Gov. Brian Kemp says he doesn’t believe he has the power to order a delay in Georgia’s May 19 party primary elections under the current state of emergency.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger at first reiterated his position Wednesday that he doesn’t have the power to further delay the presidential primary, originally set for March 24. But he appeared to soften that stance in a statement he released hours later as Georgia grappled with the new coronavirus pandemic.

The statements come amid mounting pressure from other elected officials to put off the voting, in which Georgians are supposed to vote for nominees for president, U.S. senator, U.S. House, the state House and Senate and other offices.

“The attorneys that I’ve talked to, I don’t have the authority under this order to delay an election,” Kemp told reporters outside the state capitol.

The presidential primary was already pushed back more than the 45 days foreseen in state law, with officials reasoning early voting would resume within 45 days ahead of the May 19 election.

“We’ve tried to concisely say that I execute elections, I don’t create them,” Raffensperger said in a phone interview Wednesday with The Associated Press. “If the leadership of the General Assembly and the governor wants to hold the election on May 19, we will support them and do our best to make it happen efficiently safely and accurately. If they want to move the election to June or July, we’re going to support that also.”

But later Thursday, he seemed to say that if Kemp extends the state public health emergency past its April 13 deadline, Raffensperger might be able to act on his own.

“We continue to monitor the situation with county elections officials,” he said. “If and when the Governor extends the state of emergency, that’s when we can reevaluate the situation and move the election.”

Raffensperger expressed surprise at the letter that Georgia’s two U.S. senators and nine fellow Republican U.S. House members signed Wednesday urging a delay, saying he had a conference call with U.S. House members on Friday “and we went through the whole process.” He said he was “probably even more surprised” that the officials circulated their letter publicly on Wednesday night before he received it Thursday morning.

The state Democratic Party on Wednesday said it wants the May 19 vote to go forward, but called on Raffensperger to make it easier for people to vote by mail. Democrats want the state to pay for postage for voters to mail in absentee ballot applications that Raffensperger started sending out Monday to 6.9 million active voters. They argued that going out to buy stamps is a “significant barrier” and a possible health risk.

Mailing absentee ballot applications and then actual absentee ballots to those who respond is expected to cost millions of dollars.

Democrats also want the state to automatically send out ballot applications for remaining elections in 2020, which would include a July 21 runoff, the Nov. 3 presidential election, and possibly a Jan. 5 runoff for a U.S. Senate special election. Democrats have previously called on Raffensperger to send ballots to the state’s 370,000 inactive voters and to streamline the process for newly registering voters to get mail ballots.

Georgia Democrats could lose half their delegates to the Democratic National Convention, set for July 13 to 16 in Milwaukee, if the election is delayed into June. Party rules say primaries must be held by June 9 and delegates named by June 20. DNC officials have said parties must seek waivers if they vote later.

General shot of the Georgia State Capitol. (Photo: Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice)
General shot of the Georgia State Capitol. (Photo: Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice)

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