The gerrymander is final and the playing field has been set for the next decade.

But what is at stake is no game. On behalf of all the voices the gerrymandered maps silence, we must get back to work. Georgia simply cannot afford another lost decade.

Students need to learn, gaps in healthcare must be closed, seniors and people living with disabilities need respectable care, the workforce needs training, mental health must be made available, the Department of Public Health and the Environment Protection Division need adequate staffing, and our prisons need humane reform.

With redistricting behind us, I look forward to pushing forward with policies that support Georgians. The core of my district, Senate 40, remains intact. (Click here to see the map

 

The Long Game

Prior to Sen. Jen Jordan winning her State Senate seat in 2017, the Senate consisted of 18 Democrats and 38 Republicans. That’s a gap of 20, enough for a Republican supermajority. Since 2017, we have closed that gap to 12. If we win three State Senate seats in 2022, the gap will be narrowed to 6. Do you see the trajectory? If we succeed in 2022, we will only need a mere three additional seats to gain the majority in the Senate. As long as we stay the course in promoting policies that help Georgians succeed, the finish line is within our reach. 

 

Time to Line Up!

Following redistricting in 2011 we lost elections before Election Day simply because we didn’t have candidates on the ballot. This is no longer the case! Over the last few years, progressive candidates have won at all levels of Georgia government, which means where there are openings, we have experienced candidates ready to run. We now have a little over three months before the date when candidates “qualify” to have their name printed on the election ballot. Now is the time to get them lined up.

 

Level Up!

Friday morning it was my pleasure to introduce to my Democratic Senate colleagues two candidates who have already announced they will run for the newly created State Senate seats — Rep. Josh McLaurin will run for Senate 14 in North Fulton and Rep. Beth Moore will run for Senate 7 in Gwinnett. Both their current House districts overlap the new Senate districts, so they are ahead of the game. In addition, we will do everything we can to help my colleague Sen. Michelle Au keep the 48thSenate district, which was pushed north into Forsyth county. Michelle is the perfect match for this district, as the newly created 48th has an Asian population of almost 30%.

 

A Win at the Local Level

Last week I told you how the lone Republican Senator in the Gwinnett county legislative delegation, Sen. Clint Dixon, attempted to thwart local control by undermining the recent Democratic electoral gains on the Gwinnett School Board and County Commission. I am pleased to report that the collective uprising of Gwinnett citizens and their allies brought his effort to a temporary halt. Sen. Dixon is the Governor’s floor leader. His proposal was to double the size of the Gwinnett County Commission and make Gwinnett school board elections non-partisan. 

Nationally, as well as here in Georgia, Republicans are targeting their efforts at the local level of governance. I first recognized this in 2021 when I noticed a dozen local bills filed that changed the local election board appointment process from bipartisan appointments made by local political parties, to appointments made by all-Republican county commissions.

Sen. Dixon’s Democratic opponent in 2020, Madielyn Jones, said it best

In 2018, after 200 years of our county’s existence,  voters elected our first Black school board member.  This proposed legislation draws him, the board chair, out of his district.

In 2020, after 202 years of our county’s existence, voters elected our first Black county commission chair.  This legislation takes her voting power away, except to break a tie.

Why would someone do that?

I’m not sure if it even matters because we can never fully know what’s in someone else’s heart. 

What I do know is that we must shift these conversations from intention to impact.

What is the impact of these decisions on communities of people who have been underrepresented in government leadership for over 200 years? 

What is the impact of these decisions on communities of people who turned out in record numbers to make their voices heard?

What is the impact of these decisions on communities of people who voted for change?

To have it all reduced to legislation that would erase their collective efforts is sad.

My prayer today is that anyone involved in trying to pass this legislation would be convicted in their spirit and good conscience.”

 

Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan has now created a Study Committee on Non-partisan School Board Elections, and has appointed Sen. Dixon as chair. The Study Committee is made up of four members, including one Democrat from Savannah. 

Stay tuned, stay involved, and thank you for all the calls and emails you sent to the Lt. Governor as well as other state leaders. You were heard.

 

It’s a Marathon, not a Sprint

Enjoy time with family and friends during the next few holiday weeks and take some time to rest. We’ve been in high gear defending democracy for about five years now. If you need a deeper rest, feel free to pass the baton to the next runner to allow yourself to catch your breath. We’ve got a few more years ahead of us before we hit the finish line. But it’s not a matter of “if,” it’s a matter of when. 

We got this!

 

Links

Zoomable maps of all the new districts: https://georgia.redistrictingandyou.org/

Map of the new Senate 40 District: https://georgia.redistrictingandyou.org/?districtType=sd&propA=current_2012&propB=genassm_20211104&selected=-84.302,33.914#%26map=11.04/33.9458/-84.2808

Madielyn Jones: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1322082188307494&id=100015171757764

 

 

Everything was going just as expected. Until it wasn’t . . .

We have hit the halfpoint for Georgia’s once-in-a-decade Special Session on Redistricting and everything is going as expected. The Senate map has passed the Senate (but not the House) and the House map has passed both chambers, awaiting signature by the Governor. Work on the Congressional map should start next week.

Approximately one million new residents have made Georgia their home over the last decade — almost all from minority populations. Yet these new residents have gotten lost in these maps. Georgia’s Senate map adds only one Democratic seat, consisting of approximately 191,000 people, and Georgia’s State House map adds five Democratic seats, consisting of about 300,000 people.  Where have all the new people gone? This is what gerrymandering looks like in Georgia in 2021.

We may not have the votes to stop these maps, but your elected officials have engaged in the struggle! The fight we’ve started at the State Capitol will finish in the courts.

 

Look what the cat dragged in . . . 

Tuesday morning I walked into my Senate Democratic Caucus meeting only to find out from my colleague Sen. Nikki Merritt of Gwinnett county, that the sole Republican in the Gwinnett Senate delegation filed two local bills. 

Before I tell you what those bills are, let me explain to you that there is a rule in the Senate that local bills must be signed by four out of seven members of the local Senate delegation before they are filed. None of the other members of the delegation knew anything about these bills — none of us. There were no signatures. This was a unilateral act by the lone Republican member of the Gwinnett delegation — Georgia’s most diverse and fastest growing county.

The first bill, Senate Bill 5EX, changes the Gwinnett County school board elections to non-partisan, and redraws the district lines. Gwinnett county is majority non-white county, and the new map includes zero majority-minority districts.

The second bill, SB 6EX, doubles the size of the Gwinnett County Commission and sets new district lines.

As a bit of background, during the last couple of election cycles, these two governing bodies — the Gwinnett School Board and the Gwinnett County Commission, have flipped from all white to majority representation by people-of-color.

I was sad but not terribly shocked that the Senate Rules were being bypassed to ram these bills through because the Republican majority has done this in the past, but I was shocked that this bill was moving forward during Special Session because according to the Governor’s set agenda, local bills are only allowed during Special Session if they (in the words of the Governor’s convening proclamation) “avoid unreasonable hardship or to avoid undue impairment of public functions if consideration and enactment thereof are postponed.”  County-level redistricting is set to be done during the regular session in January, and there is no legitimate reason for an exception in Gwinnett.

I was so floored by this blatant disregard for the legislative process that I decided to formally address my colleagues in the Senate Chamber Tuesday by taking a Point of Personal Privilege on the matter. This is the first time I have ever gone to the well without prepared and well thought out remarks, because anything you say from the well could end up in news outlets — which it did, and it was well worth it. Honestly, I didn’t get every technical detail perfect in my speech, but it still got the point across and brought needed attention to the matter.

