Georgia Lt. Gov. On COVID-19, The State's Hate Crimes Bill And Voting Access

Jun 25, 2020
Originally published on June 26, 2020 11:11 am

The state of Georgia is juggling three crises: a rising number of COVID-19 cases, problems with voting access as the general election approaches, and the killings of two Black men, Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks.

Georgia hit a record high of new confirmed cases this week. But Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan says he stands by the decision to begin opening up the state at the end of April.

"You can't just open a book and see exactly what to do and when to do it," he tells NPR's Ari Shapiro on All Things Considered. "This continues to be so valuable, for individuals to practice social distancing to the best of their abilities, to set up best practices inside of businesses. We're going to continue to take great strides in that direction."

The state is also reckoning with the deaths of Arbery, who was chased by three white men and fatally shot while jogging in South Georgia in February, and Brooks, who was shot and killed by Atlanta police in June.

In the aftermath, Georgia state lawmakers met to push for a hate crimes law. The bill passed the state legislature on Tuesday and now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp, who has indicated his support. Georgia is one of only handful of states that currently does not have such legislation on the books.

Earlier this month, many Georgia voters encountered long lines and delays during the primary election on June 9, due to logistical problems and technical issues that seemed to disproportionately affect Black voters.

Duncan discusses the state's urgency to find solutions to these crises in tandem.


Interview Highlights

On how the state should address the rise in coronavirus cases

I think we continue to make sure that we understand hot spots. I think that was a huge lesson learned by all 50 states. But we know that when we flood the zone with messaging, with PPE, with hospital resources and ventilators and all of the other tools and resources that we've learned over the past three months, that that absolutely is an imperative step.

On why it took so long to pass a hate crimes bill, and why he pushed for it now

Certainly there is a sense of urgency. The absolute tragedies that have played out all across the country — they have been brought into our living rooms, including mine, sitting on the couch with my three kids, trying to explain to them what was happening and what were the remedies.

On explaining this moment to his kids

Well, we walked through it, and that was a great example of the [state] General Assembly. Every day, my kids wanted to see what the progress was [on the hate crime bill], and my oldest son asked, the day that we passed the bill out of the Senate, tapped me on the shoulder, early that morning, and said, "Can I go to work with you?" So I was able to have my oldest, 18-year-old son, who's going to go off to college, be by my side, watching us pass what no doubt will be a story told way longer than anybody will ever remember me.

On polling place issues that resulted in long lines

As you know, elections aren't just about the state, they're about the counties, they're about the county election offices and they're about the secretary of state. ... And I really think that what we've seen is this really comes down to training. Training is executed from state resources but also at the county level. ... If there's faulty equipment, I am certain that equipment will be dealt with. I will point you to an overwhelming majority of the counties did not report any sort of issues and so that's a great starting point to make sure that we understand the best lessons going forward.

On how to address voting problems that happened mostly in majority-Black areas

I think the greatest starting point for all of us is to make sure that every voice is heard and every person has an opportunity to vote that shows up to the polls and we're going to continue to make sure that happens.

Listen to the full interview at the audio link above.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Another state hitting new highs for coronavirus cases this week is Georgia. It's remaining open. And while Georgia fights the pandemic, it's also reckoning with the deaths of two Black men, Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. To talk about how the state is handling these two crises at once, we called up the state's Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan.

Thanks for being here.

GEOFF DUNCAN: Yes. Thank you for the opportunity.

SHAPIRO: So on Tuesday this week your state recorded 1,872 new coronavirus cases - as we said, a record number for the state. Do you think the state opened back up too soon?

DUNCAN: I don't. I don't think that's the case. I mean, certainly, you can't just open a book and see exactly what to do and when to do it. You know, look. This continues to be so valuable for individuals to, you know, practice social distancing to the best of their abilities, to, you know, set up best practices inside of businesses. We're going to continue to take great strides in that direction.

SHAPIRO: And yet the record number of coronavirus cases suggests that there is a crisis that needs to be addressed. How would you suggest the state address it?

