Georgia wins 8-year water fight with downstream neighbor Florida

By Rich McKay and Sebastien Malo

ATLANTA (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday sided with Georgia in ending its eight-year battle with Florida over water that runs through Atlanta’s thirsty metro region and downstream past cotton and peanut fields to Apalachicola Bay and its depleted oyster fisheries.

The high court tossed out claims by Florida that Georgia is using too much water from the Chattahoochee River, a tributary of the Apalachicola River basin downstream, driving up salinity levels in the estuary it feeds and causing the once-rich oyster population there to collapse.

In the eyes of Michael Dasher, a fourth-generation Florida oysterman counting on a different outcome in legal bids to wrestle back more freshwater supplies for his vanishing way of life, it’s over.

“We thought the court would finally do what’s right and help us out, send more water,” said Dasher, 54. “We know Atlanta and them all in Georgia need it too, but they’ve about run the river dry. This is pretty much the end for us.”

In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the court ruled that Florida did not prove that its proposed water diversion caps on Georgia were warranted, given the balance between the needs of Georgia’s population and agricultural needs versus the needs of Florida. Nor did the court accept that water depletion was the cause of the Florida’s declining oyster beds.

Georgia has argued over-harvesting by its southern neighbor in recent years and a 2012 drought were to blame for the oyster crash.

Florida had also neglected to “reshell” its oyster bars, a management practice that gives young oysters greater habitat, the justices wrote.

A spokesman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection was not immediately available to comment, but the agency has said that it had hoped the court would restore the historic flows of the Apalachicola River.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp touted the court win as a “resounding victory for Georgia and a vindication of years-long effort by multiple governors and attorneys general here in the Peach State to protect our citizens’ water rights.”

According to federal precedent dating back 100 years, both states have a claim to a share of the water in question, but it’s “not a 50-50 split,” Santa Fe attorney and water rights expert John Draper, previously told Reuters.

Thursday’s ruling was not unexpected, given that a state water rights expert named “special master” in the case by the high court, had recommended that the justices side with Georgia.

Georgia officials and farmers say they are already conserving more water than ever. The Atlanta Regional Commission said the nine-county greater metropolitan area around the state capital now uses 10% less water than it did 20 years ago, even though the population has climbed by 1.2 million.

Katie Byrd, a spokeswoman with the office of Georgia’s attorney general, said the ruling “affirmed what we have long known to be true: Georgia’s water use has been fair and reasonable.”

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Sebastien Malo in New York; Editing by Steve Gorman and Grant McCool)

Witnesses recount deadly tornadoes in Alabama: ‘It came and it took them’

By Elijah Nouvelage

OHATCHEE, Ala. (Reuters) – A day after violent tornadoes killed at least five people in Alabama and left residents sorting through the destruction on Friday, storm forecasters issued another “severe weather risk” warning for the U.S. South this weekend.

In the wake of reports of 24 tornadoes striking Alabama and Georgia on Thursday, rough weather on Saturday could stir more tornadoes in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and the surrounding area, according to the National Weather Service.

Five people were killed in Alabama, NWS reported, although it could be days before the death count is finalized. Dozens of others were injured and entire neighborhoods destroyed.

A sixth death was tied to a tornado in Georgia.

In northern Alabama, the five confirmed fatalities were in Ohatchee, a town of about 1,200 people, according to the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency.

Survivors described harrowing scenes of seeking cover from the twisters.

As she searched through a mountain of debris that a day earlier had been her father’s Alabama home, Rebecca Haynes Griffis recounted how her brother’s fast thinking helped both men survive the disaster.

“He saw it coming and he put my dad into a big bearhug and held onto him until things stopped moving,” Griffis told Reuters.

“The whole house started to contort around them. There was no roof all of a sudden. It came and it took them,” said Griffis, a COVID-19 travel nurse who was in Georgia when disaster struck in Ohatchee Thursday afternoon.

Her father, Mac Haynes, 78, and brother Philip Haynes, 50, landed in a cow pasture about 40 feet (12 meters) away from the foundation that once supported their trailer home, which was reduced to shreds.

Both men were hospitalized, with her father expected to be released on Friday. Her brother, who suffered fractures to his spine, ribs, shoulder and cheek, will remain hospitalized, said Griffis, as she sifted through the mountain of debris in search of family mementos.

