Many ballots still unreturned with election less than two weeks away

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger this spring encouraged absentee voting – at times to the dismay of his Republican colleagues – as he sent ballot request applications to all 6.9 million active voters. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Less than half of the Georgia voters who requested absentee ballots returned them so far, causing the state’s chief voting official to urge voters to send back their ballots soon.

Voting by mail has emerged as an important alternative for those worried about potential exposure to COVID-19 at polling places this primary election.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has openly encouraged absentee voting – at times to the dismay of his Republican colleagues – and he earlier sent absentee voting applications to all 6.9 million active voters. An unprecedented number of voters here are expected to take him up on that.

Nearly 1.6 million Georgians have requested absentee ballots, but only about 600,000 of them – about 40% – have sent them back with less than two weeks till Election Day.

Raffensperger again on Thursday called on Georgians to vote by mail if they can – and to do it soon. He advised those who are planning to vote by mail to return the ballot by Thursday, June 4 to give the postal service plenty of time to deliver it.

“We need as many of you as possible to use this safe and easy voting tool,” Raffensperger said at a press conference held Thursday at the state Capitol.

“I know we’re seeing the reopening moving forward, but the fact remains there are still fewer polling places in some counties. We have seen what happened in Appling and McDuffie counties. The COVID threat is still a potential threat to orderly elections and in-person voting. We need to keep lines short because many voters have certain disabilities and they must vote in person.”

An early in-person voting precinct was closed in McDuffie County after two staffers in the election office tested positive for COVID-19, according to WJBF in Augusta. That left the county with one place for early voting.

And in Appling County, the county’s lone early voting location was temporarily closed for cleaning after a voter tested positive, according to GPB.

Voting by mail is not without its challenges though. Fulton County, for example, was overwhelmed by the number of requests for ballots, causing delays in getting the paper ballots out to voters. The county’s election chief announced Wednesday that his office had cleared the backlog, according to the Associated Press.

Georgia has postponed its primaries twice this year – first the March 24 presidential primary and then the May 19 primaries – because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Some counties have also had to move polling places because of the pandemic. There have also been new processes introduced, such as the ability for voters in some counties to deposit their absentee ballot into drop boxes. Those who show up to vote in person might be handed a stylus and may see poll workers dressed in personal protective equipment or on the other side of a plastic shield.

“Because of a lot of these changes and the fact this would have been the first big test for our new voting machines, we have already seen challenges,” said Cindy Battles, program coordinator for Common Cause Georgia, which is a nonpartisan voting rights advocacy group.

Battles noted Fulton County’s struggle processing absentee ballot requests, the long lines at some polling places, voter confusion and a growing poll worker shortage as some of the concerns for Georgia’s primary election.

Ballots must be received by 7 p.m. June 9 to be counted. Voters with access to a ballot drop box can has until then to submit their ballot, but not every county opted to provide the boxes. Many of them will have to count on the U.S. Postal Service getting the ballots there on time.

“If they show up at 7:01, 7:10, it’s too late,” Raffensperger said. “There’s probably a million ballots right now that are sitting on people’s kitchen tables, and those are the ones we are really focused on right now.

“If you have an absentee ballot sitting on your kitchen table, go ahead and fill that out. And then you don’t have to worry about lines (at the polls). The shortest line you’re going to have is at your kitchen table,” he added.

Local election officials were recently given the go-ahead to start scanning absentee ballots eight days before Election Day in hopes of avoiding major delays in reporting election results.