Georgia House Speaker David Ralston previewed his priorities for the 2021 legislative session at the State Capitol on Jan. 7, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)
Georgia’s most powerful state lawmaker threw cold water Thursday on calls by some top Republican officials to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting after the 2020 election cycle.
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, indicated he may not support any legislative moves to require Georgians to give specific reasons for requesting mail-in ballots, following a recent push by Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to end the practice.
“Somebody’s got to make a real strong case to convince me otherwise,” Ralston said at a news conference at the state Capitol.
Ralston added he plans to create a new committee focused on election access and oversight as state Republican leaders push to tighten Georgia’s voter ID laws. He also said he would support legislation to change the state’s free-for-all “jungle” primary format for special elections.
Election fraud claims by President Donald Trump and his allies are expected to take a back seat going forward after committees in both General Assembly chambers held hearings on the subject in recent weeks and extremists angered by Trump’s election loss stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.
“People are concerned [about fraud claims] and I think we have to address those concerns,” Ralston said Thursday. “But people need to know the truth. And I don’t think they have been getting the truth all the time.”
State law has allowed Georgia voters since 2005 to vote by mail for any reason, not just due to living out of state or other specific reasons. Raffensperger has pressed lawmakers to change the law after local election officials were overwhelmed counting absentee ballots in elections this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Proposals to change Georgia’s election laws look to take center stage in the General Assembly’s 2021 legislative session that kicks off next week. State lawmakers are grappling with changing voter patterns that saw the 2020 presidential election and both U.S. Senate seats flip in Democrats’ favor.
The June 9 primaries, Nov. 3 general election and Jan. 5 Senate runoffs each saw more than one million absentee ballots cast, shattering previous mail-in voting records. Raffensperger traced slow turnaround times that sparked suspicions over Georgia’s election integrity to the flood of absentee ballots.
“Until COVID-19, absentee ballot voters were mostly those who needed to cast absentee ballots,” Raffensperger said. “For the sake of our resource-stretched and overwhelmed elections officials, we need to reform our absentee ballot system.”
The Georgia Senate Republican Caucus also has called for eliminating no-excuse absentee voting “to secure our electoral process” as part of a legislative wish list this year that includes requiring a mail-in signature audit and banning absentee ballot drop boxes.
Georgia Democratic leaders have pledged to oppose efforts to overhaul absentee voting, which helped Democratic voters drive up turnout enough to secure wins for President-elect Joe Biden in November and Democratic Sen.-elects Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock this week.
“No-excuse absentee voting has been used safely and effectively by both parties since 2005,” the Georgia Senate Democratic Caucus wrote on Twitter. “Ending the practice in order to try and turn back the tide of Democratic participation in Georgia is voter suppression.”
Ralston also doubled down Thursday on his recent call for law changes that would let the General Assembly choose Georgia’s secretary of state instead of voters. He also hinted he might support creating a new election official in the state and removing election responsibilities from Raffensperger’s office, if such a proposal is brought during the session.
The 2021 legislative session starts on Monday and is expected to run through March.