Collins pushes back on criticism of voting reforms

State Rep. J. Collins answers the phone in his office at his family-owned funeral home in Villa Rica earlier this year.

Usually, what goes on every year under the Gold Dome in Atlanta does not raise much interest outside Georgia, but that wasn’t true during the past session of the General Assembly.

From a controversial overhaul in the state’s voting law to the state’s emergence as a battleground state — with some Republicans in a circular firing squad — the eyes of the nation were focused on this year’s session.

State Rep. J. Collins, who represents the 68th House District, was among the lawmakers who worked under this scrutiny. On Wednesday, Collins pushed back against the criticism his fellow Republicans faced both inside and outside the state on the Legislature’s revision of the absentee voter law.

Senate Bill 202

The 98-page bill, signed by Gov. Brian Kemp immediately after it was passed, adds new ID requirements for absentee voting, codifies how drop boxes should be used to collect absentee ballots, and makes other changes that critics say undermine voting access in the state.

Collins, who sits on the House Governmental Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over state election law, said that Senate Bill 202 “is not going to disenfranchise anyone.”

“Elections bills happen each and every General Assembly because it’s a process, and we’re trying to make the process more fair, and open, and transparent,” Collins said. “Election law is just not something that you can pass and don’t touch; it’s something that has to be refined continuously.”

He pointed out that between 2003 and 2020, the legislature passed 59 election bills.

Collins said that the unusual circumstances of the 2020 election season required another review of the state’s absentee voting procedure, which was altered by order of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger so that voters could avoid crowded polling places in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

New requirements affecting voter IDs for absentee ballots have especially come in for criticism. Some believe they are aimed at the minority voters in Georgia’s more urban counties, whose combined votes gave the state to eventual presidential winner Joe Biden and elected two Democrats to the U.S. Senate.

“If you look back over the last 10 or 12 years or so, where Georgia has required a voting ID, minority participation in voting has increased. It has not decreased,” Collins said. “That’s the evidence from our own state, not from another state; that’s not forecast, that is proven. Minority participation in elections has gone up since Georgia has implemented voting ID.”

Republican civil war

The 2020 presidential election and the January run-off races were particularly rancorous among Republicans. Former President Trump leveled accusations against Kemp and Raffensperger, both fellow Republicans, that they had failed to investigate allegations of voter fraud. These allegations proved to be untrue.

The split in the party between Trump loyalists and the state’s GOP leadership is largely seen as the reason for both incumbent Republican U.S. Senate candidates failing to win, a failure that handed control of the Senate to Democrats.

“It is concerning that the party is somewhat fragmented,” said Collins. “But, I’m hopeful that by the time next year rolls around, we can find more that unites us and rally behind some good candidates to lead the state.”

In 2022, Kemp and Raffensperger are expected to seek re-election, and they already face likely primary challengers from within their own party. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan’s term is also expiring, and multiple news agencies were reporting Thursday that he would not seek re-election after months of criticizing Trump and his allies’ role in the elections.

The close win by Biden over Trump — as well as 2018’s close election between Kemp and Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams — is proof to some that Georgia is now a battleground state, and that means that the interest by outsiders in the state’s politics is likely to intensify.

“That’s the thing that concerns me more than anything, is the outside influences, the outside money, the outside forces that are converging on Georgia,” Collins said. “There’s a lot of so-called dark money with these PACs out there. And, you know, Georgia is going to be a battleground. And that’s always concerning. Conservatives need to learn how to stick together.”

While the state’s top GOP leadership was busy defending themselves from national Republicans, Collins said there was no rancor among his party in the House.

“I can tell you that I think the House Republican caucus was as strong as it’s ever been, was as united as it’s ever been,” he said “I was very proud of the way that we stuck together.”

‘Defunding’ police

Other external political dramas also played out in the Legislature, among them the national debate on police conduct. Although no major Democratic candidate in 2020 ran on a platform of “defunding the police,” Georgia House Bill 286 — co-sponsored by Collins — precludes a city or county government from doing so.

The bill prohibits local governments from cutting their public safety budget by more than 5% unless those governments lack the revenue to fund those agencies at their current level. Should a local government find itself in the position of considering such extreme budget cuts, Collins said other items should be sacrificed first.

“Government has to identify wants and needs, and public safety — specifically police departments and sheriff’s office and those who are tasked in protecting us — those are not some of the areas that need to be cut. There are a lot of other areas that should be cut first.”

Instead of defunding police agencies, some advocates call for increased investment in responders who can deal the kinds of mental health crises to which police officers often respond and which some critics say they are untrained to handle.

“I’ve always been an advocate for cross-training,” Collins said. “There’s no reason why our officers can’t be trained to recognize some of these mental health issues and to help deal with those and triage those on the front side. So, to me, it would be hypocritical to take away from those officers’ training ability to be able to respond adequately and efficiently to some of the mental health issues that they have to deal with.”

Crime in Atlanta

At the start of the session, Collins was assigned by House Speaker David Ralston to serve as chairman of the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, his first leadership role since he was elected representative in 2017.

Toward the end of the session, Ralston asked him to chair a special committee tasked with looking at crime in Atlanta, writing Mayo Keisha Lance Bottoms to say that “the public believes the city is losing the battle when it comes to protecting its citizens.”

Collins said he and his fellow committee members hope to start holding hearings after taking a break following the marathon legislative session. Collins said he anticipates calling the special committee together in May for an organizational meeting and then starting to hold hearings in June or later in the summer.

Redistricting

Toward the end of the year, legislators will meet in a special session to discuss redistricting in the state. Collins said that he has every intention of running again — but he doesn’t know what the 68th District will look like.

The pandemic has delayed the results of the 2020 Census, population data that will be used to re-draw the state’s legislative districts. The goal of redistricting is to ensure citizens are represented equally, but population shifts in the decade since the 2010 census may significantly change the boundaries of those districts.

Collins noted that some of the precincts in the 68th District — which includes northeastern Carroll and southern Douglas counties — have shown themselves to favor Democrats, while the rest have been overwhelmingly Republican.

Villa Rica, Collins’ hometown, has exploded in population over the past decade. In 2010, the population was just below 14,000; today, it is estimated to be over 17,000.

If the re-drawn 68th district includes Villa Rica, Collins is prepared to run again, but “I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch.”

“Depending on how much population has grown, I might lose some of Douglas, I might gain some of Carroll. So, it sure is going to depend on those census numbers.”