Georgia already pushed back its primary over coronavirus concerns once, but after public pressure from some of the state’s most prominent Republicans, the leading election official said Thursday the election day will be postponed again as the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend the flow of American life.
“The right to vote is a fundamental right that should be guaranteed to each and every eligible Georgia citizen,” the state’s GOP congressional delegation wrote early last week, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Georgia voters should not be asked to choose between exercising that right and following the guidance of federal, state, and local officials to keep themselves, their families, and our communities healthy.”
The state’s election is now scheduled for June 9, joining a handful of other states who punted their contests in hopes of creating a better situation for voters. No matter when the election is held however, a battle over absentee voting is already emerging in the state.
The decision became public after a bleak portrait emerged from Wisconsin’s election this week where voters still stood in line despite health fears and a late attempt by the state’s Democratic governor to delay the vote failed.
In Thursday morning’s announcement, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office made clear there were concerns that the “COVID-19 pandemic in Georgia will peak around April 24, only days before in-person voting was scheduled to begin.”
“I certainly realize that every difficulty will not be completely solved by the time in-person voting begins for the June 9 election, but elections must happen even in less than ideal circumstances,” Raffensperger said in a statement.
After the announcement, both the state Democratic party and a key voting rights group in the state took the election chief to task for not doing more.
“[C]hanging the election date again does not change the fact that the Secretary of State has failed to provide return postage for applications and ballots and it does not change the fact that he is putting an undue burden and unfunded mandate on counties by failing to centralize the absentee voting operation in the state,” Fair Fight Action CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo said in a statement.
The state’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp was criticized recently for his delayed awareness that the coronavirus could be spread by people without symptoms. Before Thursday’s election announcement, he did not respond to emailed questions by The Daily Beast over whether he felt it would be safe to vote in person on the first rescheduled date of May 19.
But in his announcement Thursday, Raffensperger credited Kemp’s “extension of the state of emergency,” in allowing him to further delay the primary.
The state’s Republican House Speaker had also called for a delay.
“We have seen many reports recently about how impactful a May 19 primary will be on the ability of poll workers to report,” Republican House Speaker David Ralston wrote in a letter Wednesday. “Paramount is the health of voters, poll workers and others who must be at polling precincts on Election Day.”
Because of the health concerns that come from going to the polls, voters have been encouraged to vote absentee during pandemic era elections. In Georgia, Raffensperger’s office had earlier announced it was sending “absentee ballot request forms to... Georgia’s 6.9 million voters in an effort to allow as many Georgia voters as possible to exercise their right to vote without leaving their homes.”
That method, which would allow people to mail in their ballot, is already deeply wedded into the American electoral process but has come under attack recently by President Donald Trump and the Georgia House Speaker. Raffensperger also announced an absentee ballot fraud task force Monday that drew some ire.
On April 1, Ralston called into a FetchYourNews program and levied the chance of fraud is “incredibly prevalent” when it comes to mail-in voting. He called voting by mail "not acceptable."
"The president said it best, this will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia," Ralston said.
Georgia has a deep rooted history of efforts to suppress the vote, said Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
And the House speaker's comments are already worrying Clarke.
"(I'm) deeply concerned that he may be a barrier to steps that the state can take to make voting accessible across the state this election season," Clarke said.
During a coronavirus task force briefing earlier this week, Trump declared said “mail in voting is horrible. It's corrupt.”
He then alleged widespread fraud, and offered no evidence of any sort to back the claim.
There may be more potential for fraud by mail-in voting but not on the level Trump is suggesting, said Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School specializing in election law.
"There is no evidence of widespread fraud in vote by mail," he said, but added "there have certainly been individual incidents of fraud in vote by mail."
Last month, Georgia was one of the first states to push back its election, which was originally scheduled for March. Not long after, a slew of states including Maryland and New York punted their April primaries to June, hoping a later date could ease planning issues and help keep voters safer during the pandemic.
There is no clear timeline for when the United States will truly re-open from the pandemic. And even President Trump, who late last month publicly pushed for an Easter timeline, avoided giving anything close to a definite timeline when pressed about the topic during a White House briefing Wednesday.
And when the election in Georgia is held, it’s likely that in-person voting will have to be a part of it, no matter how widespread absentee ballot access becomes.
In-person voting sites are required to be made available under Georgia law, a spokesman for the Georgia secretary of state said this week.
"In any election, until that law is changed, we will be providing in-person voting," the spokesperson said. "People aren't required to show up and vote in person, but we are required to provide options for people who would like to."
After the second delay was announced, Georgia Democratic Party voter protection director Saira Draper said in a statement that “there is no guarantee that this public health crisis will be any better by June 9, 2020.”
“Delaying Georgia’s election does not ensure either public safety or Georgians’ right to vote without the Secretary of State taking further action to make vote by mail truly accessible for all Georgians,” Draper said. “That means providing paid postage, counting all ballots postmarked by Election Day, and mailing vote-by-mail ballots to all registered voters, not just some.”