DUNCAN: Well, I think we continue to make sure that we understand hot spots. I think that was a huge lesson learned by all 50 states. But we know that when we flood the zone with messaging, with PPE, with hospital resources and ventilators and all of the other tools and resources that we've learned over the last three months, that that absolutely is an imperative step.

SHAPIRO: You talk about social distancing and best practices. One of those practices that health experts recommend is wearing a mask. Ten percent of the state Senate tested positive for the virus before the session suspended in March. And when the Legislature reconvened this week, masks were not required. Why not require them?

DUNCAN: Well, from my purview as the president of the Senate, I get to look across the body. And almost without exception, as I view the senators, they were masked. Almost all of the staff was as they came up and presented their bills. I'm very proud of the Senate. I'm very proud of their great work in the last 11 legislative days.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying masks are voluntary in the Senate. Do you think there should be a requirement?

DUNCAN: Well, no. Certainly, I feel like the senators have taken it serious, and an overwhelming majority are wearing the masks for an overwhelming majority period of the time. I feel like we're operating in a safe manner already.

SHAPIRO: Let's pivot to the racial justice movement in your state. The Georgia Legislature has passed a hate crimes bill. More than 40 states already had these laws. Why did it take the killing of Ahmaud Arbery to motivate Georgia to pass one?

DUNCAN: So actually, your numbers are - there was 46. And I'm proud to now no longer have to be referred to as a state that does not have a hate crimes bill on the books. It was one of the best examples of bipartisanship and teamwork I've ever been involved in.

SHAPIRO: You say you're proud of the bill, but to the question of why now - earlier this year, you did not take a stance on the hate crimes bill yourself. What made you decide to champion it at this moment?

DUNCAN: Yeah. Certainly, there's a sense of urgency. The absolute tragedies that have played out all across the country - they've been brought into our living rooms, including mine, sitting on a couch with my three kids, trying to explain to them what was happening and what were the remedies.

SHAPIRO: Sounds like you're saying you went through an education process with your family, with your kids, seeing what was happening in the state. What did you tell your kids? How did you explain it to them?

DUNCAN: Well, we walked through it, and that was a great example of the General Assembly. You know, every day, you know, my kids wanted to see what the progress was. And my oldest son asked the day that we passed the bill out of the Senate - tapped me on the shoulder early that morning and said, can I go to work with you? And so I was able to have my oldest 18-year-old son, who's going to go off to college, be by my side, watching us pass what no doubt will be a story told way longer than anybody will ever remember me.

SHAPIRO: As you know, this is also an election year, and primary voting in Georgia earlier this month was a mess. There was chaos, long lines, faulty machines - all problems that the state had been warned about well in advance. Now, with less than five months until the general election, what can realistically be done to make sure this doesn't happen again in November?

DUNCAN: Well, I think it's important to understand the issue, right? I mean, you mentioned some incredibly strong talking points, but I don't know if those necessarily are deep enough to understand the issue. As you know, elections aren't just about the state. They're about the counties. They're about the county election offices. And they're about the secretary of state. So it's making sure those people go in the room like every business does. And I really think that what we've seen is this really comes down to training. Training is executed from state resources but also at the county level.

SHAPIRO: You don't think the faulty machines that the state was warned against buying and spent millions of dollars on anyway had anything to do with it.

DUNCAN: Well, you obviously have researched that particular point, but I would urge you to actually come and talk to the folks that are here understanding that it's the training in a number of these sort of situations. If there's faulty equipment, I'm certain that the equipment will be dealt with. I will point you to an overwhelming majority of the counties did not report any sort of issues. And so that's a great starting point to make sure that we understand the best lessons learned forward.

SHAPIRO: But as you know, there was a racial divide between the counties that did have problems, majority Black, and the counties that did not, majority white, which exacerbates the issues that people across the country are protesting right now.

DUNCAN: I think the greatest starting point for all of us is to make sure that every voice is heard and every person has an opportunity to vote that shows up to the polls. And we're going to continue to make sure that happens.

SHAPIRO: Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, thank you for joining us.

DUNCAN: Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.