So what’s the emergency? According to the bill’s author, in regards to the school board, it’s something his constituents have requested. Here’s what Sen. Clint Dixon, Governor Kemp’s floor leader, had to say: 

“Currently in my district it is the number one issue I have with concerns from my constituents with the unreasonable firing of our long-term superintendent . . . is what started some of the issues with our school board. Moving on from that, certain board members have indicated that they would be in favor of introducing CRT along with other, in my mind, radical agendas on their part.”

He went on to state that a new nonpartisan election must be held as soon as May 2022.

What we are seeing here, and what we are seeing over and over again, is made-up narratives that are then used to justify bad laws, or in this case, to change the structure of government.  The result is the cancelling of elected minority voices and the voters who elect them.

What can we do? I believe that in the Senate, our hope lies with the Lt. Governor. I have personally shared with him my concerns about ignoring rules and the need for him to protect the deliberative nature of the Senate body. Contact his office and tell him that if he wants to remake the Republican Party, he needs to start by putting an end to this kind of abuse of the legislative process. You can call his office at 404-656-5030, email him at geoff.duncan@ltgov.ga.gov or fill out this form. If you can do more, contact the following people:

Bill Sponsors:

  • Gov. Brian Kemp: 404-656-1776 | brian.kemp@georgia.gov
  • Sen. Clint Dixon: 404-656-7454 | clint.dixon@senate.ga.gov
  • Sen. Lee Anderson: 404-656-5114 | lee.anderson@senate.ga.gov

Senate Leadership:

  • Sen. Butch Miller: 404-656-6578 | butch.miller@senate.ga.gov
  • Sen. Mike Dugan: 404-656-7872 | mike.dugan@senate.ga.gov
  • Sen. Jeff Mullis: 404-656-0057 | jeff.mullis@senate.ga.gov
  • Sen. Bill Cowsert: 404-463-1366 | bill.cowsert@senate.ga.gov

House Republican Members from Gwinnett:

  • Rep. Chuck Efstration: 404-656-5125 | chuck.efstration@house.ga.gov
  • Rep. Bonnie Rich: 404-656-5087 | bonnie.rich@house.ga.gov
  • Rep. Timothy Barr: 404-656-7857 | timothy.barr@house.ga.gov
  • Rep. Tom Kirby: 404-656-0178 | tom.kirby@house.ga.gov

 

Other News from the Capitol

These political shenanigans suck the energy out of the room and distract from all the positive work being done by our community leaders. But I did still find time this week to stand up for mental health services, advocate for “Full Funding in Five” for people living with disabilities who are waiting for Home & Community Based Services Medicaid slots. Also, my Senate Resolution 300 University Fees Study Committee met to hear comments from the public.

While Republicans complain about “cancel culture,” let us stay firm to ensure they don’t cancel democracy. I often say that our efforts are not a sprint, but a marathon. An even better metaphor may be a relay marathon — so grab the baton and make some calls —  “Be LOUD” on behalf of all the people in Gwinnett county who have worked so hard to get their people elected.

 

Links

 

Under Cover of the World Series

If you want to sneak something through the legislature with no one noticing, do it while the Braves are playing in the World Series. That’s exactly what the Senate Republicans did Tuesday night when they quietly published their proposed Senate district map on the Georgia General Assembly Redistricting Office website, figuring most people were watching the game and wouldn’t notice. Three days later, with metro area schools closed for the Braves Parade, and Georgians lining downtown streets, the Senate Redistricting Committee voted their map out of committee along party lines, readying it for a Senate floor vote early next week. News about redistricting may have gotten relegated to a back page story, but the impact of these new district lines on State Government are set to make headlines for the next decade. 

Though it’s hard to compete with the news cycle of the Braves winning the World Series, it was heartening to see the halls of the Georgia Capitol once again bustling with citizen advocates who ARE paying attention (to stay up-to-date, sign up for these emails). One after another, they stepped up to the microphone to address the members of the Redistricting Committee, begging for more time to analyze the impact of these newly released maps. Not everyone was a seasoned expert — speakers included a 13-year old student, as well as a citizen who asked me after the hearing, “Okay, what comes next, once it passes Committee?” (I gave her a little lesson.) But the Committee stuck to their pre-determined schedule, checked off the box marked “take public comment,” and passed the bill out along party lines: 9 Republicans “yea,” 4 Democrats “nay.” It was an insult to all the people who made the trek to the Capitol to speak. If you are unable to travel to the Capitol to make public comments, please submit your comments here.

This is just the beginning of the process. Redistricting happens through the passage of bills, the Senate map being Senate Bill 1EX. Once this bill passes the Senate, it goes to the House, where representatives traditionally honor the Senate’s wishes, passing their bill with no changes. In the meantime, the House released their redistricting map one week before the special session started and has yet to pass it through the House committee. Neither chamber has filed their U.S. Congressional bills, though the Senate released a proposed map several weeks ago. The congressional maps will be fraught with more controversy, with more traditional disagreements between the House and Senate versions, and more public scrutiny.

Over the last ten years, Georgia’s population has increased by about one million people and about 99% of that growth has been made up of people from various minority groups. Yet the Senate map moving through the legislature adds only one solidly Democratic seat, bringing the make up of the Senate to 33 Republican seats and 23 Democratic seats. It doesn’t take much analysis to see the partisan gerrymander in these numbers. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project agrees, giving the Democratic Senate Map a “A” and the Republican map an “F” for partisan fairness.

This is the first redistricting session since the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court removed the Federal pre-clearance requirement under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. But Section 2, which prohibits discrimination based on race, is still in place. Since the Republican map does not reflect the growth in minority population in Georgia, the courts will be an effective place to challenge these maps.

On a personal note, I am pleased that my district, Senate 40, has remained basically intact. Due to growth, the district needed to downsize by about 4000 people. The proposed map does this by eliminating the two Sandy Springs precincts in North Fulton county, and three Peachtree Corners precincts in Gwinnett county. In addition, the district swapped out a few precincts in Tucker to pick up a couple of new precincts at the southern end of the district in unincorporated DeKalb county. To my supporters who are no longer in Senate 40, please know that I will adopt you back!

 

The Secession of Buckhead

In the midst of the redistricting drama there’s another concerning issue percolating at the Gold Dome —  the secession of the wealthy Buckhead neighborhood from the city of Atlanta. This effort is gaining momentum among Republicans of the Senate. If enacted, it would have devastating impacts on the city of Atlanta, which could reverberate throughout the entire state.

It’s important to understand that creating the city of Buckhead is completely different from the recent incorporation of cities such as Brookhaven and Dunwoody, because it is a secession from an existing city (Atlanta) rather than a city formed from still unincorporated areas. Atlanta is also a city with its own school system, which further complicates matters.

A public hearing held at the Capitol this week brought to light a number of yet unaddressed issues. Since the Georgia constitution does not allow for the creation of new school districts, would Atlanta Public School continue to serve Buckhead families, or would they become part of Fulton County Schools? What are the financial implications for these decisions? Does the Fulton County School system have the infrastructure to absorb the Buckhead area? What would happen to parks like Chastain Park, which is currently owned by the city of Atlanta? What would happen to Atlanta’s bond rating should Buckhead secede? Would taxes go up in both Atlanta and Buckhead to support two separate police departments? If this secession passed, would it set the precedent for other wealthy, white neighborhoods to do the same — reminiscent of the city of Eagles Landing separating from Stockbridge, which voters fortunately voted down in a referendum?

In the past, Republicans have used their majority power to ram through cityhood bills without getting the consent of local elected legislators. They have done this by passing a “general bill.” I expect the same for the City of Buckhead. The proper way to pass these kinds of bills is to utilize the “local bill” process, which requires the support of the majority of legislators in the local county delegation for passage. This process ensures that residents of the whole county have a voice in what is decided.

This is an issue to watch very closely during the special session and going into the regular session in January.

