The Great Divide: Election exposes rural, urban chasm

Derrek Vaughn | The Valdosta Daily TimesLowndes County residents vote in the midterm elections.

ATLANTA — Lawmakers across the state are in support of the Secretary of State’s decision to postpone the primary to June, saying it’s the right move to protect the health and safety of poll workers and voters.

In recent weeks, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger held off on calls from lawmakers to make a quick decision about pushing the primary, citing possible negative effects it could have on the November general election.

But after Gov. Brian Kemp’s extension of the state's declaration of public health emergency Wednesday, Raffensperger announced it was now “appropriate” for the primary be pushed to June. 

Raffensperger first instituted a statewide absentee ballot application program, sending out applications to 6.9 million active registered Georgia voter. Raffensperger confirmed that all absentee ballot applications will still continue to be accepted and processed by counties even if the application is dated for May 19. County elections officials will verify signatures and send absentee ballots back for the primary now on June 9.

GOP state and federal lawmakers have lobbied Raffensperger to push the already postponed primary back to as far as June 16. But Raffensperger landed on June 9 as the new official date to give an extra three weeks for state and local elections officials to execute contingency plans to ensure that in-person voting will be safe for both poll workers and voters — without encroaching too closely on the general election.

“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,” he said in a statement. “Just like our brave health care workers and first responders, our county election officials and poll workers are undertaking work critical to our democracy, and they will continue to do this critical work with all the challenges that the current crisis has brought forth.”

State lawmakers largely supported the decision, with House Speaker David Ralston leading the call for postponement in a series of letters to Raffensperger since the end of March.

In a statement, Ralston said he appreciated Raffensperger using his power “which he had all along” to delay the primary “in the interest of public health and a safety,” but criticized the time and money spent coming to this decision.

“We have been in touch with countless local elections officials, poll workers and constituents expressing concern over a May election date, and we have acted in their interest and on their behalf,” he said. “Now, more than ever, we need decisive leadership that inspires confidence in our elections process and is responsive to the situation on the ground.”

Ralston came under fire for early comments that increased absentee voting would be “devastating” for Georgia Republicans, later clarifying that his statement referred to the possibility of voter fraud. Ralston said in his statement he was not against absentee ballots and encourages people to reach out to their local elections office to receive one.

State Rep. Clay Pirkle, R-Ashburn, told CNHI that he had spoken with a local elections supervisor in his area who said they didn’t have any poll workers signed up to work for the original May 19 primary date.

“We don't know what it’s going to look like in a month, but we know what it looks like right now,” he said. “The way it looks now and the reluctance of the poll workers to work — they provide a great service to this great state and I'd hate to put them at risk.”

Pirkle said this is the best decision to ensure that the election is secure and that poll workers are safe doing their jobs.

“Our poll workers, a lot of them are retired people,” he said. “And without the poll workers, we don't have elections.

State Rep. John LaHood, R-Valdosta, echoed Pirkle’s comments and said he too has heard from local election supervisors that they suspect their workers would not show up for a May primary.

“We don't have all the answers,” he said. “We don't know exactly what the future holds. But I think as the weeks go by we'll be able to see more clearly.”

With no clear end date of the outbreak, state and local officials are left with just as much uncertainty as Georgia residents are regarding when it will even be safe to leave their homes. Along with Kemp’s announcement of the extension of the public health emergency Wednesday, he extended the statewide shelter-in-place order through April 30.

“While I'm encouraged by some of the recent data,” Kemp said. “We still have incredible challenges before us.”

Kemp and state health officials have regularly cited data that Georgia will reach its peak hospital capacity by April 23 — assuming that Georgians continue to abide by social distancing guidelines and gathering limits.

State Rep. Sam Watson, R-Moultrie, told CNHI that postponing the primary further, as Georgia approaches what could be the worst stage of the pandemic, “just makes sense.”

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “There's just still so many fears and concerns out there right now.”

State Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, said at the end of the day, it would be a difficult task to get poll workers to come in before June.

"I know it's unfortunate," he told CNHI. "It's going be a timing issue for the Secretary of State's office, as the year progresses. But, I just personally feel like if everybody votes by mail, it's going to be very, very difficult and put a strain on folks."

The entire Republican congressional delegation penned a letter to Raffensperger last week encouraging him to use “all available flexibility and legal authority” to further postpone the primary election.

In a statement to CNHI, U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, said that he applauds Raffensperger for taking action “to ensure Georgians receive the safe and secure election they deserve." 

A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, said while date is being extended again, Scott still has some concern that it is not late enough.

Georgia Democrats maintain that switching to an entirely vote-by-mail system would be the more responsible course of action.

“The state needs to make a full on commitment to vote by mail for the primary, which would include things like return postage on the absentee ballots themselves,” House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville, told CNHI. “The reality is the virus isn't going anywhere. And the safest way for voters to exercise their their right to vote is to do it by mail.”

Trammell said that there are still high levels of uncertainty for June, but also the possibility of the outbreak extending into November.

“Democracy is literally on the line,” he said, “Vote by mail is the surest way to make sure that the democratic process is intact.”

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