Georgia Dems take gambling hostage over GOP voting bills

February 26, 2021 3:15 AM
  • Associated Press
February 26, 2021 3:15 AM
  • Associated Press

Angered by a blitz of Republican-backed legislation that would roll back voting access, Georgia Democrats are taking hostages – withholding their support on pieces of legislation that need bipartisan backing to pass.

The first potential casualty appears to be a House bill that would legalize online sports betting. The bill was set to receive a vote on the House floor Thursday but was pulled at the last minute.

Conversations with House Democrats revealed the reason why the bill didn’t get a vote: They withdrew support because of GOP efforts to enact restrictive voting laws.

“If we’ve got leverage, it’s time to use it,” said House Minority Leader James Beverly, a Democrat from Macon. Beverly acknowledged that the strategy would only work on issues where Republicans, who hold the majority of seats in the state House and Senate, are divided and Democrats’ votes are needed for passage.

But Beverly said there were two more potential instances where Democrats could torpedo a measure.

Dozens of bills have been introduced by Republicans in Georgia so far this year that, collectively, could drastically curtail voting access. Proposals have been introduced, and in some cases are moving forward, that would limit early voting, require a photo ID for absentee voting, restrict who could vote absentee and ban ballot drop boxes, among many other changes.

Democrats and voting rights groups say the bills are a reaction to President Donald Trump’s lies about election fraud and would disproportionately affect Black voters, who helped fuel recent Democratic victories in the state.

Rep. Ron Stephens, a Republican from Savannah, is the chief sponsor of House Bill 86, which would legalize sports betting in Georgia and bring it under the umbrella of the Georgia Lottery. Stephens did not immediately respond to a text and phone message requesting comment.

The bill likely needs bipartisan support to pass the House, as some conservative and religious factions of the GOP have long opposed gambling expansion. It was on the House Rules calendar for Thursday, meaning that it was supposed to come up for a floor vote. But it was officially postponed.

Bishop Reginald Jackson, who presides over more than 400 African Methodist Episcopal churches in Georgia, has been strategizing with Democratic leaders about how to give teeth to opposition toward the Republican-backed voting bills.

“If they’re going to try to hurt us at the ballot box, then we need to hurt them with this legislation and not support it,” Jackson said in a recent interview.

Democrats put that strategy into action Thursday.

“It’s happening,” said Rep. Carl Gilliard, a Garden City Democrat. “We’ve got some things to talk about, and I told Chairman Stephens that.”

Copyright Associated Press