Links

Next Wednesday, Nov. 3rd, I head back down to the Georgia Capitol for a “special” legislative session. Technically, it’s “special” because it’s being called outside the “regular” 40 day legislative session required by Georgia’s constitution. But it’s also “special” because its function, the redrawing of political districts, only happens once every ten years — to rebalance the populations of legislative districts based on new census numbers.

Only the Governor can call a Special Session and set its agenda, and the Governor has chosen to keep the agenda narrow —  1) to redraw Georgia’s districts for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives; 2) to redraw Georgia’s state House and Senate districts; 3) to possibly adjust the motor fuel tax to align with federal tax changes; 4) to possibly consider limited local legislation and 5) to confirm executive appointments to various boards.

A huge thank you goes out to many of you who sent contributions to my re-election campaign since my last email! Once the special session begins, Georgia law prevents me from accepting donations. If you would like to contribute, please click on this link to donate online or locate instructions for sending a check. Please make sure donations are made and checks are postmarked by Nov. 2nd. Off-year fundraising is an important part of our campaign strategy.

The Redistricting Process

Sadly, the U.S. Supreme Court has said maps can be drawn to protect partisan advantage, so expect the maps to favor Republicans, who are of course in the majority. But the legislative process should still allow for public scrutiny. So far the Republican majority is not off to a good start, as no Georgia state House and Senate maps have been released in preparation for the likely very short special session. Once the redistricting bills are filed next week, I expect things will move very quickly through legislative committees and to floor votes, each step closing off opportunities for public input.

On the other hand, my Democratic Senate colleagues and I have been hard at work listening to voters at community forums, and drawing maps that reflect ALL Georgia voters. Georgia is a 50/50 state both politically and demographically, and the maps should reflect this. Our maps, released to the public, do just that.

Georgia Democratic Senate Caucus Maps

Congressional Map: Since the 2010 census, Georgia’s Black population has increased by 22% (350,000 people). Likewise, the Hispanic population has increased by 31% (147,000 people). Finally, the Asian population has increased by over 45% (100,000 people). With two-thirds of the population growth occurring in Metro Atlanta, it will be challenging for Republicans to create a map that allows them to hold on to the kind of power in numbers they held ten years ago.

Currently, Georgia has 14 seats in the U.S. House. Six are held by Democrats; eight by Republicans. In a map proposed by the Senate Republicans and the Lt. Governor, Democrats would lose one seat, giving Republicans 64% of the congressional seats — in a 50/50 state, that’s a partisan gerrymander. I feel confident, however, this will not be the final map — they could try to go even further.

The Senate Democratic Caucus Congressional map demonstrates that more accurately reflecting the will of voters in Georgia is possible. It creates seven Democratic leaning districts and seven Republican leaning districts.

 

Georgia Senate Map: The State Senate consists of 56 seats. Currently, Democrats hold 22 of those seats, and 18 of the 22 are held by people-of-color. The proposed Senate Democratic Caucus map contains 22 districts in which minorities are a majority of the voting age population. This reflects the shift in demographics that has occurred during the last ten years.

The Democratic Senate Caucus State Senate map contains 25 state Senate districts that would likely elect Democrats, 27 that would likely elect Republicans, leaving four remaining districts competitive. This balance in representation closely reflects Georgians’ political preferences, encouraging meaningful political debate and compromise — which I believe will result in better policy for the people of Georgia.

 

These maps matter because they will affect people in the voting booth, and in the everyday lives of Georgians. The Senate Democratic Caucus maps allow more voices to be heard — voices that have been consistently silenced throughout Georgia’s history. It’s time that history be reversed.

In Memoriam

Many of us have grieved the loss of loved ones during the past couple of years. This includes our campaign, as we have recently lost two beloved voting- rights warriors and campaign volunteers: Deborah Anne Gaventa Brown and Jonathan Grant.

Deborah died peacefully and unexpectedly in her sleep last July shortly after returning home from visiting old college friends in the northeast. She leaves behind three adult children in their twenties, who are now living together in Deborah’s home. Right now, all three children are enjoying a trip to the Caribbean, a family trip Deborah was planning when she died. Deborah’s unique gift was to lovingly encourage anyone, now matter their political beliefs, to leave behind politics of hate and judgement. She didn’t think anyone was a lost cause.

Jonathan Grant died suddenly due to a traumatic head injury when he fell from a ladder. He leaves behind his two grown children and his wife Judy, who chaired my fundraising committee during my first campaign and term. Jonathan can be credited with bringing reform to the DeKalb Elections Board. He was a talented writer and kept us all informed. As several people said at his memorial service, Jonathan always “showed up.” Democracy is safer in DeKalb because of Jonathan’s efforts.

These two warriors are already missed, both for their friendships and their advocacy. Let us carry on in their memory.

—Sally

A Chilly Political Forecast

I can’t believe it’s already October! For me, the chill in the air reminds me that Georgia’s politics are going to get a bit chilly during the next few months. I expect the November Special Redistricting Session to feature a storm of political gerrymandering, followed by a 2022 Legislative Session sure to showcase severe infighting and political extremism. Brrrr!

 

Neither Snow nor Rain . . . Your Senator Delivers!

No matter the political climate, nothing stops me from serving the people of Georgia! This coming Wednesday at 7pm, I am hosting a Virtual Town Hall on Public Safety that will feature a panel discussion with city leaders from all over Senate 40. In addition, even though it is the “off” season for the Georgia General Assembly, Legislative Study Committees have been meeting to make recommendations for action during the 2022 session. Finally, I continue to monitor public health issues related to COVID and conditions at the Georgia Department of Labor.

Special Note about my Next Campaign: Once the Special Session starts in November I will be unable to raise money for my next campaign (Georgia law prohibits accepting campaign donations during session). Qualification for the 2022 election is coming up in a few months! So, if you would like to send a contribution for my re-election, now is the time to do it. Off-year contributions are an important part of ensuring I am prepared for my next race, which comes every other year.

Public Safety Virtual Town Hall: During the past two decades, police services in the northern Atlanta suburbs have changed in structure due to the chartering of new cities. Some areas that were once served by DeKalb County now have their own city police departments. According to this report published by the Carl Vinson Institute, “Review of the Impact of Potential Municipal Expansion on County and Municipal Service Provision,” further loss of tax revenue due to the creation and expansion of new city police departments will have adverse impacts on DeKalb County as a whole. We don’t live in isolation and cities don’t have fences, so the health of the county at-large should be the concern of everyone who lives in DeKalb county. As part of a panel discussion featuring police chiefs and leaders from Doraville, Dunwoody, Peachtree Corners, Brookhaven and unincorporated DeKalb County, we will look at how our police departments are structured, challenges they face, reforms they are making, and the benefits of sharing resources. Register at https://bit.ly/Publicsafety 

Legislative Study Committees: Georgia’s fast moving 40-day legislative session typically does not allow for enough time to really delve into issues thoroughly, therefore much of that work is done between sessions. Legislative Study Committees are created through official resolutions that must go through the process just like bills, except that they can be passed by a single chamber. During the summer, the Lt. Governor appoints Senators to the various Study Committees, and the Committees typically complete their work during the fall. 

University Fees Study Committee: Education was one of the top areas that motivated me to run for the State Senate, so I feel fortunate to have been appointed to two Study Committees that focus on education. Last session, I passed Senate Resolution 300, which created the University Fees Study Committee. “Fees” now make up an average of 25% of the cost of tuition at state colleges and universities, but they are not covered by the HOPE scholarship. In addition, part-time students are usually charged 100% of the fees each semester, making the total cost of their degrees thousands of dollars more than full-time students. I created the Study Committee to look at more equitable solutions, and to bring some accountability to the Board of Regents (the governing board for Higher Education in Georgia).

