Lowering taxes? Of course. Improving education? Absolutely. Reducing crime? For sure.

But missing from the lists of legislative priorities of Coastal Georgia lawmakers in the upcoming session of the Georgia General Assembly has been any mention of two hot-button issues that could drop on their desks: election reform and legalizing sports betting and casino gambling

At a recent legislative preview on Skidaway Island, Sen. Ben Watson (District 1) and Rep. Jesse Petrea (District 166) indicated they had no stomach for another legislative brawl over voting and the election system.

When two members of the audience criticized what they said were the failures and weaknesses of the voting system, the two lawmakers, both Republicans, didn’t respond with pledges to return to the legislative trenches for another fight about voting. 

Legalizing gambling? The issue didn’t even come up.

But Georgia’s legislature is still likely to take up this pair of highly controversial issues when it convenes Jan. 9 for 40 days of debate and horse trading. 

Both Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and grassroots Republicans want changes in Georgia’s voting laws. And Rep. Ron Stephens (District 164), who introduced legislation legalizing gambling in the last session, said yesterday he’s set to do it again.  

Continued skepticism about voting system

On Georgia’s electoral system, vocal factions in Republican circles up and down the coast are still demanding the scrapping of Georgia’s Dominion voting system and a return to paper ballots.

Even though there were no reports of widespread irregularities or fraud in the process that culminated in the victories of the GOP in nearly all statewide races, among these Republicans, the conviction endures that the 2020 election was stolen from the GOP and Donald Trump. There’s also the widely held belief that the state’s voting system is rigged against Republicans and especially, conservative ones.

That continued skepticism about the state’s voting system is evidenced by continued challenges to the 2020 vote, one of which was brought by lieutenant governor candidate Jeanne Seaver and four Chatham County residents.

The secretary of state’s office recently advised Seaver that eight instances of alleged election violations in Chatham were being referred to the state attorney general for further investigation and possible prosecution.

‘False claims about our elections’

Meanwhile, prominent members of both of the state’s main political parties aren’t happy with the electoral system, either.

On the GOP side of the aisle, Raffensperger continues to be mistrusted by many of Coastal Georgia Republicans for his refusal to go along with Trump’s claims of election fraud in 2020.

But he cracked open the door to a renewed legislative fight about the electoral system during the U.S. Senate runoff between Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker when he barred Georgia counties from allowing voting on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously disagreed with him, and the voting went ahead, providing Warnock with a meaty talking point about voter suppression that he used in the waning days of the runoff campaign to urge voters to go to the polls.

The secretary of state then crashed through the door last week when he urged lawmakers to eliminate its general election runoff after previously defending the practice in 2020 and again earlier this year.

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend entitled, “Raphael Warnock, Election Denier,” Raffensperger then took aim at the newly reelected senator.

“I have to spend a lot of time shooting down false claims about our elections in Georgia,” he wrote. “Usually they come from losers. But sometimes even victorious candidates make false claims about our elections.”

Warnock fired back at the state’s top election official yesterday, saying that voter suppression is still an issue in Georgia, despite record voter turnout.

“The fact that people have had to overcome barriers doesn’t mean those barriers don’t exist,” he said on “CBS Mornings.”

To top off what’s likely to be yet another clash over the state’s voting system, the State Election Board voted unanimously last week to ask legislators to create a program to distribute outside election money donated by nonprofit groups to improve voting processes.

Gambling in Georgia: Has its time come?

Efforts to legalize sports betting and casino gambling have failed in the past two legislative sessions, despite strong support from the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League and the National Basketball Association’s Atlanta Hawks.

But their time may now have come, after years of efforts by some members of the assembly, led by Stephens, to get them legalized. 

It was Stephens who, in the last legislative session, introduced legislation to amend the state’s constitution to make both activities legal and to create the Georgia Sports Betting Commission, which would be in charge of managing an online sports wagering system.

For the amendment to pass, it first must be approved by two-thirds of the membership of the Georgia House and Senate, respectively, before going to the state’s voters.

Gov. Brian Kemp has opposed gaming in Georgia, but his Democratic opponent in last month’s election, Stacey Abrams, supported it as part of her economic vision for the state, viewing it as a source of funds to finance education initiatives.

That support may give the Republican governor the political cover he needs — and the political cover Stephens wants — to change the state’s constitution and usher in gaming.

Stephens said that the new legislative session is ushering in some significant changes that may affect the fate of gambling legislation. House Speaker David Ralston was “all in” on the legislation during the last session, but he died last month. Where his successor, Effingham County’s Jon Burns, stands on the issue isn’t clear, Stephens said. 

Poised to fight the legalization of gambling is a broad coalition of groups, including the Georgia Baptist Mission Board and arts and culture organizations. But they face a formidable foe in the gambling industry, whose efforts to sway state legislatures and institute gaming across the U.S. are well-funded and savvy.

In a webinar last week sponsored by Georgians for the Arts to discuss the legislature’s upcoming session, the president and CEO of Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, Allan Vella, said past gaming legislation proposed in the Georgia legislature poses a threat to entertainment venues like his.

The legislation insisted that the gaming organizations build entertainment venues, he said. But casinos use entertainment and the arts as a loss leader to drive traffic to their casino floor, imperiling the survival of arts and culture organizations statewide.

Vella said he anticipated gambling legislation to be introduced in the legislature next year. When it does, he said, it will be a challenge for the Georgia Arts & Venue Coalition, a group that Vella and other arts and culture officials established to educate legislators about the effects of the gaming industry on the arts and music.

“At one time the casinos had approximately 50 lobbyists employed, and we had our whopping two. It was very much a David-and-Goliath situation.”

The Tide brings observations and notes from The Current staff.

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...