ATLANTA - Georgia’s elections chief is gathering a group of law enforcement officials and elections experts to look at cracking down on mail-in ballot fraud with more voters poised to cast absentee ballots in the upcoming May 19 primaries due to coronavirus. 

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger also reiterated Monday he believes he does not have legal authority to change the date of the primaries amid the deadly respiratory virus unless Gov. Brian Kemp or state lawmakers take certain actions allowing him to do so. 

The new advisory body aims to set up rules for investigating cases of signature mismatches on absentee ballots and instances when multiple votes are mailed from a single address, Raffensperger said. It will also create rules for investigating cases in which a person registers to vote using an address that is not their physical home address such as a P.O. box, he said. 

Raffensperger said the group will work with his office’s in-house investigators and include elections experts, district attorneys and solicitors general. He did not have a list of members ready Monday but said they would be “well-respected people” with “the capability and the experience to make the appropriate decisions.” 

“Those who wish to take advantage of us in these troubling times and undermine the strength of democracy in Georgia should be forewarned,” Raffensperger said at a news conference Monday. “Actions that delegitimize the integrity of the vote in Georgia will not be tolerated.”

State Democratic party leaders panned the announcement Monday, calling it “state sponsored voter intimidation” catering to unsubstantiated fears of absentee fraud. 

“There is no empirical evidence that voter fraud is a legitimate issue in Georgia,” said Scott Hogan, executive director of the Democratic Party of Georgia. 

“The best use of the Secretary of State's time and resources is to continue ensuring that every single Georgia voter, regardless of who they are or who they’re voting for, is able to receive and cast their vote by mail ballot without fear for their health or safety," Hogan said. 

As coronavirus continues sweeping across Georgia and the U.S., Raffensperger’s office has started sending out request forms for absentee ballots to all roughly 7 million of the state’s registered voters. That decision came as many county poll workers signaled they would not show up on Election Day for fear of coming into contact with the highly infectious virus. 

Previously, Raffensperger pushed the March 24 presidential primary back to May 19, coinciding with state and local party primaries. He has been under pressure from influential Republican lawmakers, including state House Speaker David Ralston and all 11 of the Georgia’s congressional Republicans, to postpone the primaries a second time to mid-June.

 Ralston, in letters sent late last month, urged Raffensperger to reschedule the primaries in the interest of protecting the health and safety of in-person voters and precinct poll workers. Poll workers on average are older adults more susceptible to the harmful effects of COVID-19.

 Raffensperger countered that state law does not allow him to change the presidential primary a second time or delay local and state primaries since the governor’s state of emergency – which grants Raffensperger authority to move the primaries – ends on April 13.

 He said the General Assembly could convene to change state law or the governor could extend his emergency declaration. Either way, Raffensperger said he would defer to what top state officials want.

 “At the present time, we don’t have the lawful authority to move the election because of the expiration of the emergency declaration by the governor,” Raffensperger said Monday.

Even so, the legislative counsel for the General Assembly last week reasoned that Raffensperger in fact could delay the primaries now, without any action needed from lawmakers or the governor.

A letter signed by Deputy Legislative Counsel Jeff Lanier notes that state law does not explicitly limit emergency election postponements to one time only, and that an overlapping federal emergency declaration now in place for a year would also give Raffensperger authority to make the delay.

Meanwhile, state Democratic leaders have pushed to keep the May 19 primary date as is. State Sen. Nikema Williams, who chairs the state Democratic party, said holding the primary then would ensure the right to vote for Georgians.

In a news release last week, Williams and the state party called for the state to pay the costs of postage for mail-in ballots and to continue mailing absentee ballot request forms for elections beyond the May 19 contest.

“Rather than delaying the vote, it is critical that the state expand vote-by-mail and make it accessible for more voters,” Williams, D-Atlanta, said in a statement.

Raffensperger, a Republican, came under fire from Democratic officials late last year for removing thousands of Georgia voters from the voter rolls. These were voters who had not participated in the last three elections, had moved to a new address or had their mail returned as undeliverable.

Raffensperger’s office stressed the removal action was required by state law and that persons on the removal list were sent notices advising them how to halt the proceedings. But the move came on the heels of controversy surrounding Kemp, who as secretary of state at the time he ran for governor in 2018 had previously removed voters from the rolls.

Speaking Monday, Raffensperger sought to assure the absentee-ballot fraud group will act as a buffer against illegal elections activity during an unprecedented time when millions of Georgians are poised to vote by mail as coronavirus deters many people from visiting local precincts on Election Day. 

“We really want to make sure that we have the most robust and appropriate rolls to ensure that everyone’s vote counts once, that it’s accurate and that troublemakers can’t do things that don’t abide by that principle of one person, one vote,” Raffensperger said.

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