Outdoor Education Study Committee: I was also appointed by the Lt. Governor to the Outdoor Education Study Committee, chaired by Gwinnett State Senator Sheikh Rahman. I’ve been a long-time advocate for ensuring all children get daily recess, because I want children to enjoy learning. Currently, our children spend way too much time sitting at their desks. This Committee is looking to support ways the Georgia Teaching Standards can be taken outside — for example instead of watching a video about watersheds, children can go outside to create their own watershed in the dirt! 

Unemployment Offices are Still Closed to the Public: I continue to get emails and calls from constituents who are owed back-pay for unemployment benefits who cannot get the department to answer their calls or emails. I reach out on their behalf and often never hear anything back either. Although Gov. Kemp has declared the state is open for business, the Department of Labor still refuses to open up to the public. In the Senate, this is angering both Democrats and Republicans, so I drafted a letter to Commissioner Mark Butler asking him what his plans are for opening, and almost every Senator signed the letter with me! Several recent newspaper articles have exposed mismanagement at the Dept. of Labor, including this article about our Senate letter! 

Redistricting: Speaker David Ralston said months ago we would deal with redistricting “when the frost hits the pumpkin.” He was about right, as the Governor has called a Special Session to begin the day after Election Day, November 3rd. Hopefully we will be done by Thanksgiving. Hearings have been held and the public has done a great job advocating for fair, non-politically gerrymandered districts in which voters choose their representatives, rather than the other way around. If you would like to follow redistricting issues more closely, I recommend subscribing to Fair Districts Georgia at https://www.fairdistrictsga.org.  

 

Look Ahead to Spring

So batten down the hatches for now, take shelter, and wait out the winds. When spring arrives, we’ll put our teams together again to hit the pavement for the 2022 elections. Sure, we’ll have some debris to clear, but our message to the people of Georgia is strong. We’ll rebuild using a platform of access to healthcare for all, quality public education from cradle to career wherever you live, protection of our earth’s resources, criminal justice reform, and America’s promise of equality. Hope springs eternal.

Sally’s Senate Snapshot:
“We worked so hard, and now, it is all undone?” That is the common cry of the men and women of our military who deployed to Afghanistan, missionary relief workers who built schools and infrastructure in Haiti, and healthcare workers who have labored day and night to contain a virus that is now running wild.

In the face of powerlessness, it helps to do something. So I want to call your attention to the urgent need for all of us to lobby our elected officials at the federal level. We have a narrow window of opportunity to deliver an agenda that makes meaningful change to people’s lives. Our success in 2022 depends on it, and time is short!

Be National.

Soon after the 2016 election, a group of D.C. staffers got together and wrote a manual on how to resist the Trump agenda. And that manual led to the formation of national progressive movement called “Indivisible.” Indivisible groups sprung up all over the country. The actions described: constant phone calls, requests for townhalls, in-person visits, protests and rallies, as well as letters-to-the editors and op-eds, were deployed to resist Trump and remove him from office, and they worked! But they were actually modeled after what the original authors saw the Tea Party doing to pressure the GOP into ever more radical positions. Now it’s time to turn those same actions towards the President and the majorities we’ve elected to Congress and encourage them to deliver an agenda based on Democratic values.

Their manual, now called “Indivisible on Offense”, was updated after the 2018 midterm elections to include action steps about how to hold our Democratic elected officials accountable. The same techniques we used to resist the Trump agenda are needed now more than ever to ensure that our members of Congress deliver on behalf of the people who elected them.

If you have not connected to an Indivisible group yet, you can find your local group here. If you need assistance, please respond to this email and I will help connect you to a group.

Be LOUD.

A few weeks ago I travelled to Washington D.C. as part of a group of state legislators chosen to lobby the U.S. Senate to pass the For the People Act. The purpose of my trip was to “be LOUD,” as I often say. We had a big rally in a park near the Capitol, which was quite successful and got a good deal of national press. The speakers were inspirational, including our own Sen. Warnock. There was power in coming together with legislators from twenty different states who had also been unable to stop Republicans from passing restrictive voting laws. But due to the rise of COVID cases that week, plus the work on the infrastructure bill, it was hard to get the attention of the Senators.

Sometimes being loud can feel futile — like you’re yelling through phone lines and email accounts and no one is listening. But it’s critical that we do it anyway and never give up. If you’re feeling frustrated or powerless right now, it’s time to make some phone calls! The halls of the U.S. Capitol building are too quiet right now — I know because I’ve been there!

Be Specific.

For the People Act and the Filibuster: We cannot reverse the damage done by bad voting laws at the state level without passing voting standards at the national level, and we can’t pass the For the People Act without reforming the filibuster. I recently found a chart on VoteSaveAmerica.com documenting each Senator’s commitment or lack thereof to filibuster reform, as well as public statements they have made on the subject. Sadly, at the release of this email, the link was not working, but I’ll tell you that Georgia’s two new Senators, Ossoff and Warnock, remain uncommitted to filibuster reform. Pick up the phone now and call. Phone numbers are provided at the end of this email.

Infrastructure and Budget Tensions: The bi-partisan Infrastructure bill has gone back to the House, where Democratic house leadership plans to hold the bill until the Senate keeps its promise to pass the $3.5 trillion budget proposal in mid-September. This short delay is to make room for high level negotiations on budget priorities. Priorities that define who we are as a nation and how we live in community with one another.

But over the weekend, nine Democrats in the House, including Georgia’s Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, wrote a letter to the leadership calling for an immediate vote on the Infrastructure bill and have threatened to vote against the budget bill if they don’t get their way. If these nine vote against the budget, they will derail the Democratic agenda by just three votes. This gives away the strategic opportunity to negotiate the two bills together, fighting for critical dollars for universal pre-K, free community college, expanded ACA healthcare, climate change initiatives, and affordable housing, to name a few. (Click here  for details) This is exactly the kind of situation in which the public (you!) needs to weigh in and “be LOUD”! Now is the time to call these nine, particularly Rep. Bourdeaux, and make sure that your voice is heard. Let them know that their planned vote against pre-K, community college, the ACA, clean energy, and affordable housing is not acceptable.

Make Some D.C. Magic, Again.

When I studied Washington D.C in the third grade I fell in love, so I was thrilled to travel there that summer to visit family. The problem was, my parents didn’t know I wanted to actually see D.C. Fortunately, my Uncle Jim figured it out, and drove me downtown the night before we left to travel back to Indiana. It was a whirlwind tour, past all the sites and into the parking lot of the U.S. Capitol.  “Should we go in?” my Uncle Jim asked. “Yes!” I said. My Uncle Jim later told my mom that when I stood in the rotunda and looked up, I said, “My dream has come true.” True story.

Four decades later, and in D.C. to lobby for the passage of the For the People Act, I faced a similar disappointment. The U.S. Capitol was closed to the public. Through the help of a friend, I was able to make my way inside, but it was eerie to stand in empty hallways while Congress worked behind closed doors.

Without being LOUD, Congress cannot hear us.

There’s a lot going on with the Delta COVID surging, Afghanistan falling to the Taliban, and the earthquake in Haiti. But now is the time to multi-task. Keep your newly elected members of Congress accountable to the people who sent them to Washington in the first place. Make sure the new members we elected in CD-6, CD-7, CD-5, and the Senate hear the voices of the people who worked so hard to send them there.

As my former Georgia Senate seatmate, Chair of the Georgia Democrat Party and new member of Congress says — we can do two things at once!

Contact Information

Call these people and ask them to vote “yes” on the budget resolution before the small infrastructure bill. (Call both Washington and District offices. On the phone. ResistBot and Email are just not the same.)

  • Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux:
    Washington (202) 225-4272;
    District 770-232-3005
  • Rep. Lucy McBath:
    Washington (202) 225-4501;
    District 470-773-6330
  • Rep. Hank Johnson:
    Washington (202) 225-1605 ;
    District (770) 987-2291
  • Rep. Nikema Williams:
    Washington (202) 225-3801;
    District (404) 659-0116
  • Rep. Sanford Bishop:
    Washington (202) 225-3631;
    Albany (229) 439-8067;
    Columbus (706) 320-9477;
    Macon (478) 803-2631
  • Rep. David Scott:
    Washington (202) 225-2939;
    Jonesboro (770) 210-5073;
    Smyrna (770) 432-5405
  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi:
    Washington (202) 225-4965;
    District (415) 556-4862

Call your U.S. Senators and tell them to reform of the filibuster and pass voting rights

  • Sen. Ossoff:
    Washington (202) 224-3521;
    District (470) 786-7800
  • Sen. Warnock:
    Washington (202) 224-3643;
    District (770) 694-7828
Links

Sally’s Senate Snapshot: Interim Edition

Time to Flex those Muscles!

People often ask me what Georgia legislators do when we’re not in session. Since we’re a part-time, “citizen” legislature, at the close of session we’re supposed to go back home to do whatever it is we were doing before we got elected — theoretically anyway.

Personally, I’ve been taking some time to recharge my batteries. After journeying out on a few rock climbing trips with my family, my husband Jay and I are now going to the climbing gym several times a week to build up our strength. Facing the kinds of political challenges we are up against these days is easier when I’ve got the muscles to take it on!

Bringing the U.S. Senate to Atlanta

A couple of weeks ago I got a call from the Policy Director of the U.S. Senate Rules and Administration Committee, chaired by Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Would I be willing to testify at a Committee Field Hearing on Voting Rights, addressing Georgia’s new election law? I pretty quickly gave a resounding, “Certainly!”

So on July 19th I testified before the U.S. Senate Rules Committee at a field hearing, appropriately held at the Center for Civil and Human Rights. I really appreciated how Sen. Amy Klobuchar brought the Committee to Atlanta to hear directly from the people. As she said, “If you just stay in Washington and get doused down and gridlocked out by our archaic procedures in the Senate, you lose sight of what you are looking for.”

Our team of witnesses certainly gave Sen. Klobuchar what she was looking for! Helen Butler, Executive Director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, told her story about how she was removed as a member of her local election board because her local legislators changed the appointment process — instead of being appointed by both political parties, appointments are now made by an all white and Republican county commission. Jose Segerra described how he and his elderly neighbors stood in line for hours to vote, only to have to come back the next day. And I told the story of how Georgia’s new voting law was rammed through the process without public input and through the use of legislative procedural tricks. If you’d like to watch the testimony click here. My opening statement is about 30 minutes in, but Sen. Warnock made his opening statement first, and he’s very much worth listening to if you have time! By the way, Sen. Warnock has been working very hard this week to bring the For the People Act to the Senate floor for a vote.

Sending the Georgia Legislature to Washington

After being introduced by Sen. Klobuchar, I looked the Senators in the eye and said, “We desperately need your help. Where you live shouldn’t determine how hard it is to vote. I implore you to pass national voting standards.” Next week I will take this message to the U.S. Capitol, where I, along with legislators from Georgia and other states that have passed restrictive voting laws, will lobby the U.S. Senators to pass the For the People Act.

Polling shows that this bill is supported by the majority of Americans. Even though Republicans are in the minority in the Senate, they are able to block popular bills using the filibuster. Long gone are the days when Senators would have to give voluminous speeches at the Senate well to filibuster a controversial bill. All it takes now is one Senator calling for a filibuster and the legislation automatically requires a Supermajority of 60 votes to pass. It has been overused and abused for too long and it means that any progress in the US Senate is now held hostage by minority rule.

What’s in the For the People Act and How will it Help Georgia?

Distribution of food/water to voters: There has been much talk about how the Georgia legislature made it illegal to give food or water to voters while waiting in line. The For the People Act prohibits states from restricting food and beverages at polling places, if done in a non-partisan manner.

Dropboxes: SB 202 limits dropboxes to one per 100,000 active registered voters, which drastically limits the number of dropboxes in the metro Atlanta area from what was available in 2020. The For the People Act requires one dropbox per every 45,000 registered voters during the 2022 and 2024 elections. Subsequently, the Act requires either one per 45,000 registered voters OR one for every 15,000 voters who cast a mail-ballot in the previous federal election (whichever is greater). Under the Act, dropboxes must also be available the first day mail ballots are sent to voters. Twenty-five percent of drop boxes in each jurisdiction must be accessible 24 hours per day. Finally, the Act requires that dropboxes be available to all voters in a non-discriminatory way, accessible to voters with disabilities and by public transportation as well as geographically distributed.

Mail Ballot Request Forms: SB 202 requires a Drivers’ License number, State ID number or a photocopy of an alternative ID for mail-in ballots. The For the People Act only requires a signature and/or identifying information such as date of birth. The Act requires on-line applications accessible for voters with disabilities. The Act also ensures states cannot prohibit the mailing of absentee ballot request forms to eligible voters by any person, including election officials.

The Actual Mail Ballot: SB 202 prohibits jurisdictions from sending out mail ballots until 29 days before Election Day. It also requires a Drivers’ License or State ID number, the last four digits of a Social Security number, or photocopy of an alternative ID. In addition, the date of birth must be written on the envelope under the flap. The voter must sign an affidavit stating no one observed them mark their ballot, and it criminalizes observing a voter mark a ballot. The For the People Act requires election officials to promptly send out mail ballots that have been requested at least 16 days before Election Day. The Act does not prevent states from requiring identification to return a ballot or prohibit states from criminalizing observing a voter marking a mail-in ballot.

State Takeover of Local Election Boards: SB 202 allows the State Elections Board to take over a local election board with a single administrator of their choice, following an investigation and hearing. The For the People Act includes protections for election officials and election workers from harassment, intimidation, and doxing, but not protections for removal by the state. There is another bill, the Preventing Election Subversion Act of 2021 introduced by Senators Warnock, Klobuchar, Merkley, Warner, and Ossoff that ensures that a statewide election official may only suspend, remove, or relieve a local election official for inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.

Mass Voter Challenges: Under existing Georgia law, any single person can challenge the voter registration of an unlimited number of voters at once. A Texas-based group, True the Vote, challenged the eligibility of 360,000 Georgia voters for the 2021 Senate run-off, but the challenges resulted in only a few dozen ballots being disqualified. The For the People Act would prevent mass challenges by requiring challenges to be made based on “personal knowledge with respect to each individual challenged.” It also prohibits challenges made on the basis of age, race, ethnicity or national origin. It offers further protections by requiring a written statement under penalty of perjury that the challenge is made in good faith and by factual basis.

Provisional Ballots: SB 202 only allows out-of-precinct provisional ballots to be counted if they are cast between 5 – 7pm. The For the People Act ensures that all provisional ballots can be counted at the county-wide level at any time and would ensure all voters have access to same-day registration, which would allow people to update their registration if they have moved counties.

Early Voting: The For the People Act sets national standards for early voting, requiring at least 15 consecutive days (including at least two consecutive Saturdays and Sundays). It would ensure early voting is open for at least 10 hours a day, including on weekends. SB 202 sets a similar early voting schedule, but also caps the hours and days early voting can be offered, whereas the For the People Act only sets a minimum standard and allows localities to offer more than the minimum.