“I found their wedding rings!” she said, clutching velvet boxes containing marriage bands worn by her father and his wife, now deceased.

Griffis, 48, said she has been frantically calling her father and brother from Georgia on Thursday to urge them to seek shelter in a neighbor’s home that has a basement.

“By the time they answered, it was on them,” Griffis said.

For three hours, the fire department cut through debris to reach the injured men in the field when suddenly winds started swirling again, possibly from a nearby tornado.

The fire department grabbed the men and fled to the nearby home’s basement, seeking refuge until they could safely transport the injured to a local hospital, Griffis said.

(Additional reporting and writing by Barbara Goldberg in New York, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Georgia state lawmakers approve new restrictions on voting

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Georgia’s Republican-led House of Representatives passed a sweeping elections bill on Thursday that would impose new restrictions on voting in the state that helped Democrats win the White House and narrow control of the U.S. Senate.

Republicans say the measure, approved in a 100-75 vote, would make voting more secure. Democrats and voting rights activists decry it as among the most damaging attempts to limiting access to the ballot box in the country.

The 94-page bill would add a new ID requirement for absentee ballots; limit ballot drop boxes, including eliminating them on the last four days of an election; and make it a misdemeanor crime to give food or drinks to voters waiting in long lines.

It also would also set up a fraud hotline, forbid local county elections offices from taking any breaks while counting ballots and shorten the runoff election cycle from nine weeks to four weeks.

Early versions of the bill sought to limit Sunday voting, a provision that would have curtailed traditional “Souls to the Polls” voter turnout programs popular in Black churches. Those days were restored after Democrats pushed back, and additional Saturday voting days also were included.

The bill must now be reconciled with a similar measure in the state Senate before it goes before Republican Governor Brian Kemp for his consideration.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Jonathan Oatis and Bill Berkrot)

Teachers may play role in in-school COVID-19 transmission: U.S. CDC

(Reuters) – Teachers may play an important role in the transmission of COVID-19 within schools, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Monday, citing a study conducted in elementary schools in a Georgia school district.

The report comes after researchers from the agency last month said there was little evidence that schools were spreading COVID-19 infections in the country – based in part on a study of schools in Wisconsin – easing concerns about allowing in-person learning. The Wisconsin study found significantly lower virus spread within schools compared with transmission in the surrounding communities.

An investigation involving about 2,600 students and 700 staff members of a Georgia school district’s elementary schools showed nine clusters of COVID-19 cases involving 13 educators and 32 students at six elementary schools, the CDC said.

Of these, two clusters involved probable teacher-to-teacher transmission that was followed by teacher-to-student transmission in classrooms, the agency said in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Transmission from teachers resulted in about half of 31 school-related cases, according to the investigation.

The study was subject to some limitations including difficulty in determining whether coronavirus transmission happened in school or out in the local community, the agency noted.

Distinguishing between the two types of transmission was particularly challenging when the 7-day average number of cases per 100,000 persons exceeded 150, the agency said.

The CDC said COVID-19 vaccination of educators should be considered as an additional mitigation measure to be added when available, although not required for reopening schools.

(Reporting by Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Why the winners in Georgia runoffs might not be known for days

By Jason Lange and Brad Heath

(Reuters) – The outcome of two Senate runoff races in Georgia might not be known for days after polls close on Tuesday.

Public opinion polls show Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue have about the same level of support as their Democratic challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

Following are key facts on the vote-counting process and what to expect as election returns start to come in Tuesday night.

WHY MIGHT THIS DRAG ON?

Slow counting of Georgia’s mail ballots in November’s presidential election kept the world in the dark about who won the state until three days after polls closed. Biden ended up winning the state by less than 12,000 votes out of about 5 million cast.

A similar delay could unfold after Tuesday’s contests if the races are really close, said Walter Jones, a spokesman for the office of Georgia’s top election official, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

“We may be looking at several days,” Jones said, adding that the delay would mostly come from mail ballots returned on Election Day.

Election officials cannot start counting ballots until 7 p.m. on Tuesday, though they have started processing them, such as checking that voter signatures on mail ballots match those on record.

Nearly 1 million mail-in ballots have been processed through Sunday, state data shows. These ballots, as well as more than 2 million cast in person at early voting centers, will likely be counted quickly on Election Night.

