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State lawmakers representing Newton set to begin 2021 session Monday
Changes to absentee voting likely to take center stage this year as three new legislators begin terms

Half of Newton County’s legislative delegation will begin the 2021 session on a learning curve for their new jobs.

They also will begin their legislative careers as the Georgia General Assembly seeks to reestablish a sense of normalcy after a chaotic 2020 session that safety concerns surrounding COVID-19 delayed for months.

The other half of the county's delegation includes the sole returning House member, District 112 State Rep. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead; and both its senators, District 17 State Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, and District 43 State Sen. Tonya Anderson, D-Lithonia.

Belton is beginning his fourth term. His district includes northern, eastern and southeastern Newton County and all of Morgan County.

He said he believed the General Assembly this year will focus on changes to tighten election laws to require more identification to receive an absentee ballot in response to the controversy surrounding fraud allegations in 2020.

Absentee voting allows the voter to make choices on a paper ballot and mail or bring it to an election office. Its use significantly increased in 2020 in response to fears about the spread of COVID-19 in Georgia.

Belton said lawmakers want to address how to better secure the absentee system, which only requires a signature for verification of a voter’s identity.

In-person voting on a machine requires the voter to show a photo ID and match a signature to cast a ballot.

He said many constituents in his two-county district told him they believed suspected absentee ballot fraud tainted the 2020 elections.

“I’ve received thousands of emails about this — people are very furious,” Belton said. 

He said the General Assembly may consider Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s request to end no-excuse absentee ballot applications.

A Republican-controlled General Assembly changed state law in 2005 to allow the method of voting, which allows Georgians to request to vote by absentee ballot even if the voter is not challenged physically or by age or geography.

House Speaker David Ralston, however, said he does not favor changes to no-excuse absentee ballot requests.

Belton also said he does not foresee lawmakers in 2021 changing the way the Secretary of State is chosen because such an act would require a referendum to change the state constitution.

Ralston had suggested the General Assembly, not voters, choose the Secretary of State in the wake of the controversies surrounding Georgia’s election system and criticism of Raffensperger. 

President Donald Trump and members of his own party sharply criticized Raffensperger, who is a Republican, and both U.S. senators called for him to resign in 2020 for not addressing alleged voter fraud Trump said led to his defeat in Georgia. 

No hard evidence has been found to substantiate any claims of fraud in the absentee ballot system.

Also during the 2021 session, Belton said he also foresaw lawmakers working to approve the remaining money needed for $2,000 teacher pay raises Gov. Brian Kemp promised in his gubernatorial campaign after lawmakers approved only half of the amount needed last year.

Three freshmen House of Representatives members representing parts of Newton County who were elected Nov. 3 will join Belton, Strickland and Anderson in being sworn in to new terms Monday, Jan. 11, at the State Capitol in Atlanta.

They include District 113 State Rep.-elect Sharon Henderson, D-Covington; District 109 State Rep.-elect Regina Lewis-Ward, D-McDonough; and District 110 State Rep.-elect Clint Crowe, R-Jackson.

Henderson, who is the only Newton County resident in the delegation, defeated five-term incumbent Rep. Pam Dickerson in the June Democratic Primary for the District 113 seat. 

Henderson’s district covers part of northwestern Newton County.

Lewis-Ward defeated four-term incumbent Republican Dale Rutledge for the District 109 seat in the General Election. District 109 includes part of western Newton County

Crowe defeated Democrat Ebony Carter for the District 110 seat in the General Election after incumbent Andrew Welch did not seek re-election. District 110 includes southwestern and western Newton County.