Shortened Runoff Period: SB 202 reduces the runoff period from nine weeks to 28 days. Since Georgia law requires voters to be registered at least 29 days before Election Day, this means there will be no opportunity to register to vote before the runoff. It also reduces the minimum early vote period for federal runoffs from three weeks to one week, which includes no weekend voting. The For the People Act requires an early voting period of at least 15 consecutive days, including two Saturdays and two Sundays, for ALL federal elections.

Ballot Collection: SB 202 makes it a felony to return a non-family member’s mail ballot. The For the People Act permits voters to designate any person to return a completed and sealed ballot. It prohibits states from limiting how many ballots one individual can return.

Now It’s Time to Flex YOUR Vocal Muscles — Be LOUD!

Next week I will be in Washington D.C. visiting with Senators and asking them to pass the For the People Act. I need your help?

Call our US Senators to urge them to push for filibuster reform and pass the For the People Act!

Senator Jon Ossoff: (470) 786-7800 or (202) 224-3521, Email https://www.ossoff.senate.gov/contact/contact-form/

Senator Raphael Warnock: (202) 224-3643, Email https://www.warnock.senate.gov/contact/

 

Links

Inside story of SB202:
https://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/georgia-democrat-voting-laws-republicans

Full video of the US Senate Hearing in Atlanta:
https://www.rules.senate.gov/hearings/protecting-the-freedom-to-vote-recent-changes-to-georgia-voting-laws-and-the-need-for-basic-federal-standards-to-make-sure-all-americans-can-vote-in-the-way-that-works-best-for-them

Warnock works for a federal election bill:
https://www.ajc.com/politics/politics-blog/the-jolt-federal-election-bill-still-alive-with-warnock-at-center-of-talks/BS4KWPWZRBFNRFISA5OBY443LU/

Sally’s Senate Snapshot explaining SB202 in detail:
https://sallyharrell.org/2021/03/28/snapshot-11/

Donate Today!
https://actblue.com/donate/sallyharrell-email

Senator Sally’s Town Hall Wrap-Up

Monday, April 19th, 7 – 8:30pm

Join Georgia State Senator Sally Harrell and State House Representatives in Senate District 40 for an update on the 2021 legislative session and the upcoming special redistricting session later this year.

Confirmed House Representatives:

  • Representative Josh McLaurin, HD 51
  • Representative Mike Wilensky, HD 79
  • Representative Matthew Wilson, HD 80
  • Representative Scott Holcomb, HD 81
  • Representative Viola Davis, HD 87
  • Representative Billy Mitchell, HD 88
  • Representative Beth Moore, HD 95

Join by Zoom or via Facebook livestream. We’ll be collecting questions in advance, and fielding questions via both platforms as time permits. 

Register via eventbrite at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/sd-40-legislative-wrap-up-tickets-150121484401 

Zoom details will be emailed to registrants.

 

Long Awaited Reunions

With the 2021 legislative session barely behind me, and two shots in the arm, I wasted no time getting to my hometown to see my mother and sisters. I know many of you have experienced such reunions, or are about to once you’re two weeks past that second shot. Enjoy!

Georgia Voting Law Podcast: While in my hometown of Indianapolis, I met up with an old high school classmate who invited me to discuss Georgia’s new election law on his podcast. His leading question was, “is it racist, or not?” To which I replied, “It is, and it isn’t – both.” Here’s a link to the podcast if you’d like to take an in depth look at the actual content of Senate Bill 202.

 

Mass Shooting in Indianapolis

Sadly, after I got home I heard the news of yet another mass shooting — this time in my hometown. My heart aches for the families who have lost loved ones. Though causes of these mass shootings are complex, here are a couple of things I am doing to help.

Firearm Safety Legislation: Toward the end of the legislative session, I drafted two pieces of legislation. A “Do Not Sell” bill that allows people to voluntarily place their names in a “Do Not Sell” Georgia firearm database. This allows people who know they have cyclical mental health issues that could result in harm to self or others, to choose to register so that they cannot purchase a gun while having an episode. Second, I drafted a bill that requires training before obtaining a permit to carry a firearm. I look forward to working on these two bills next session.

 

Fully Fund in Five

One of the best things about being a State Senator is using my voice to amplify the voices of others. During the last week of session, I held a press conference for people who live with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

In 1999 the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case that originated in Georgia, ruled that the unjustified segregation of people with disabilities is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Institutions were closed and Medicaid Waivers were made available so people could establish homes in their communities. Sadly, Georgia currently has a waiting list of 7000 people waiting for these slots, and is funding only about 100 slots per year.

Following the lead of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), our press conference asked that this waiting list be funded and therefore eliminated during the next five years. During the interim between sessions, several of us plan to meet with the Governor to ask him to fund these slots in his proposed 2022 – 2023 budget. As the Senior Minister at North Atlanta Church of Christ, Don McLaughlin, said at the press conference, “We need to do this not because it makes economic sense, because it makes moral sense.”

 

Clearing my Head of Toxic Politics

On the way home from Indianapolis I joined my husband Jay and some fully vaccinated friends in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge for some rock climbing. While depending on a rope and your belayer to hold you up, and looking for small bumps and crevices in the rock to use as foot and hand holds so you can get to the top, it’s hard to think about anything else!

Here are the top ten things climbing teaches me about surviving in politics:

1) If what you’re doing isn’t working, look for alternatives.

2) Look up to see what is coming next and plan accordingly.

3) Rest when you have the opportunity.

4) Climb on, even when you feel stuck.

5) Keep your feet grounded firmly below you.

6) Stand up tall, even when you think you can’t.

7) Reach — you might just make it!

8) Lean in to balance yourself.

9) Have plenty of support that you can trust to hold you up.

10) Don’t forget to breathe.

 

Ending on a Sour Note

The 2021 legislative session may have ended last week on a sour note, but at least it ended on time. I love serving in the Senate, but at midnight last Wednesday night, on Sine Die, I was ready to get out of there!

While the media have been focusing mostly on the voting bill, other bills passed as well. In fact, the same day the final voting bill passed, the House very narrowly passed SB 47, an expansion of school vouchers for kids with disabilities. 

School Vouchers (SB 47): Publically funded vouchers for use at private schools are a tricky subject, especially for special needs kids. Georgia actually already has a special needs voucher program that includes children who have one of 13 disabilities that qualify for an Individual Education Plan (IEP). What SB 47 does is expand these vouchers to include kids who have accommodations under what are called 504 plans, opening vouchers up to a much more expansive list of physical and mental disabilities.

While acknowledging that these vouchers can make a big difference for some parents for paying private school tuition, it’s difficult to make the case that these new voucher program benefits will be distributed equitably to people of all socioeconomic classes. Considerable financial resources are needed in order to take advantage of these 504 vouchers, including self-paid diagnostic testing, transportation, and the balance of private school tuition. I voted against this expansion of vouchers because I believe public school resources should be equitably distributed to all children, and the expansion to 504 vouchers opens up too many possible loopholes.

Police Budgets (HB 286): Another bill that passed the Senate on the last day was a bill prohibiting local governments with ten or more full-time police officers from decreasing their annual budget by more than 5% of the previous year’s budget. This takes away local control. As the Senate Rules Chairman flippantly declared on the last day of session, “We (Republicans) support local control, except for when we don’t…”

 

Sour Grapes

With all the finger pointing going on about Georgia’s new election law, my regret is that the Republican legislators who penned this controversial legislation never attempted to engage in real conversation with Democrats. They would have been better off if they had spent a year cooling off, rather than writing reactionary legislation based on false narratives. As I told the Senate Rules Chairman at the beginning of the session, their constituents’ perceived loss of confidence in the election process can’t be fixed with legislation — it requires leadership instead. But perhaps it wasn’t really about their constituents…

 

Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice

This year’s legislative session wasn’t all a loss. Here’s some of the better bills we passed:

Repeal of Citizens Arrest (HB 479): Georgia became the first state to repeal and overhaul this Civil War-era law after it was used as a defense for the unjustified shooting of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, GA. This new bill prohibits average citizens from taking the law into their own hands, while still allowing law enforcement officers to make arrests without warrants outside their jurisdiction. It also allows businesses, private detectives, and security officers to detain people they believe committed a crime until law enforcement arrives.

