All-Star Game: Gov. Kemp defends election laws after MLB moves game

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp defended recent election reform at a press conference on Saturday following Major League Baseball's decision to move the 2021 All-Star Game and draft out of Georgia in protest. 

In front of members of the Georgia General Assembly that backed the bill, Kemp called MLB's decision "ridiculous" and said the Election Integrity Act of 2021 "ensures the integrity of the ballot box."

"Secure, accessible, fair elections are worth the threats," Kemp said. "They are worth the boycotts, as well as the lawsuits."

The new law faces multiple lawsuits and backlash that's placed Georgia in the political spotlight. Kemp has publicly maintained some of Georgia's election policies under the new law are less restrictive than other states, while its critics characterize it as suppressive, particularly to minority voters. Kemp said MLB's decision reflects a lack of courage. 

The game was scheduled for July 13 at Truist Park, the Braves’ 41,000-seat stadium in suburban Cobb County. It would have been the third time Atlanta served as host, having previously held the event in 1972 and 2000.

MLB Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred issued the following statement on Friday regarding the 2021 All-Star Game:

"Over the last week, we have engaged in thoughtful conversations with Clubs, former and current players, the Players  Association,  and  The  Players  Alliance, among others, to listen to their views. I have decided that the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport is by relocating this year’s All-Star Game and MLB Draft. "Major  League  Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box. In 2020, MLB became the first professional sports league to join the non-partisan Civic Alliance to help build a future in which everyone participates in shaping the United States.

We proudly used our platform to encourage baseball fans and communities throughout our country to perform their civic duty and actively participate in the voting process. Fair access to voting continues to have our game’s unwavering support. We will continue with our plans to celebrate the memory of Hank Aaron during this season’s All-Star festivities. In addition, MLB’s planned investments to support local communities in Atlanta as part of our All-Star Legacy Projects will move forward. We are finalizing a new host city and details about these events will be announced shortly."

Georgia voting law: Governor responds to critics' attacks

The Atlanta Braves issued a response to MLB's move, saying the franchise was disappointed and hoped to use the game as a platform to stress the importance of equal voting opportunities.

Georgia Republicans responded on Friday by claiming Georgia's new laws are still less restrictive than other states. 

In the wake of the decision, Kemp criticized MLB for caving to pressure. The law made numerous modifications to Georgia's elections including requiring state ID to request an absentee ballot and making it illegal for private persons to distribute refreshments to voters waiting in line at a polling location.

"The facts and the truth don't support their narrative," Kemp said.

Cobb County Commissioner Chairworm Lisa Cupid publicly and privately lobbied with MLB to keep the game at Truist Park.

What does Georgia's voting law do?

SB 202, signed into law in March, has been criticized as suppressive since it went into law. Its critics maintain the bill's restrictions inordinately affect minority voters and is a response to unfounded claims of fraud during the 2020 election

When asked, Kemp did not directly address whether early versions of the bill, which would have limited weekend early voting and eliminated no-excuse absentee voting, spoke to the original intent of the law regarding access to the ballot box.

While Kemp said the law was a response to the 2020 election, he did not say claims of voter fraud were the reason.

"I realize people have all kinds of different opinions and beliefs about the 2020 elections, but make no mistake, there were issues that happened on the election like they do in every election," Kemp said.

EXPLAINER: What does Georgia's new GOP election law do?

The law reduces the amount of time for electors to apply for absentee ballots. The text of the bill states the beginning of the window to request a ballot shrinks from 180 days to "earlier than ... 78 days or less than 11 days prior to the date of the primary or election." 

Kemp said the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia asked for an earlier cutoff to mail ballots after election offices were flooded with an increase in absentee ballots in November. 

"You still have weeks and weeks to request your absentee ballot, but now we're cutting that deadline a little bit shorter at 11 days prior to the election to make sure the voter has time to get their ballot back to get counted," Kemp said.

While the law makes absentee ballot drop boxes mandatory in all counties — a requirement that didn't exist prior to the 2020 election — but the numbers are restricted to "totaling the lesser of either one drop box for every 100,000 active registered voters in the county or the number of advance voting locations in the county." This would reduce the number of drop boxes in metro-Atlanta compared to the 2020 election

Kemp emphasized drop boxes — previously an emergency measure — are now codified in all counties, but did not directly address the reduction in drop boxes in some counties.

The measure that's sparked perhaps the most backlash are changes that make it illegal for private people to provide refreshments to voters standing in lines at polling places. The bill states no person shall offer or give money or gifts, including, but not limited to, food and drink "to an elector within 150 feet of a polling place or within 25 feet of someone waiting in line." 

"Yes, water can be provided to those waiting in line — by election workers," Kemp said. "We are not going to allow political organizations or anyone else to harass or electioneer voters inside the 150-foot buffer."

Polling places would be able to, but not required to, set up self-serve water dispensers for voters. Kemp claimed voters can "order a pizza while they are standing in line."

"There are reasonable mechanical fixes that are in this bill," Kemp said.

Response to Georgia's election law

MLB provided perhaps the most significant response to Georgia's law during a week that CEOs of major corporations have been speaking out against legislation that makes it harder for citizens to vote. 

Kemp accused companies of "flip-flopping" on the issue.

"At some point, the shareholders are going to question your fiduciary responsibility and ask, 'Are you doing the right thing by your company, your employees, your constituents and your customers?'" District 3 Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-Ga., said.

Companies are now taking heat from both sides of the political spectrum. Faith leaders announced boycotts of Georgia-based corporations — including Coca-Cola, Home Depot and Delta — for failing to condemn the law sooner. Kemp 

Georiga's Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock said he respects players' prerogative to speak out against things they see as unjust, but expressed disappointment in MLB's decision to move the 2021 All-Star Game and boycotts of major businesses. 

"It is not the people of Georgia or the workers of Georgia who crafted this law, it is politicians seeking to retain power at the expense of Georgians' voices," he said in a statement. "And today’s decision by MLB is the unfortunate consequence of these politicians’ actions."

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said the MLB All-Star Game could be the first of several more responses to new election laws that hurt commerce in Georgia.

"Just as elections have consequences, so do the actions of those who are elected," Bottoms said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the removal of the MLB All-Star Game from Georgia is likely the first of many dominoes to fall until the unnecessary barriers put in place to restrict access to the ballot box are removed."

Kemp said, no matter what is to come, he would not back down.

"Anybody out there thinking any kind of snowball effect will have an effect on me, it will not," Kemp said.

There's precedent for major professional sporting events changing their pre-determined locations over politics. Charlotte was the original host of the 2017 NBA All-Star Game before the NBA relocated the game to New Orleans in response to a law that required LGBT people to use the public bathroom that corresponded with the gender on their birth certificate. The bill was later repealed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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