Ga. early voting underway as state eases county absentee ballot rules

Mike Spillers studies his options as the regular Georgia voter casts a ballot for the first time on one of the state's new ballot marking devices. Poll workers at the north Atlanta precinct said even with the new sanitizing protocols lines were nonexistent as early voters got a jump on the June 9 primary. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Jennifer Rainwater arrived at her north Atlanta polling place on the first day of Georgia’s early primary voting with an absentee ballot in hand and a mask affixed to her face.

She said she didn’t have much need for either one. Why show up for in-person, touchscreen voting when she’d requested a mail-in ballot weeks ago from the Georgia Secretary of State?

“I signed an affidavit that negated my absentee ballot and that whole process took about 10 minutes,” Rainwater said outside Garden Hills Elementary Monday afternoon. “I just made sure to get an absentee ballot in the event this (coronavirus outbreak) turned into something worse than it is and I felt perfectly safe. You can see I’m not wearing a mask now and I don’t plan to. But I wore a mask to make them feel comfortable when I voted.”

Hours before Rainwater invalidated her absentee ballot, the State Election Board approved an emergency rule allowing county officials to begin opening absentee ballots eight days before the scheduled June 9 primary election. More than 1.4 million Georgia voters asked for absentee ballots, far more than in past elections and the board’s accommodation Monday is meant to ease the task of counting and scanning the expected avalanche of mail for county staffers toting ballot votes.

The new rule allows elections workers to verify and scan the absentee ballots. However, the elections offices will not tally the votes until Election Day. And the longer time it takes to total absentee ballots compared to the lost potential of the state’s new touchscreen voting system could mean some races won’t be called the same night that polls close. 

“With all of the ballots coming in, there is no way that we could possibly tabulate all of them on Election Day,” said Paulding County Elections Supervisor Deidre Holden, who is also co-president of the Georgia Association of Voter Registration and Election Officials. “Right now, we have received over 7,100 ballots. We will be able to have these scanned and ready to upload and tabulate for election night.”

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger estimates Georgia voters will cast as many as half of all ballots for the June 9 election through mail-in, absentee voting. Raffensperger’s office sent out 6.9 million absentee ballot applications to provide a safer alternative than voting in person during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We are concerned with this many absentee ballots coming in if there is going to be a way to get results anytime quickly after the election,” Ryan Germany, general counsel for Georgia’s Secretary of State, said about the need to start processing ballots early.

This year is also the first large-scale use of the state’s new $104 million ballot marking-device voting system that includes scanners, printers and touchscreen voting tablets. Early voters at the Garden Hills precinct were given identifying paperwork, the electronic card to cast their ballot and a stylus to select candidates without having to press fingers to the touchscreen.

Poll workers across Georgia had hand sanitizer at the ready and many sat behind plastic shields to separate them from voters as they checked IDs and confirmed paperwork.

With early primary voting underway, Georgians are now casting ballots for a federal, state and local races. Several Democrats are competing to face Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue in the fall. Voters will also find choices for Statehouse races, the state Public Service Commission, local judges and ballot questions posed by the state parties.

In this unprecedented election season, candidates are avoiding hosting get-to-know-me events and state lawmakers are prohibited from raising campaign money even as their challengers are free to pitch for donations.

State Elections Board member Matt Mashburn said he supports allowing counties to start the absentee ballot processing early so elections offices aren’t overwhelmed after the polls close on Election Day.

“For this once-in-a-lifetime, unprecedented emergency, this regulation attempts to balance transparency and security for the methodical, orderly observed and safe processing system,” he said.

Since 2005, Georgians have been able to vote by mail for any reason, but this year’s demand for that option far exceeds any that county election officials have ever experienced. That shift to absentee ballots followed concerns about a spike in Georgia coronavirus cases that caused the postponement of this spring’s elections, delayed once from March 24 and then again from May 19.

The Secretary of State’s office reports 1.25 million of 1.44 million absentee ballots requested are now in the hands of Georgia voters. Nearly 4 million Georgians voted in the hotly contested 2018 gubernatorial race between Gov. Brian Kemp and Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams and just 250,000 cast absentee ballots.

Some counties in Georgia have set up drop-off boxes for voters who would prefer not to mail in their absentee ballot. This one is set up outside a DeKalb County government building on Memorial Drive. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Earlier this spring, the State Election Board also approved another accommodation to help expedite the absentee voting system, allowing counties to set up secure drop-off boxes for the ballots. 

Cobb County’s elections office accepted more than 130,400 absentee ballot applications by Monday.

“We are glad that the State Election Board approved the rule that allows us to open and scan the absentee ballots up to seven days before the election,” Cobb County Elections Director Janine Eveler said. “Getting a head start will help us handle this large number of absentee ballots.”

The lines were short at the Garden Hills precinct all day Monday, while reports of longer lines came from other precincts as Georgia voters put the state’s new voting equipment to its first large-scale test.

Other than a hiccup with the ballot printer, his selections using the stylus and touchscreen went off without a hitch, said Midtown Atlanta’s Mike Spillers. He said he’s used the state’s old equipment to vote for years, a system the state replaced last year due to security worries.

“There were some minor issues with it printing out but they fixed it quickly,” Spillers said. “Absentee ballot to me is just an additional hassle, having to send it in and wonder if they got it and wonder if my ballot is cast correctly. So I wanted to do it in person and early voting makes it super easy.”

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.
John McCosh
John McCosh, Editor-in-Chief, is a seasoned writer and editor with decades of experience in journalism and government public affairs. His skills were forged in Georgia newsrooms, where he was a business and investigative reporter, editor and bureau chief, and expanded his experience during years in nonprofit and corporate communications roles. For more than a decade at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, McCosh investigated state and local government officials and operations. He also tracked regional growth and development with a focus on metro Atlanta’s population-related problems, including traffic congestion, air pollution and water quality. He first learned the power of public records to unlock information when he was a commercial real estate reporter at the Atlanta Business Chronicle. McCosh is a board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and active in the Georgia State Signal Alumni Group, which advises student journalists.