The “Big Budget” (HB 81): The $27.2 billion budget restores some, but not all, of the massive budget cuts the Governor made in recent years. Local school systems will receive $3.8 billion from the American Rescue Plan which will make up for the rest of the education budget shortfalls, but this is one-time funding. The Governor plans to appoint committees to oversee how the state spends the $4.6 billion that it will receive from The American Rescue Plan, which can be spent on infrastructure projects like rural broadband, aid to small businesses, and direct payments to Georgians. County and local governments throughout the state will also directly receive more than $3 billion in federal aid.

Violent Crime Certification and Tracking (HB 255): Sponsored by one of our Senate District 40 House Representatives, Scott Holcomb, this bill improves the way sexual assault cases are handled, building on the great work he’s already done to help clear Georgia’s backlog of rape kits. 

Coverage When an Insurer Drops a Provider (HB 454): This legislation requires insurers to cover providers listed as in-network when you sign up for insurance for 180 days after a provider goes out of network. 

Paid Parental Leave for State and Board of Education Employees (HB 146): Long overdue, this bill provides up to 120 hours per year of paid parental leave to full time state employees and teachers for the birth of a child or the placement of a child for adoption or foster care. 

Tuition Waiver for Foster and Adopted Children (SB 107): I voted for this bill when it came through the Higher Ed Committee and again on the Senate floor. It waives technical school tuition and fees for eligible foster and adopted children. To be eligible, the student must be enrolled full-time or part-time within three years of receiving their high school diploma or GED, remain in good academic standing, and be under 28 years old. A measure to classify homeless students as in-state for tuition purposes was added by the House. 

Tobacco and Vape Products Inclusion in Education (HB 287): I have to admit to having mixed feelings about this bill and another one to create a financial literacy program in high schools (see below). When attempting to pass my own bills mandating school recess and classes on elections & voting, I’ve been told repeatedly by both the Lt. Governor and the Governor that they prefer to leave education decisions to local school boards.  But ultimately I voted yes to include tobacco and vapor products in alcohol and drugs instruction courses for K-12 students. 

High School Financial Literacy Program (HB 681) — This bill adds a financial literacy course to high schools that includes information about banking, financial planning, insurance, taxes, contracts, bills, loans, and cryptocurrency. 

Hotel/Motel Tax on AirBnB (HB 317) – This legislation requires marketplace facilitators for short term rentals like AirBnB to collect and remit the $5 transportation hotel/motel tax. This puts short term rentals on par with hotels and will help increase our state revenue.

Teaching Tax Credit (HB 32) — This bill establishes a $3,000 annual tax credit for up to 1,000 teachers who take a job in a low-performing or rural school. 

 

The Sweet Spot

When I started the legislative session out by criticizing the powerful Senate Rules Chairman’s election bills, I figured I was throwing away any chance of passing legislation this year. But eventually he and I developed a kind of “teasing” relationship. At one point I jokingly said to him, “We’re seeing an awful lot of each other this year, aren’t we?” And he said, “Yes, and it hasn’t been very pleasant, has it?” In the end, I negotiated a deal with him, and he co-sponsored the following piece of legislation, proving that even in the worst of times, Republicans and Democrats can work together for the good of Georgians.

College Fees Study Committee (SR 300): The study committee passed on Sine Die, so I look forward to working with Senator Tippins, Chair of the Senate Higher Ed Committee who will also Chair this study committee, and others in the interim on how best to reduce university fees, especially for part-time students. 

 

Sweet Success: Bills that Did Not Pass

Reminder: Since each legislative term is two years, these bills remain “alive” and can therefore progress further next year.

Criminalizing Protests (HB 289) – A reaction to protests this year, this bill would have significantly increased penalties for certain crimes committed at protest events and would bar anyone convicted of unlawful assembly from state or local employment. It was overly punitive to the state and local governments if damage occurred during a protest, and it violated local control by requiring local governments to mandate permits and collect personal information about organizers for all protests. This bill passed the House, but never came up for a vote in the Senate. 

Driver’s Education About How to Interact with Police (SB 115) — This bill directed the Departments of Drivers Services and Public Safety to create a curriculum for driving schools instructing drivers on how to interact with police during a traffic stop and actions police can undertake such as using force. It passed both the Senate and the House, with Democrats opposing it. Parents, particularly those of color, already educate their kids about how to interact with law enforcement. But the bill narrowly failed in the Senate in the late hours of Sine Die when several Republicans joined the Democrats after the House attached a measure to allow speed cameras in school zones. 

Emergency Powers on Firearms (SB 214) — This bill would have loosened gun restrictions by allowing out of state travelers to bring their guns to Georgia and prohibiting the government from regulating firearms, firearms licenses, or closing or limiting operating hours of firearm dealers and gun ranges during an emergency. This bill passed the Senate just days after the Asian spa mass shootings over the strong objections of Senate Democrats. But Speaker Ralston prevented the bill from coming to the House floor for a vote, recognizing that the timing was not right for this bill.

Looking Ahead

I will announce shortly the date of my post-session Town Hall. Right now I am taking a bit of a break to have a long awaited reunion in Indiana with my mother and three sisters. Get your shots and hug your people!

Despite having spent countless hours in Committee meetings this session discussing election bills, the bill that was signed into law last Thursday was never vetted by the Senate. It completely skipped the committee process, and only had a minimal amount of debate on the floor. That’s because when the Senate originally passed SB 202, it was a two-page bill about absentee ballot applications. The House completely stripped that language and replaced it with 98 pages of various other election changes. Thursday’s Senate vote on SB 202 was a motion to “agree” to the changes made to the bill by the House. The bill, as passed by the House, was placed on our desks only one hour prior to the vote on the motion. Neither the public, nor even the Senators considering it, had the opportunity to really read the bill before it was signed into law. I voted to “disagree” with the changes made by the House. By all accounts, this was a bad bill, but Georgia’s legislative process needs to reform more than its election laws.

The best part of SB 202 is what’s NOT in it. Your phone calls, emails, postcards, and protests forced Republicans to back off of some of their most damaging proposals like banning absentee voting for most Georgians, restricting weekend early voting, and eliminating automatic voter registration. Your advocacy made a big difference. Don’t forget that.

How Voting Will Change

Absentee Voting

Anyone can still vote absentee — you don’t need an “excuse”.

Timing for Requesting your Ballot — Instead of being able to request your ballot 180 days prior to election day, you must now wait until less than 78 days before the election. Also, you must now request your ballot before 11 days prior to election day. The Elections office must mail your ballot between 25 and 29 days before the election (this used to be 45 – 49 days).

How to Request your Ballot — Your ballot request will be authenticated by elections staff by matching your driver’s license number (if you have one), rather than your signature. It is unclear as to whether the Secretary of State will continue to offer the on-line portal for requesting a ballot. If you do not have a driver’s license or State ID number, various other forms of ID can be substituted, but they will need to be copied and mailed or uploaded electronically. This will create a hardship for possibly thousands of voters who need to vote absentee and don’t drive, such as the elderly, disabled, and young people. 

Voting your Ballot — Ballot drop boxes have now been codified in Georgia law and every county is required to have at least one dropbox. But their availability will be greatly reduced from what we saw last year. First, they will only be located inside advanced voting locations, and only available during voting hours. They will not be available at all starting the Friday before election day (end of advanced voting). The number of dropboxes will be limited to 1 per 100,000 active registered voters. In 2020, Fulton County had 38 drop boxes. Now they can only use 8. Dekalb had 32 drop boxes and now they can only use 5. 