But for the mail votes that arrive on Election Day, officials will still need to open envelopes, check signatures and load the ballots in counting machines. They will also need to process hundreds of thousands of votes expected to be cast in person that day.

RED MIRAGE?

In November, mail ballots heavily favored Biden in Georgia and other swing states, while President Donald Trump led in votes cast in person. If more Democrats again vote by mail this time, initial results could similarly show Republicans in a lead that gives way to Democrats catching up.

The slow counting of mail ballots was a key reason why Trump took an early lead on Election Night on Nov. 3, only to trail Biden in the days that followed as more mail ballots were counted.

In the end, about a quarter of Georgia’s ballots in November were cast by mail and Biden won about two-thirds of them, state data shows. The rest were cast in person, with about 55% going to Trump.

“Initial results will generally reflect the state of the race but probably will be a little redder than what they will end up being,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

RECOUNTS

Georgia did two recounts of November’s presidential contest: a hand recount of paper ballots ordered by the state’s top election official, and a subsequent recount using computer scanners that was requested by the Trump campaign.

Georgia allows a losing candidate to force a recount if the margin of victory is less than or equal to 0.5% of the total vote in the race. A recount must be requested within two days of the results being certified by election officials.

Candidates can also request a recount if they think there has been an error in the tabulation; in that case it’s up to the secretary of state to decide whether to conduct one. Local election officials also have the power to recount results in their county before the results are certified.

(Reporting by Jason Lange and Brad Heath; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Dan Grebler)

U.S. judge orders two Georgia counties to halt voter purge ahead of Senate runoff

(Reuters) – A federal judge on Monday ordered two Georgia counties to reverse a decision removing thousands of voters from the rolls ahead of Jan. 5 runoff elections that will determine which political party controls the U.S. Senate.

The counties seemed to have improperly relied on unverified change-of-address data to invalidate registrations, the judge, Leslie Abrams Gardner, said in her order filed late on Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia.

“Defendants are enjoined from removing any challenged voters in Ben Hill and Muscogee Counties from the registration lists on the basis of National Change of Address data”, Gardner wrote in the order. The judge is the sister of Democratic activist Stacey Abrams, who lost a race for Georgia governor in 2018.

The bulk of the registrations that the counties sought to rescind, more than 4,000 of them, were in Muscogee County, Politico reported.

An additional 150 were from Ben Hill County, the report added.

Nearly 2.1 million people have cast ballots in the U.S. Senate runoff election in Georgia that will determine whether Democrats control both chambers of Congress, according to state data published Thursday.

The runoffs pit Democratic challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff against Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively.

If Republicans win one or both Senate seats in Georgia, they will retain a slim majority in the chamber.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Nearly 2.1 million have voted early in U.S. Senate runoff in Georgia

By Brad Heath

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Nearly 2.1 million people have cast ballots in a U.S. Senate runoff election in Georgia that will determine whether Democrats control both chambers of Congress, according to state data published Thursday.

More than a quarter of the state’s registered voters have either cast ballots early or through the mail, the state’s figures show, a sign that turnout in the pair of Senate races will be high. About 4 million Georgians voted early in the November election.

The runoffs pit Democratic challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff against Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively. The runoff election was necessary because no candidate won more than 50% of the vote on Nov. 3.

The state releases information about the number of people who voted, but does not tally their votes until election day.

About 1.3 million people voted early at in-person polling places, according to the state data. Another 721,000 sent ballots by mail. A total of about 1.3 million Georgians requested mail-in ballots.

Voting in the Senate runoffs ends on Jan. 5.

Turnout has been higher in some of the heavily populated areas around. About 30% of registered voters in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, had voted by Thursday, as had about 32% of voters in suburban DeKalb County.

(Reporting by Brad Heath; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Alistair Bell)

Over 1.1 million ballots cast in early voting for Georgia U.S. Senate runoffs

By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -More than 1.1 million Georgians have voted in twin U.S. Senate runoff elections that will determine which party controls that chamber of Congress, state data showed on Friday.

The surge in turnout after four days of early in-person voting, and about four weeks of mail-in voting, showed that voter participation in the two races is on pace to rival the records set in the November presidential contest.

