to elections, we have to be very cautious and mindful and not play with people’s emotional hooks. Elections are far too important to do that. We need to be very thoughtful as we modify election law to make sure it makes it more secure, but also make sure that it balances out with the appropriate accessibility.

It is a balancing act sometimes, because one side feels one way, one side may feel the other — but we do that with integrity. At the end of the day we want 100% of the people to understand: those were the results and the voters can accept the results. I know they don’t like them. As a Republican, I wasn’t fond of the results either, but those were the results, and that’s what we need to have: people that will accept the results and then realize, “I need to do a better job next election cycle to help my team win.”

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t asked you?

A: I just want to continue to reiterate to all voters that I will continue to fight to protect democracy. I think I’ve shown that coming out of the November race. I want to make sure that we balance accessibility with security, that we know that we’ve run honest and fair elections here in Georgia. Elections are too important not to do that.

County commission honors retiring county clerk Dawn Turner for 46 years of service

Recognition of one of the most loyal, and most consistent, county employees took front and center at the most recent meeting of the Polk County Commission.

County Clerk Dawn Turner, who is retiring at the end of month after 46 years of service, was honored with a proclamation and an award at the meeting on Tuesday, April 6, in front of co-workers and several members of her family.

Turner’s family remained outside of the commission’s chambers until just before the business meeting was called to order by Chairman Hal Floyd. It was an emotional sight for Turner, who kept her composure at her post at the front of the room.

“I didn’t have any idea there was going to be all of this,” she later said while standing next to Floyd after he read the proclamation, which discussed her history with the county and the gratitude of the county commission.

Turner began working for the county soon after graduating high school and worked as a clerk and payroll clerk before being named to the county’s top clerical position in 2004.

“Dawn faithfully served the Polk County Board of Commissioners and the residents of Polk County, always exhibiting exceptional character and integrity,” the proclamation reads. “And whereas while much of Polk County government has changed during her career, Dawn’s positive and friendly attitude has always remained the same.”

It goes on to say that Turner “will be deeply missed by the Board of Commissioners and her co-workers.”

“And whereas, the Board of Commissioners deem it appropriate to recognize Dawn for her years of dedication and service to Polk County and its residents, so therefore be it proclaimed by the Polk County Board of Commissioners that the service and contribution of Dawn Turner while serving the residents of Polk County to be recognized and remembered by the issuance of this proclamation.”

An award was presented to Turner featuring the number of years of service she has given to the county.

New County Clerk Jaime Armstrong was approved by the board during its March meeting and is already at work training for her new position. She was seated at Turner’s side during last week’s meeting.

Georgia to ease COVID-19 distancing, gathering restrictions amid vaccine push

Gov. Brian Kemp rolled back longstanding COVID-19 distancing restrictions in Georgia last week amid a mix of relief and concern from local businesses and public-health experts.

Starting Thursday, April 8, Georgia’s months-long ban on gatherings of more than 50 people in one place was lifted per orders from the governor, who has steadily moved to ease safety measures imposed since the virus swept the state in March last year.

Restaurants and bars are allowed to seat patrons at least 3.5 feet from each other instead of the previous 6-foot requirement. Movie-goers can sit 3 feet from each other in indoor theaters. A shelter-in-place order for nursing homes and other elderly-care facilities also will be lifted.

Additionally, police officers are barred from shutting down businesses that refuse to comply with the new scaled-back distancing and sanitization rules. A partial ban on mask mandates in Georgia cities and counties also remains in effect.

Kemp’s decision comes as more and more Georgians receive their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, which was made available to everyone age 16 and older starting late last month.

Nearly 4.3 million vaccines have been administered in Georgia as of Tuesday, April 6, marking more than 2.8 million people who have received at least one of the needed two doses for most vaccines. More than 1.5 million Georgians are now fully vaccinated, according to state Department of Public Health data.

“We continue to make steady progress in our vaccine administration here in Georgia,” Kemp said recently. “The life-saving COVID-19 vaccine is our key back to normal, and with all Georgians ages 16 and over now eligible to receive the shot, we are well on our way as we head into spring and summer.”

The rollback set for Thursday, April 8, drew praise from local business leaders including restaurant owners who have been hit hard by the pandemic over the past year. Roughly 20% of Georgia’s restaurants remain closed after more than half shut down temporarily in the pandemic’s early days, said Karen Bremer, president of the Georgia Restaurant Association.

Bremer noted the 6-foot distancing rule has limited restaurants to about 60% of capacity, complicating dine-in services as many restaurants turned to curbside and delivery during the pandemic. Restaurants will still have leeway to decide whether to stick with the stricter safety measures once the rollback kicks in, she said.

“Slowly but surely, we have been able to expand to a more reasonable level,” Bremer said. “I’m sure that there will be many that still require the face coverings for people to come into their businesses. It’s their prerogative as a business to do that.”

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce also backed Kemp’s rollback decision, noting local businesses “should continue to follow safety protocols and prioritize the health of customers and employees,” said Chris Clark, the chamber’s president and CEO.

