State Election Board OKs online absentee ballot request system

Monday, the State Election Board approved an online portal for voters to request absentee ballots for November's general election. A record 1 million Georgians voted by mail for the June 9 primary to avoid precincts and interactions during the COVID-19 pandemic Voters at Park Tavern in Midtown Atlanta endured four-hour waits. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

A new online portal for Georgians to request absentee ballot applications is expected to be ready in time for November’s presidential election when millions of voters can either cast ballots in person at precincts or play it safer and cast their ballot by mail to avoid public interactions during a pandemic.

On Monday, the State Election Board unanimously voted to authorize Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to create the online portal where voters can electronically request their no-excuse absentee ballots. Expected to be online in the coming week or so, the portal is coming after a record 1 million Georgians voted by mail in the June 9 primary.

The record turnout followed the secretary of state’s decision to send absentee ballot applications to 6.9 million active voters for the twice-delayed election after Gov. Brian Kemp declared a public health emergency as coronavirus cases in the state spiked.

Raffensperger did not send out another round of large-scale ballot applications for Tuesday’s runoff and has indicated he doesn’t plan to do it for the November general election, when President Donald Trump will stand for re-election against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Two U.S. Senate races will be on Georgia ballots.

Once the portal is up, people will be able to use their voter registration information to request a ballot application on the statewide system that is accessible to county election officials. The portal will provide an alternative to the email system that didn’t work for some people who requested ballots in June but never got them.

“If people want to request something by paper they still will be able to do it, but they can instead request it via this online portal,” Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said following Monday’s special called meeting. “We’re keeping just as many options available to people as possible.”

But some elections officials and voting rights groups say long lines and other problems that kept people in line for hours after the polls were supposed to close during the June primary are a warning of what’s to come in November when three times as many voters are expected to cast a ballot.

The primary was the first statewide test of Georgia’s new $104 million voting machines. Raffensperger’s office says that a lack of poll worker training and not system glitches were the cause of the technical problems that cropped up during the June 9 primary election.

Election board member David Worley said Monday that although he supports the creation of the online portal, he believes there will still be some serious problems in November without another statewide mailing of absentee ballots applications.

The June 9 primary election followed two delays and concerns about the coronavirus spreading prompted a rash of poll workers to quit and a shortage of locations for people to vote.

Even with the record absentee and early voting turnout for the primary, training poll workers to handle a new voting system fell short. 

“I understand there will be some third parties that will be sending absentee ballot applications to voters, but I think to ensure uniformity and avoiding future (problems) that it would be best if the Secretary of State mailed out an absentee ballot application to every Georgia voter,” Worley said.

Election board member Anh Le said getting the portal operating quickly will allow the state time to promote it in time for the November election. 

Meanwhile, election boards in Dekalb and Richmond counties are planning to or are considering sending out mass mailing out ballot applications on their own for November’s general election.

The elections board also supported Monday giving the staff a second week to start processing but not tallying absentee ballots.

Georgians have been able to vote absentee without an excuse since 2005, but until June only a small percentage chose to vote that way. Even voters who got absentee ballots for the primary sometimes turned them in at their precinct so they could vote in person. 

The state will continue to allow voters to submit their absentee ballots at drop boxes in November. State elections staff and county officials plan to add more voting equipment and polling sites than was available in June.

Several weeks of early voting for Tuesday’s primary runoff provided election officials an opportunity to navigate a much smaller scale election than the one in June are the one expected in November. 

Tuesday’s primary runoff features some high-stake primaries such as a northwest Georgia congressional battle between Republican businesswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene and neurosurgeon John Cowan.

 

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.