By Mark Niesse | Atlanta Journal-Constitution | April 3, 2020

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston said earlier this week that heavy use of voting by mail would hurt Republican candidates.

But on Thursday, Ralston said he meant that widespread absentee voting in the May primary could lead to election fraud, a concern frequently raised by Republicans.

Ralston’s original comments riled civil rights groups who said he was opposing voting access to benefit his political party’s candidates. He had said in an interview that heavy reliance on voting by mail “will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives.”

Ralston said Thursday that everyone should vote in Georgia’s primary, but mainly at polling places after the coronavirus subsides. He wants the May 19 primary to be postponed until June.

Every active voter in Georgia is being mailed an absentee ballot request form, an accommodation by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for voters to avoid human contact at the polls. Voters who return the absentee ballot request form will then receive an actual ballot for the Democratic or Republican primary on May 19.

Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, said he’s concerned that so many absentee ballots create the potential for voting fraud.

“It’s really not a question about higher turnout,” Ralston said Thursday. “It’s just that the election needs to be secure and it must have integrity. If it doesn’t, I think our chances obviously are problematic.”

No Republicans are in danger of losing to Democrats in May’s election because it’s a primary. Republicans won’t face Democrats until the general election in November.

Ralston’s concern about voting by mail is broader. If the May primary sets a precedent, more voters may demand absentee ballots in future elections. About 7% of Georgia voters cast absentee-by-mail ballots in the 2018 general election, a number that will likely skyrocket in the primary.

Raffensperger, a Republican, said absentee voting is necessary to protect the health of Georgians. He said he will aggressively investigate voter fraud allegations in the May 19 primary.

"If Speaker Ralston believes that the COVID-19 situation is not going to lead to a huge increase in voters who prefer to exercise their long-existing right to vote absentee in this election, no matter if it is in May or June, then he is showing that he is completely out of touch with the situation on the ground in Georgia,” Raffensperger said Friday.

Ralston’s comments earlier this week echoed President Donald Trump, who criticized proposals by Democrats for changes in elections such as increased voting by mail and same-day voter registration.

“They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” Trump said Monday on “Fox & Friends.”

Fraud is rare in Georgia elections, but Ralston said voting by mail is less secure than voting in person. He said opponents of Republican candidates could conduct “ballot harvesting,” where people could collect and mail in absentee ballots to defeat his party.

The same problem could face Democratic candidates.

A Georgia law passed last year prohibits ballot harvesting. Only voters, their family members or people living in their households are allowed to mail their absentee ballots, according to House Bill 316.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia said the election should continue in May with absentee-by mail voting.

“Our democracy must not be a victim of this pandemic,” said Andrea Young, executive director for the ACLU of Georgia. “It is deeply troubling when politicians openly admit that they want fewer people to vote so that they can win elections.”

Any voter in Georgia has been allowed to request an absentee ballot without having to provide an excuse since 2005.

What’s different this year is Raffensperger’s initiative to send absentee ballot request forms to 6.9 million voters, making it easier for them to participate in the primary.

Besides his concern about fraud, Ralston also said that legislators should have been able to decide on expanded absentee voting before it was unilaterally implemented by Raffensperger in response to the coronavirus.

The Georgia General Assembly is unable to weigh in because it’s suspended during the public health crisis.