ATLANTA - Georgia House Speaker David Ralston announced Thursday that he will appoint a special committee on election integrity when the 2021 legislative session begins next week.
"I am certain that the topic of election reform will be front and center given the concerns that we've heard over the past couple of months," Ralston said during a pre-session briefing with reporters.
"Let's look at the facts here. The facts are we've had [two] recounts. We've had an audit and we've had more than six--I've lost count. I know there's at least six--lawsuits that have been filed, all of which have been dismissed," said Speaker Ralston. "Which kind of begs the question if there were, in fact, significant wrongdoing would it not have been disclosed? But people are concerned, and I think we have to speak to those concerns, but I think we have to tell them the truth and I think they have not been given the truth all the time on this."
Ralston, a republican, said he will task the committee with two main focuses; first, to keep elections open and accessible to all registered voters and second, to ensure proper security and oversight.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and some county elections officials have called on legislators to change state law to require voters to provide a reason for requesting an absentee ballot.
Georgia currently has what's known as "no-excuse" absentee voting. According to the Secretary of State's Office, only 5% to 7% of Georgia voters typically vote absentee, but that figure jumped dramatically because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Under current law, Georgia’s county elections officials are effectively tasked with running three parallel elections: early, in-person voting; no-excuse absentee by mail voting; and election day voting. The set up requires elections officials to split their focus, energy, and resources between the three different populations who cast ballots in different ways," the Secretary of State's Office wrote in a news release last month.
Ralston said it would require a "real strong case to convince him" that the state should do away with no-excuse absentee voting.
"We went to that in 2005 under a Republican General Assembly," said Speaker Ralston. "Here is my goal on absentee ballots, okay. I think the level of security should be just the same for an absentee ballot as it is for in-person voting, whether it's early voting or day-of election voting. That's what I want to accomplish. We might look at tightening up some and maybe categorize some reasons, but you know, I want elections to be open."
Ralston said that he has asked some of the likely members of the new elections integrity committee to include a change to the state's so-called "jungle primary" law in any legislation they draft. "Jungle" or "blanket primaries" are when all the candidates in a special election appear on the ballot together, rather than parties holding separate primaries first.
More than 20 candidates were on the November ballot in the race to replace retired Sen. Johnny Isakson, which resulted in a runoff between incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock. Warnock ultimately won the race.
"I supported abolishing 'jungle primaries' last January. I don't know who could be in favor of a 'jungle primary' anymore," Ralston explained.
The Speaker, however, said he would be more cautious about changing the state law that requires a candidate to earn 50% plus one vote to avoid a runoff election.
"I'm an old football fan and the thing I dislike most sometimes is the way they tamper with my game and change up rules that have served us pretty well for a long time," Ralston said.
Speaker Ralston also reiterated his interest in changing the way the secretary of state is selected. He proposed what he called the "Tennessee model," where the General Assembly elects someone to the position.
"We're going to talk about that, have some discussion about it," said Ralston. "I'm not wedded to that only. I mean, I'm also now looking at possibly taking the elections function out of that office and doing a 'Chief Elections Officer,' which would not require a Constitutional Amendment. So that there is some more accountability there."
The legislative session begins Monday, January 11.
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