However, some public-health experts have urged Kemp to pump the brakes on loosening COVID-19 restrictions until more Georgians become fully vaccinated in the next month or so.

“Too soon, way too soon,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, a leading Emory University epidemiologist who has focused on the virus since its onset last year. He pushed for waiting until at least the end of this month to start relaxing restrictions.

His stance was echoed by Isaac Fung, an associate professor of epidemiology at Georgia Southern University’s Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health. Georgia should hold off on fully reopening until about three-fourths of all residents have been vaccinated to reach herd immunity, he said.

In the meantime, restaurants can take steps like install plexiglass screens between customers and require masks to reduce risks of transmission, particularly as more infectious mutations of the virus take root in Georgia, Fung said.

“I would highly recommend Georgians to put on face masks if they speak, especially in public or when they’re meeting with friends,” Fung said. “I understand why they want that to be relaxed … but people should remain vigilant. … The pathway forward is to get as many people fully vaccinated as quickly as possible.”

Georgians can pre-register for a vaccine appointment at myvaccinegeorgia.com even if they do not yet qualify under the governor’s eligibility criteria. They will be notified once they qualify and scheduled for an appointment.

State officials have opened nine mass vaccination sites in Atlanta, Macon, Albany, Savannah, Columbus, Waycross and Bartow, Washington and Habersham counties.

As more Georgians are vaccinated, Kemp said he will not seek to require so-called “vaccine passports” for people to show proof they’ve been vaccinated in order to travel, work or frequent businesses.

“While the development of multiple safe, highly effective COVID-19 vaccines has been a scientific miracle, the decision to receive the vaccine should be left up to each individual,” Kemp said.

More than 857,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia as of Tuesday afternoon, April 6, with more than 209,000 more reported positive antigen tests indicating likely positive results. The virus has killed 16,761 Georgians.

Standard Journal Area Calendar of Events from the Wednesday, April 14, 2021 edition

The Good Neighbor Center Food Pantry in Cedartown has a new distribution schedule. Now independent of Atlanta Community Food Bank, the pantry located next to the Cedartown Seventh-day Adventist Church on Woodall Road receives foods from various donors. Food boxes are distributed on the last Sunday of the month from noon to 3 p.m. Recipients still remain in their vehicle when getting food boxes. For updates, visit the Cedartown Seventh-day Adventist Facebook page at facebook.com/cedartownsdachurch.

Keep Polk Beautiful is sponsoring two community events on April 24. The first is a community-wide clean up in Rockmart as part of The Great American Cleanup that will start at 8 a.m. at Seaborn Jones Park. Volunteers will help clean up litter and brush along the Silver Comet Trail and around downtown Rockmart. Also, an electronics recycling event will be held at Fenley TV on West Avenue in Cedartown from 8 a.m. to noon. All electronics are welcome except for CRT televisions.

The Rockmart Cultural Arts Center is hosting the 2021 Rockmart High School art exhibit through April 29. The theme for this year’s exhibit is “Cyber Quarantine” with works from students done in the 2020-2021 school year a reception and gala will be held April 24 from 6-9 p.m.

Second Baptist Cedartown is celebrating its 100th Anniversary with Old Fashioned Sunday on April 18 at 11 a.m. Gospel bluegrass band The Servers will lead worship service. Men are invited to wear overalls, while ladies wear bonnets or anything old fashioned. Photos and documents from the church’s last 100 years will be on display.

The Rockmart Cultural Arts Center is putting out a call to artists for its Floral Expressions exhibit at the arts gallery, 316 N. Piedmont Ave. Artwork featuring flowers or has flowers in it should be submitted by April 10 in a .jpg image to rcac@rockmart-ga.gov. Up to three separate pieces can me submitted. The exhibit is scheduled for May 6 through June 24 with a reception on May 15. for more information contact Peggy Cline at rcac@rockmart-ga.gov or 770-684-2707.

Tallatoona CAP is accepting appointments for the LIHEAP Cooling Assistance Program for households with seniors age 65 or older. The general public may call to schedule an appointment starting May 3 at 8:30 a.m. Appointments are on a first-come, first-serve basis and can me made online at www.tallatoonacap.org or by calling 770-817-4666 or 770-773-7730 and selecting option 2. Applicants must qualify based on the FY 2021 annual income guidelines.

The Northwest Georgia Center for Independent Living holds a COVID-19 Peer Support call every Monday at 2 p.m. via the Zoom website and by phone. For the link and password, or if you need assistance, contact Christina Holtzclaw at 628-246-1825 or choltzclaw@nwgacil.org.

The NWGA Center for Independent Living is offering free Personal Protection CARE Kits to people with disabilities who live in Northwest Georgia. The kits include three face masks, two disposable thermometers, give pair of gloves and alcohol wipes. To request a kit and become a consumer, contact the center at 706-314-0008 or info@nwgacil.org.

Want to get your event or announcement on the calendar? E-mail JStewart@polkstandardjournal.com.