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The Jolt: A brewing January fight could pit ballot access against voter security


In his victory declaration on Wednesday, Secretary of State-elect Brad Raffensperger vowed to defend the broad voter registration purges and strict requirements for absentee balloting, which were implemented by his Republican predecessor and fueled Democratic accusations of disenfranchisement in fall campaigns. From our AJC colleague Mark Niesse:

While voter fraud is rare in Georgia, Raffensperger emphasizes election integrity over easy access to voting. He plans to cancel registrations of inactive voters, as Kemp did when more than 1.4 million people were removed from the state’s voting list starting in 2012.

“Making sure we keep the voter list up to date so it’s clean, fresh and accurate, it’s very important,” Raffensperger said. “Ten to 15 percent of Georgians move every year. Just in four short years, your list could really start becoming dirty, and I think this is a recipe for open doors for voter fraud.”

Raffensperger’s decision to continue the policies of Brian Kemp, now the governor-elect, virtually guarantees a January fight among state lawmakers that will pit voting security, as demanded by Republicans, against ballot access, now a front-and-center cause among Democrats.

Niesse reports that at least 12 lawsuits over voting rights, voting machines and registration processes are pending in federal and superior courts. If history is any guide, as rulings come down, legal setbacks generated by judges – and there already have been some – are likely to become legislative fodder in a GOP-controlled General Assembly.

In the House, legislation that addresses voting is likely to flow through the Governmental Affairs Committee chaired by Ed Rynders, R-Albany.

The ranking Democrat on that committee is state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver of Decatur. Earlier this week, we asked Oliver what measures she expected to pop up.

“We know every year that there are various efforts to cut back on early voting,” Oliver said. She expects next year to be no different.

On Wednesday, Raffensperger named the purchase of new voting machines for all 159 counties as a top priority. Oliver agreed.

“For us to have new machines in 2020, we have to budget for it this year,” she said. But Oliver also identified a partisan divide over the issue. Democrats are likely to push for “paper only” – an optical scan system that would generate a physical trail for auditing purposes.

“I don’t think the Republican position is paper only,” Oliver said.

In October, a federal judge stepped in when dozens of Gwinnett County absentee ballots were rejected because election officials said the signatures on the ballots didn’t match the signatures on voter’s registration documents. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Republicans are going to fight to keep the matched-signature designation,” she said.

Then there’s the topic of when provisional ballots should be issued, and when they should be counted. And about those purges: As secretary of state, Brian Kemp – now governor-elect – acted under the color of a 1994 statute passed by a Democratic-controlled General Assembly.

But the heavy emphasis on purges were the result of Kemp’s own policy guidelines. Oliver said she wouldn’t be surprised to see a GOP effort to write those guidelines into state law.

“The platitudes they’ve offered about safe and secure voting are really meaningless to me. What do they really want? And can we have a bipartisan discussion?” Oliver said.

She’s hoping for the latter. “I think we’re in a serious spot right now. I think the voters do not trust our election system. I think there’s good reason that federal judges and the voters didn’t trust our election system. We need to make corrections,” she said.

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The northern suburbs of metro Atlanta weren’t the only territory experiencing a dynastic shake-up.

Lawson Bittick, a lieutenant in the Monroe County sheriff’s department, was aiming to follow in the footsteps of his father, and grandfather, and great-grandfather to serve as sheriff.

A Bittick has controlled that office for the better part of the last century. But on Tuesday, the string of family victories crashed to an end when Lawson Bittick, 30, lost a runoff to one of his father’s top deputies. 
This requires some explanation. The job became open for the first time in 35 years when Bittick’s father, John Cary Bittick, was appointed by President Donald Trump to serve as U.S. marshal for the Middle District of Georgia.

That triggered a six-way race and a runoff between younger Bittick, who was the top vote-getter, and Brad Freeman, who for 32 years has served as a loyal deputy of the former sheriff. 
The Macon Telegraph reports that the runoff produced some substantive policy rifts. Lawson Bittick wanted to amp up the department’s investigative unit, while Freeman pledged to increase patrols. With high voter interest -- runoff turnout reached nearly 40 percent -- Freeman bested Bittick by about 900 votes.

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Teresa Tomlinson isn’t ready to say whether she’s jumping into Georgia’s 2020 U.S. Senate race, but the outgoing Columbus mayor is continuing to signal that she’s strongly considering a challenge to Republican incumbent David Perdue.

Tomlinson told our friend Chuck Williams, who recently moved to the Columbus TV station WRBL after years at the Ledger-Enquirer, that she has “made no decision” about her political future but that she could be competitive against the first-term Republican. 

"I think I could raise money to be extremely competitive, if not out-raise David Perdue,” she said. “I have no intention of self-funding a campaign. I think if you are the type of candidate who is offering good government and they believe that, they will stand in line to invest in that."

Tomlinson and 2016 gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams top the list of Democrats whose names have been floated to challenge Perdue. (Sarah Riggs Amico, the former Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, is another possibility.)

Tomlinson, who’s leaving office in January to join the law firm Hall Booth Smith, declined to say whether she’d challenge Abrams in a Senate primary, but she did take the opportunity to slam Perdue for being “not particularly accessible.” 

"That is a criticism that I believe resonates. I am sure he and his supporters would take great exception to that. If Democrats are going to be successful, Democrats are going to have to exude accessibility, somebody who really understands public service."

She told Williams she would likely make a decision about the Senate race early next year.

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There were several Georgia faces in the crowd assembled at the Washington National Cathedral on Wednesday to mourn the late President George H.W. Bush. Sitting in the front pew, of course, was former President Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn, along with the four other living presidents. We also spotted U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta; Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, U.S. Sen. David Perdue, and U.S. Reps. Barry Loudermilk and Rick Allen.

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