James Jan-Feb 2021 web - Flipbook - Page 44
year 2020 was just odd. Its remnants will be felt
the 2021 General Assembly session, as policymakers and especially the Republican leadership continue to
grapple with the COVID-19 virus, election policies highlighted by the 2020 election and the forthcoming census results.
In 2020 the General Assembly passed legislation aimed
at protecting businesses from COVID-19 based lawsuits.
Those protections are set to expire for injuries that occur
on or after July 14, 2021, so there is reason to believe legislators will seek to extend those protections. Learning from
Georgia’s experiences, some may also seek to amend or add
to the state’s tools needed to combat future pandemics and
public health emergencies.
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Since at least 2018, unsuccessful candidates and interest groups have filed a flurry of legal challenges to Georgia’s
election laws. In full disclosure, this author represented or still
represents the state in many such lawsuits. Some claims addressed separate issues like the time frame voters have to return their absentee ballots. Others, like the lawsuit Democrat
Stacey Abrams filed after choosing not to concede the 2018
gubernatorial race, challenge the entire system. But virtually
all have been unsuccessful since the General Assembly enacted HB 316 in 2019.
Georgia law has withstood challenges ranging from absentee ballot deadlines, to voter list maintenance practices, to
the decision not to pay postage for absentee ballot requests,
and more. Georgia’s new voting technology has also withstood
judicial scrutiny despite common arguments being made by
critics, on the left and the right, about potential hacking and
ghosts in the machines.
But the judiciary is only one branch of government, and in
the wake of the 2020 election some have made clear they want
to revisit the issue. Focus appears to be on absentee ballots, as
Georgia has some of the most generous absentee ballot policies
in the nation-- both in terms of what kinds of individuals can
vote absentee (currently, everyone) and how early the process
begins. Other states— both blue and red— have tighter restrictions on how early absentee ballots can be cast, who can request them, where absentee ballots can be physically dropped
off (the “drop boxes”), and whether there needs to be a specific
reason to vote absentee. Other potential changes to Georgia’s
elections could focus on how and when counties begin counting votes, as other states have reexamined those policies in
recent years. Some may seek to create a larger role for the state
in election administration, because counties currently administer the bulk of Georgia’s election laws. The only thing that is
assured is that any change will likely be challenged in court,
which seems to be the new normal.
Until a 2019 Supreme Court decision, federal law prohibited
sports betting outside of Nevada. Since then, many states have
enacted laws to allow for sports betting, including Georgia’s
neighbors in Tennessee and North Carolina. Other states are
considering enacting legislation to follow suit. Members of the
General Assembly heard arguments regarding sports betting
in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to scuttle much
of the debate. It will likely return this year, as the potential state
revenue generated from sports wagering remains an alluring
prospect for policymakers having to do more with still less.
Questions that will arise may focus on who administers
sports wagering (e.g., the Lottery Corporation or a new entity), how Georgians will be able to place bets (e.g., on a phone
or physical locations only), what are the specific sports where
betting will remain prohibited, and what type of bets will be
allowed. There will also be division over how to split the proceeds of any new sports wagering program.
Whatever happens during the first session, the second
session of 2021 may be the most important. After the results
of the 2020 census are made public, legislators will need to
redraw (and possibly add) congressional districts, and the
districts for every member of the General Assembly and the
Public Service Commission. Republicans will once again be
in charge, having solidified their legislative majorities in 2020.
The last maps drawn by the Democrats included multi-member districts and were held unconstitutional by the courts. Republican maps were approved by the Obama Justice Department. If the United States Senate becomes fully Democratic
controlled, then legislation may be enacted to restore federal
scrutiny to the reapportionment process.
All in all, COVID-19 and the 2020 election will cast significant shadows on the 2021 legislative session. Given that
lawmakers are assured of a return in the summer or fall to
draw new maps, one might expect the session to end quickly.
But, given the remaining prevalence of the COVID-19 virus,
all bets on timing and process are off.
Attorney Josh Belinfante is a partner at Robbins Ross Alloy Belinfante
Littlefield LLC in Atlanta.
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