The error-prone “signature match” previously used has been eliminated. Your actual ballot will be authenticated using your driver’s license number, or, if you don’t have one, the last four digits of your social security number. 

On the outside envelope and hidden under the flap, you will provide your printed name, signature, date of birth, driver’s license number (or last four digits of your social security number if no driver’s license). It is now a felony for any unqualified person to unseal the ballot envelope.

The signed oath, under penalty of false swearing, will include the statement, “I have marked and sealed this ballot in private and have not allowed any unauthorized person to observe the voting of this ballot or how this ballot was voted . . . and that I will not give or transfer this ballot to any person not authorized by law to deliver or return absentee ballots.” Authorized persons are the same as in-person voting and include a person lawfully assisting the elector, and/or the elector’s child under 18 years of age. All this will be spelled out in the instructions.

Watch the law — Penalties for illegally handling an absentee ballot request or illegally returning someone else’s ballot are a misdemeanor and a felony, respectively. This list of qualified people includes: mother, father, grandparent, aunt, uncle, sister, brother, spouse, son, daughter, niece, nephew, grandchild, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, father-in-law, father-in-law, brother-in-law and sister-in-law of the age of 18 or over.

 

Early/Advanced Voting

Weekend Voting — Until now, Georgia law required a minimum of one Saturday of early voting, but counties could choose to offer more. The new law requires two Saturday early voting days. This will expand early voting in counties that previously only offered one Saturday. Originally the bill restricted early weekend voting to one Saturday and one optional Saturday or Sunday. But thanks to public pressure, this was changed to allow for two optional Sunday early voting days in addition to the two mandatory Saturdays. Hours can be set as 9am – 5pm or 7am – 7pm.

There appears to be a requirement that early/advanced voting locations be limited to “government buildings,” but this needs to be clarified.

 

Election Day Voting

Punishing Out-of-Precinct Voters — Previously, if a voter ended up at the wrong precinct on Election Day, they were either directed to their correct location or allowed to vote using a provisional ballot. This was important because many voters don’t have enough time during the workday to make it to the second precinct. More than 10,000 provisional ballots were cast in the last general election and 8,000 were cast in the Senate run-off, many of whom were voters of color. The new law automatically invalidates out-of-precinct provisional ballots if they are cast before 5pm. To counter this, I have filed SB 314 that gives counties the authority to allow voters to vote at any polling location on Election Day.

Refreshments while in Line — You might want to pack your own water and snacks when you head out to vote. Volunteers can no longer hand out water and snacks to voters who are standing in line — unless they are 150 feet away from the polling place. However, according to the new law, poll officers can “make available self-service water from an unattended receptacle to an elector waiting in line to vote.” 

 

Run-off Elections

Reduced Run-Off Elections Time  The new law requires run-off elections to be held 28 days after the general election, instead of nine weeks. Ballots for military and overseas voters will include “instant run-off” selections (rank choice voting) where the voter chooses a second choice candidate upfront. The shortened run-off period will likely restrict early voting to one week and it may be difficult for election offices to process large volumes of absentee ballots.

 

How Election Administration will change

Election offices have a challenging task ahead of them to properly implement the hodgepodge of new voting administration laws. A large portion of SB 202 is dedicated to covering these changes. Not properly implementing the new laws can result in a state takeover of a local elections office. Here are some highlights:

Absentee Ballot Processing — Thanks to Senator Jen Jordan, county elections staff can now begin processing absentee ballots — opening envelopes, checking ID, etc. — early to allow for a quicker vote count on Election Day.

Improved Notification of Precinct Changes — Thanks to Senator Nikki Merritt, county elections officials must place visible 4 foot by 4 foot signage at polling locations that have changed. This was an issue for both Gwinnett and Dekalb voters in 2020.

Reduced Certification Time and Continuous Counting — County elections staff will now have less time to certify results and will be required to count votes around the clock to speed up results times. This gives voters and elections officials less time to cure provisional ballots. 

Mobile Voting Ban — Mobile voting units are now only allowed to be used in an emergency. 

Private Funding Ban and Unfunded Mandates — The bill bans counties from accepting private funding and other support, all while creating expensive unfunded mandates like using special security paper, new ballot design specifications for absentee ballots and having to count ballots without breaks. In 2020, 43 Georgia counties, including many rural counties, received over 32 million dollars in grant funding. State and local governments will need to provide adequate funding to fill these gaps. Despite these unfunded mandates, the author of SB 202 never requested a fiscal note that documents costs to local governments, as is required by law if expenses to local governments exceed $5 million. This was challenged in the Senate, but the Lt. Governor overruled the objection and allowed the bill to proceed without a fiscal note .

Poll officer flexibility — Poll officers can now serve in counties that adjoin their county of residence. However, they must demonstrate that there is unmet need in the adjoining county and that county of residency can be adequately staffed.

Election Superintendent Discretion — Gives the election superintendent discretion of the ratio of 250 votes to one machine during non-general elections.

Reporting of numbers and chain of custody — Reporting requirements to the Secretary of State office are greatly increased as well as penalties. For instance,  “If a superintendent fails to report the returns of verified and accepted absentee ballots by the day following the election at 5pm, the State Election Board may convene an independent performance review board.”

 

Secretary of State and Legislative Power over Local Election Boards

SB 202 greatly increases the power of the legislature over Local Election Boards.

State Elections Board and Secretary of State’s Office Takeover — The new law demotes the Secretary of State as the State Election Board chair to a non-voting ex-officio member, and replaces the Chair with a legislative appointment. The Chair is supposed to be non-partisan, defined as not having been active with a political party nor having donated to or campaigned for a candidate during the two years prior to becoming the Chair, and while serving as Chair. 

State Takeover of County Elections — The State Elections Board, county governing authority (county commission), or members of the county’s legislative delegation, can petition for a temporary takeover of a county elections board, replacing the entire board with an individual appointed by the State Elections Board, who then has the authority to hire and fire any and all elections staff. 

 

Change in Composition of Local Election Boards — Though not part of SB 202, about a dozen legislators have passed local legislation changing the way election board members are appointed, for instance by all Republican county commissioners, resulting in more partisan boards. This, combined with a more political State Elections Board, is concerning.

 

Upcoming Events

Three more days until Sine Die, the end of the 2021 legislative session! Monday is the 39th day and we have about 60 bills scheduled for Senate floor votes. Tuesday is reserved for committee work, and Wednesday, March 31, is the final day.

End of Session Legislative Town Hall — Our Senate District 40 House Representatives and I were so sorry to have to postpone our town hall event at the last minute. As is often the case at the Capitol, our schedules can change without much notice. Both the House and Senate floor sessions went into the evening. We will reschedule as soon as we can coordinate calendars. 

Fully Fund NOW/COMP in Five Press Conference — On Tuesday, March 30, I will be holding a press conference with members of the disability community, community leaders, and allies to demand that Governor Kemp fully fund the NOW/COMP Medicaid waivers waiting list over the next 5 years. This event is open to all that wish to attend and we hope you’ll join us at 10 am by the South stairs inside the Capitol. 

 

Looking Ahead

When asked about the new law, Black Voters Matter founder Cliff Albright told the AJC, “It’s always going to have an impact. The question is whether we’re going to be able to overcome that impact. We won recent elections not because there wasn’t voter suppression, but because we were able to out-organize it.”

Our future focus needs to be preparing voters to work around the new voting requirements and channeling our advocacy efforts to demand transparency in advance of the upcoming special redistricting session later this year. SB 202 was only part one of Republicans rigging elections. Redistricting will be part two.