State data published on Friday showed the number of accepted ballots was just below the level seen at the same point in early voting for November’s election.

Voting in the Senate runoffs, which are taking place because no candidate won 50% support on Nov. 3, ends on Jan. 5.

Biden’s razor-thin victory in Georgia last month amid record-high turnout underscored the Southern state’s transformation from Republican stronghold to one of the country’s most competitive political battlegrounds.

A record 159 million people nationwide voted in November, up from 138 million in the November 2016 elections, according to data compiled by Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida. He estimated that nearly 67% of U.S. eligible voters voted last month, the highest share since 1900.

Signs of high turnout in January’s Senate contests in Georgia point to another squeaker, analysts said.

“This is going to be a really close election,” said McDonald, who is tracking early voting in Georgia.

He said comparing current turnout with the November cycle is tricky. It was possible that voters have crowded the polls to be done with voting ahead of the December holidays.

“It does seem to me like we’re in for a higher turnout election than is typical for a runoff,” McDonald said.

DEMOCRATS NEED SWEEP

Democrats need to win both contests to achieve a 50-50 split in the Senate. Even one Democratic loss would allow Republicans to keep a razor-thin majority.

The runoffs pit Democratic challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff against Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively. Perdue won more votes than Ossoff in November, while Warnock won more than Loeffler in a 20-candidate field that also included Republican Congressman Doug Collins. Loeffler and Collins together drew nearly 46% of the vote.

Ballots accepted through Thursday were only just below the 1.2 million that were cast at the same point in the November election, when turnout eventually totaled about 5 million votes.

Roughly 2 million votes were cast in the last runoff for a Senate seat in Georgia, when Republican Saxby Chambliss defeated Democrat Jim Martin in 2008. Nearly 4 million Georgians voted in the 2018 congressional midterm elections.

Republicans have often performed better in low-turnout elections. But voters in both parties appear energized by the stakes in the January contest and each party has poured resources into Georgia ahead of the vote.

Biden returned to the campaign trail on Tuesday to stump for Warnock and Ossoff in Georgia, and Harris will campaign for the Democrats there on Monday. Trump has also campaigned in Georgia for Perdue and Loeffler, as will his daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump on Monday.

(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Scott Malone, Mark Heinrich, Rosalba O’Brien and Dan Grebler)

Trump and 17 states back Texas bid at Supreme Court

By Jan Wolfe and Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Wednesday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to let him join a lawsuit by Texas seeking to throw out the voting results in four states, litigation that also drew support from 17 other states.

In a separate brief, lawyers for 17 states led by Missouri’s Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt also urged the nine justices to hear the Texas lawsuit.

Trump on Wednesday vowed to intervene in the lawsuit though he did not provide details on the nature of the intervention including whether it would be by presidential campaign or the U.S. Justice Department.

Writing on Twitter, Trump said, “We will be INTERVENING in the Texas (plus many other states) case. This is the big one. Our Country needs a victory!”

The lawsuit, announced on Tuesday by the attorney general of Texas, Ken Paxton, targeted four states.

In addition to Missouri, the states joining Texas were: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia.

The lawsuit was filed directly with the Supreme Court rather than with a lower court, as is permitted for certain litigation between states.

The Texas suit argued that changes made by the four states to voting procedures amid the coronavirus pandemic to expand mail-in voting were unlawful. Texas asked the Supreme Court to immediately block the four states from using the voting results to appoint presidential electors to the Electoral College.

Texas also asked the Supreme Court to delay the Dec. 14 date for Electoral College votes to be formally cast, a date set by law in 1887.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal and Jan Wolfe; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Will Dunham)

Georgia official announces probe into third-party groups trying to register people illegally

(Reuters) – Election authorities in Georgia have opened investigations into third-party groups trying to sign up new voters in advance of a January special election that could determine control of the U.S. Senate, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said on Monday.

Raffensperger said his office was examining registration efforts by America Votes, Vote Forward and the New Georgia Project. He said some groups had been encouraging people who lived outside Georgia to register to vote in the state.

“These third-party groups have a responsibility to not encourage illegal voting. If they do so, they will be held responsible,” he said.

Raffensperger said his office also had several investigations open into accusations of wrongdoing in the U.S. presidential election.

(Reporting by Brad Heath; editing by Jonathan Oatis)