Election board extends absentee ballot rules as vote-by-mail debate lingers

The State Election board Thursday called for Georgia's attorney general to investigate why hundreds of Fulton County residents did not get to vote in June's primary when they didn't get absentee ballots in time. State election officials said the county's problems handling the ballots likely contributed to the long waits at Fulton precincts like the one at the College Park library in the June primary. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

The State Election Board agreed Wednesday to extend a pair of emergency rules allowing local election offices to continue offering drop boxes for absentee ballots and to again start processing ballots early.

But while those rules are receiving nearly universal support from election officials and voting rights watchdogs alike, the debate lingers over the best way to reach voters interested in voting absentee. At this point, a new online portal – where voters can go to request an absentee ballot – is being considered  instead of the mass mailings of unsolicited absentee ballot applications seen in the primary.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger ordered a large-scale absentee ballot application push for last month’s twice-delayed election after Gov. Brian Kemp declared a public health emergency in April as coronavirus cases in the state spiked.

A record 1 million absentee ballots were submitted for the primary election, delaying some final election tallies for days after the last polls closed late on June 9. Election officials are also looking to avoid repeating some of the problems, including the scenes of voters in socially distanced lines stretched out of buildings all across metro Atlanta’s Fulton County and beyond. Many voters reported trying to avoid the mayhem – and potential exposure to COVID-19 – by requesting an absentee ballot that never came.

Raffensperger has indicated he doesn’t plan to do another round of large-scale absentee applications for August runoffs or the November general election, when President Donald Trump will face re-election and two U.S. Senate races will be on Georgia ballots. Three times as many voters are expected to cast a ballot this fall.

Instead, the secretary of state’s office is proposing an online portal that would allow voters access to sign up for absentee ballots.

Election board member David Worley said he believes the state should again mail absentee applications to the 6.9 million active registered voters, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t appear to be ending soon.

“I think the conditions that led to the mailing of those absentee ballot applications continue and will be continuing in the months leading up to the November election,” Worley said. “I think it’ll be imperative for the secretary to do that again.”

Election Board member Matt Mashburn disagrees and said he favors the proposed new online portal. While a record 1 million people voted by mail for June’s general primary, the state paid for postage to send applications to another 6 million people who didn’t respond to them, he said.

“The primary was a good opportunity to show people who have never used an absentee ballot how it works,” Mashburn said. “I agree with the secretary’s idea about turning this online so that people who want to use the mail could still use the mail but people who want to register online can do that.”

Raffensperger still has the option to change his mind about mailing absentee ballot applications. An attempt to ban election officials from mailing registered voters unsolicited absentee ballot applications failed to make it through the recently ended legislative session.

Fulton County Election Director Rick Barron said Wednesday that many voters used the 20 drop boxes set up in his county for the June election.

He also supports the extension of early ballot processing.

“It is crucial that we are allowed to begin processing ballots ahead of the election,” Barron said “Now we need the state to provide more scanners to us with the impending volume we will receive in November or to allow us to purchase more.”

Hillary Holley, organizing director for Fair Fight Action, asked the elections board to consider requiring every election offices to have drop boxes, which are currently optional for local officials.

However, there are some voters who deposited their ballots into the boxes before the end of Election Day who say they were told it arrived too late, she said.

“We ask that the state election board mandate drop boxes in all Georgia’s 159 counties and for the secretary of state to provide funding for the drop boxes,” she said.


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.