Expect election reform legislation to flood the 2021 Georgia General Assembly, state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said at a legislative breakfast Thursday, Dec. 10.
“We’re going to have to put a stoplight at the Capitol for all the people wanting to file election legislation,” he said, speaking at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s annual Eggs & Issues, held virtually over Zoom and with a small group gathered at Lanier Technical College.
Miller said bills in the next legislative session would likely focus on absentee ballots and the performance of individual county elections offices. The session is scheduled to begin Jan. 11 but could be delayed due to COVID-19.
The Georgia Senate Republican Caucus said in a statement earlier this week that, among other things, it would pursue nixing at-will absentee voting, a requirement for photo identification for absentee voting and the outlawing of ballot drop boxes.
State Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gillsville, was among several legislators who said Thursday they have been overwhelmed by calls and emails from Georgians with concerns about the election, particularly with absentee ballots.
Some constituents have also asked about a possible special session, and four members of the Georgia Senate called for one. However, Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan have said that would not be possible.
"Doing this in order to select a separate slate of presidential electors is not an option that is allowed under state or federal law,” Kemp and Duncan said in a statement issued Sunday, Dec. 6.
Constituents expressing concerns
State Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said after the breakfast that he has heard from community members about their election concerns, with some suggesting that “we do legislatively what should be done through the judiciary branch.”
“You can’t legislate challenges of laws. That’s the reason we have a judicial system,” he said.
State Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, told The Times after the event that he was working through about 53,000 emails. He said he has gotten more than 1,000 text messages and returned his 500th phone call about the election this week.
“To say that constituents are reaching out would be an understatement,” he said.
People seem to be overwhelmed by information in the media and on social media and are unsure what to do, he said.
“There’s just so much out there,” Dubnik said.
Dubnik said the majority of people contacting him “do not believe that this was a clean and fair election, that there is fraud present at some point and in some manner.”
There has been no evidence of widespread fraud.
State Rep. Timothy Barr, R-Lawrenceville, said he has also been hearing from constituents concerned about election irregularities. The complexity of this election cycle left room for issues, he said.
“Our system is complicated in that the counties are involved, the state is involved and the Secretary of State oversees all the elections, and we are dealing with a federal election,” Barr said. “So, you have all facets of government involved, and when that many players get together and that many folks are involved, there are going to be some things that are unusual.”
Gabriel Sterling, the state’s voting system implementation manager, said Thursday the state is investigating 132 cases involving the general election. There have been 250 cases overall this year. The state has 23 investigators, Sterling said.
On Tuesday, Dec. 8, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation met with Secretary of State’s Office officials after receiving a request to assist them with investigations.
GBI agents will do interviews and investigate allegations of fraud reported to the state, according to an email from a GBI spokeswoman. One investigation involves “custody of ballots” in Hall, although state and local officials have declined to provide details on the case.
Sterling said one of the investigations focuses on voter review panels in DeKalb County. Another investigation involves Coffee County in south Georgia and its handling of the recount.
Sterling has spoken sharply about the integrity of the election saying “it has all gone too far,” referencing threats of violence against those working in elections over allegations of fraud.
Overall, election law “needs to be tweaked,” Miller said. “We don’t want to be in a position where we are suppressing votes. We want to make sure that every legal vote is counted and that every illegal vote is cast out.”
Miller was the only one of the legislators who mentioned filing specific election legislation
Dubnik said that he does not have plans to introduce his own election legislation but expects election reform to be a top issue in the next legislative session.
“Having a system in place that renews and maintains confidence in voters is going to be key,” he said. “I’m happy to look at anything and everything, but probably have it centered around absentee, vote-by-mail process, policies, things like signature verification, how that works.”
The legislature needs to look at the signature verification process and claims of people voting in multiple states, Barr said.
“If we, being you, I and all voters, lose the confidence in our election system, we have then lost our system of government,” he said. “So this is the most paramount thing that the legislature has to look at in 2021, other than our constitutional duty of the budget.”
Absentee balloting and photo identification
Miller said being able to vote absentee without cause “has created a prospect for problems.”
Georgia is one of 34 states that do not require a reason from those who wish to vote absentee, a change made in 2005.
Many voters opted to vote by mail this year out of concern over the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hawkins said after the event that all registered voters in Georgia received an absentee ballot application for the primary, but “there are registered voters that no longer live in the state and are no longer in a position to even vote.”
“We have to establish a very secure and trustworthy system for the citizens of Georgia,” he said.
A photo ID is not required to use an absentee ballot, but voters sign the outer envelope of their ballot and signatures are verified, usually using the signature on record from their driver’s license. If a voter’s absentee ballot is rejected, the voter can visit their local election office to “cure” the ballot, by presenting a photo ID. Georgia has allowed voters to cure absentee ballots since 2019. All of Hall’s delegation supported the Republican-backed House Bill 316, which allowed the practice.
Voters can check the status of their absentee ballot on the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office My Voter Page site. According to the state, 0.15% of absentee ballots were rejected due to signature issues in the November general election.
Hawkins said he expected signature verification to be discussed in the upcoming session.
Miller said he has heard concerns from constituents about ballot drop boxes.
“Drop boxes are supposed to be video-monitored,” Miller said. “What good is a video if you don’t have the audio to go with it? Not very good, is it? And they’re very low-resolution and they’re put in by each county, so there’s that whole wide standard there that just creates a problem.”
Following Eggs & Issues, he said, “I don’t think we necessarily need to get rid of drop boxes, but I think we need to make sure they’re handled appropriately. We have asked counties for videos of drop boxes and they’re having a difficult time producing them.”
Miller also asked an attorney from the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office about video surveillance of absentee ballot drop boxes at a Dec. 3 Georgia Senate committee meeting.
Ryan Germany, general counsel for the Secretary of State’s Office, said at that meeting the state requires video surveillance of drop boxes to be kept on file for 30 days after the certification or conclusion of an election contest. That video is public record if a community member wants to review it, and counties are also required to hand it over to the state upon request.
“Any time we have requested it from a county, we have received it,” Germany said.
Germany said last week the state has not seen any evidence of counties keeping dropboxes open past the deadline, which is 7 p.m. on Election Day, when polls close.
Counting the votes
Miller said his legislation would address counties “that are habitually failing, habitually causing a problem, habitually having to have recounts, habitually turning in their ballots late.”
He singled out Fulton County on election issues.
“How can Florida count a whole darn state before Fulton County can count Fulton County? That’s ridiculous,” Miller said.
He said after the breakfast that there “are habitually offending counties — we just want to make sure to hold them to the same standard that we hold everyone else.
For his part, because of the delays in Fulton County returns, Dunahoo said he suspects there might be possible corruption involved — enough that could make President Donald Trump the winner in Georgia.
“Whenever (Atlanta) has a race for mayor, it takes them a week to figure out who they want to win,” he said.
Dunahoo said he believes the vote was secure in Hall County, where Trump won decisively.
“I feel Hall County did an excellent job,” Dunahoo said.