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Athens Sen. Bill Cowsert Defends Kemp on Voter Registration

State Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) defended his role in watering down a bill that would have made it easier to sue child molestors and Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s handling of voter registration during a candidate forum last week at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.

Moderators asked Cowsert about 53,000 voter registration applications that are in limbo because of the state’s “exact match” law.

“I don’t know where that 53,000 figure came from,” Cowsert said. “I know that he denies that, and it sounds like election-year politics from my standpoint… I don’t think the numbers reported are accurate.”

Cowsert—who is also Kemp’s brother-in-law—said that Kemp has “led the nation in accessibility,” pointing to an app allowing people to register to vote on their cellphones.

The Exact Match law requires no discrepancies between voter registration paperwork and other state documents—not even a missing hyphen or middle initial—and has been the subject of multiple lawsuits because it disproportionately affects minorities. It’s important to note, though, that those whose registration is pending because of Exact Match can still vote if they show a state-issued ID that corroborates their registration application.

“I think [Exact Match] is a very dangerous policy to enact,” said Marisue Hilliard, Cowsert’s Democratic opponent. Hilliard is a former U.S. Forestry Service employee and an activist with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and the National Organization for Women.

Both candidates said they favor replacing Georgia’s antiquated electronic voting machines with more secure paper ballots.

Cowsert also discussed his role in watering down the “Hidden Predator Act,” which would have extended the statute of limitations for people who were sexually abused as children to file lawsuits against their abusers or institutions that allowed the abuse to happen. As Cowsert described it, “Our version was slightly different from the House version. The House did not accept our version.”

Cowsert’s law partner, Steven Heath, represents three Athens churches named as co-defendants in a lawsuit alleging that the late scout leader Ernest Boland molested five boys in the 1960s and ’70s, and that the Boy Scouts and church leaders covered it up. Boland, who died in 2013, was named in Boy Scouts of America files on suspected child molestors opened by an Oregon court in 2012. Heath testified against the bill without identifying himself as Cowsert’s partner, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The House version of the bill passed unanimously, but Cowsert and other Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee watered it down during a closed-door meeting that excluded Democrats and the press.

While saying Boland clearly was a “sexual predator,” Cowsert said he doesn’t think lawsuits should be allowed 35 years after the alleged abuse occurred because most of the people who could testify are now dead. “It’s unfair for them not to be able to defend themselves,” he said.

Hilliard expressed support for the stronger House version of the bill. She called Georgia “one of the most predator-friendly states in the nation” and said Cowsert should have recused himself.

Cowsert responded that the lawsuit Heath was defending against had been dismissed when he voted on the bill, so there was no conflict of interest. He also noted that the original sponsor, Rep. Jason Spencer (R-Woodbine), resigned after being humiliated on comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s gotcha TV show “Who Is America?”

The candidates also debated health care. Hilliard said she supports accepting federal funds to expand Medicaid, reducing the 2 million Georgians without health insurance by 600,000. “It’s not all we can do, but it’s a good first step,” she said.

“A lot of legislators are talking about the opioid problem,” Cowsert said, so they are likely to ask the federal government for a waiver next year to create a custom Medicaid expansion plan for Georgia. While Republicans have not accepted Affordable Care Act funding to add more people to Medicaid rolls, they have raised doctors’ reimbursement rates, meaning more doctors now accept Medicaid, he said.

Asked about work requirements for Medicaid and other government assistance, Cowsert said able-bodied people should be required to work to receive benefits.

Hilliard disagreed. “It continues to be a war on poor people,” she said, adding that most Medicaid recipients are children or disabled.

Republican House challengers Houston Gaines and Marcus Wiedower did not come to the forum, leaving Democratic Reps. Deborah Gonzalez and Jonathan Wallace to take the dais by themselves, but Mayor Nancy Denson read a statement on Gaines’ behalf. Athens’ other state senator, Republican Frank Ginn, and his Democratic challenger, Dawn Johnson, were not invited to the forum.