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Georgia GOP representatives who defied Trump support voting bills.

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Georgia GOP representatives who defied Trump support voting bills.

 

Last fall, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger received widespread praise for defying then-President Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud. However, now that those allegations have sparked a push to tighten voting laws — a move that could jeopardize their political prospects — the two Republicans are taking a softer stance.

Both men have stated their support for Georgia Republicans’ efforts to enact an ID requirement for absentee voting, which would eliminate the state’s signature matching system, which Trump has repeatedly criticized.

Their positions show how important restricting access to the ballot box has become in the GOP agenda, even among those who have publicly denied allegations of electoral fraud or theft.

However, it also highlights the complex politics that Republicans face when they consider how far they can go to achieve that goal. While the bills being pushed in Georgia and several other states have the support of a Trump-supporting GOP base, they risk provoking Democratic backlash and making it more difficult for GOP voters to vote.

That’s a double threat for Raffensperger and Kemp, who are both up for reelection in a state where Democrats are gaining ground.

Kemp, Raffensperger, and their aides are secretly negotiating with Republican lawmakers on reforms to absentee and early voting that they hope would strike a reasonable balance. That could mean dropping or at least softening some of the Republican-led General Assembly’s proposals, such as repealing an automatic voter registration law and prohibiting early voting on Sundays, ostensibly to put an end to Black churches’ “souls to the polls” voter drives.

However, Republican leaders have been wary of openly opposing any single bill. “I believe it should be simple to vote and difficult to cheat,” Kemp said on Wednesday, reiterating a campaign slogan from his time as Secretary of State.

Even after he mailed ballot applications to every registered voter in Georgia last spring as the coronavirus pandemic upended primary elections, Raffensperger has tacitly aligned himself with Republicans who question voting by mail. In an interview with Georgia Public Broadcasting, he said, “I’ve always had some concerns about absentee ballots.”

Raffensperger has stated that he supports requiring voter identification for absentee ballot submissions and opposes no-excuse absentee voting, a proposal that has been met with opposition from some Republicans. In 2020, more than 1 million Georgians voted absentee, accounting for more than a fifth of the electorate.

Even, it’s unclear if it would be enough to win over Trump supporters who blame Raffensperger for standing up to the former president when he attempted to overthrow the people’s will.

Raffensperger maintained that the election was correct and equal, while Trump challenged Democrat Joe Biden’s win in Georgia. He wrote an op-ed in which he said he felt “thrown under the bus” by a president he had voted for. A Raffensperger aide predicted the president’s rhetoric would lead to violence weeks before the Jan. 6 insurgency at the US Capitol. A recording of Trump and Raffensperger’s conversation was leaked to the media, allowing the public to hear Trump pressuring Raffensperger and his office to “dig 11,000+ votes” to overturn Biden’s victory.

Kemp, who was much less confrontational, was the one who had to officially certify Trump’s defeat. And he succeeded.

According to Debbie Dooley, a tea party activist and Trump supporter, the two Republicans’ support for voting rule reforms now would not reverse the harm already done.

“Brad Raffensperger could come back from the dead and cure people and yet lose next year. He’s done. Kemp has completed his work, according to Dooley. “The establishment is completely unaware of how influential Trump is with the general public. People will make them pay, and I can assure you that Donald Trump will go after Brian Kemp.”

Indeed, Trump released a statement on Thursday blaming Kemp for his loss, accusing him of “failing to stand up to Stacey Abrams,” the voting rights advocate Kemp defeated in 2018. She is also the most likely Democratic candidate in 2022, and she has painted Kemp as the leader of a concerted campaign to eliminate Black Georgians’ votes for years.

Lauren Groh-Wargo, who directed Abrams’ campaign and now leads her Fair Fight group, said, “We and our allies are monitoring all of this” with an eye on future litigation. “But we’re still preparing for 2022 as if we won’t be able to avoid all of this,” she says.

Kemp is particularly troubled by the political dynamics.

In a 2018 Republican primary, Trump endorsed Kemp. Even as a long-serving elected official, Kemp was successful in framing himself as an underdog candidate, similar to Trump, and he used his agricultural heritage, complete with advertising featuring his old pickup truck, to link with the same cultural conservatives who backed Trump in 2016.

Kemp has never opposed Trump and has said that if he runs for president again in 2024, he will support him. Throughout the certification process, Kemp insisted that he was just following the rule, which allowed him to ratify Biden’s Electoral College slate.

Nonetheless, Kemp had already alienated Trump’s base by nominating Republican Kelly Loeffler to fill a vacancy in the Senate in early 2020, rather than Rep. Doug Collins, who had been one of Trump’s most ardent supporters on Capitol Hill. Loeffler ended up losing her Senate runoff election by a larger margin than Republican Sen. David Perdue, indicating a drop-off in Republican support.

Kemp and Raffensperger, according to senior GOP aides, are meeting with key legislators separately as the state legislature considers its options. The end product is supposed to be made up of two large bills and a slew of others.

The House version, which passed on a party-line vote on Monday, would mandate photo identification for absentee voting and restrict the number of weekend days counties would hold early voting, among other adjustments. Only veterans, people with disabilities, and people who would be out of town will be allowed to vote absentee under the Senate bill. That would put an end to no-excuse mail voting, which was enacted by a Republican-controlled legislature in 2005.

Raffensperger’s office has fought against ideas that they feel are unconstitutional. He was successful in getting a House amendment passed that would allow counties to hold one day of early voting on a Sunday instead of the proposed ban.

Republican aides say the governor’s office is considering forming a negotiating committee to work out a deal between the two houses. That scenario could provide Kemp with his best chance to form a version that he likes and that Republican legislators can’t help but support.

Republican Senate Leader Mike Dugan, who is almost likely to be a member of the negotiating committee, predicted that the bill would receive widespread Republican support in the end. He said, “We should get there.” “All you have to do is wait. Let’s see what happens.”

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