State Election Board OKs rule making online absentee ballot requests harder

By: - October 28, 2021 5:52 pm

The State Election Board gave final approval to the rule after a Thursday public hearing drew complaints that the change would make the process harder for seniors, people with disabilities and low-income Georgians who may lack access to a scanner. Stephen Fowler/GPB

Requesting an absentee ballot online will no longer be as easy as filling out an electronic form under a change ordered by Georgia’s controversial new voting law.

Instead, voters will need to fill out a paper application requesting an absentee ballot and sign it with a pen before scanning and submitting the form. The new state law requires a voter to write their signature using “a pen and ink.”

The State Election Board gave final approval to the rule with a unanimous vote after a Thursday public hearing drew complaints that the change would make the process harder for seniors, people with disabilities and low-income Georgians who may lack access to a printer and scanner.

“An online portal is really an important tool, both for counties and for voters, and the requirement of a wet signature is really problematic,” said Sara Tindall Ghazal, who is the lone Democrat on the board.

“Now I understand that’s also in the statute,” Ghazal said. “If there is not a way that this can be worked within the rulemaking process, then I think it’s really important to go back to the Legislature and ask them to revisit this question.”

The change, which will apply to all state and local elections, is one of several from the 98-page voting bill that the board is now clarifying through what’s known in government parlance as the rulemaking process. The new law is facing its first test now as voters cast ballots in local elections across the state.

“I would like to see a report coming out of this very low turnout election to see how many voters have had their (absentee) applications rejected either for a lack of a wet signature or for whatever other reason, including the much earlier deadline, just so we can understand the impact of these changes,” Ghazal said. “And perhaps that will lead to better informed rulemaking, better informed legislation.”

About two dozen people weighed in on the change during a public hearing Thursday, with some questioning why e-signing is adequate for home mortgage paperwork and other important documents but not an application to request an absentee ballot.

“As we could do in 2020, I think we should still be able to do,” said Elaine Johnson, a Macon-Bibb County resident, referring to the state’s online portal that allowed people to fill out an electronic request form last year.

“We pay our taxes, we deposit checks, we apply for loans, we handle all our personal credit accounts online and we e-sign. I think it’s just unnecessarily burdensome to require us to download and print an application and then sign it and upload it and scan it and mail it back, just to be able to request an absentee ballot.”

Sarah Holmes, a Chatham County resident who described herself as a senior citizen, said she has experience voting by absentee ballot but now worries she will make a mistake under the state’s new voting law.

“In 2020, it was fairly easy. In 2021, we have to take multiple steps, download, sign, scan, or mail, blah, blah, blah. That process can be onerous,” she said.

“It’s very important to me to vote and it would be very distressing to me if because I made a mistake in a complicated process, I did not get an absentee ballot.”

Georgia has offered no-excuse absentee voting since 2005, but that form of casting a ballot drew scrutiny after a record number of people voted absentee last year to avoid potential exposure to the coronavirus at their polling place.

All told, 1.3 million people cast a paper absentee ballot in last year’s presidential election, with nearly two-thirds of them for President Joe Biden who narrowly won Georgia by about 12,000 votes. He became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia in three decades.

Former President Donald Trump’s disputed claims of widespread fraud in Georgia have largely centered on absentee ballots. The election results in Georgia were tallied three times, including once by hand.

Republican lawmakers pushed through major changes to the state’s election law earlier this year, including restricting absentee drop boxes to inside early voting locations except during a public health emergency and making it a crime to pass out water and snacks to voters waiting in line.

The new state law also gives the state the power to take over local election boards. Under that provision, Republican state lawmakers have initiated a performance review for Fulton County. Ryan Germany, general counsel for the secretary of state’s office, told election board members Thursday that county officials are cooperating with the review team.

“Hopefully, it will continue to proceed in the cooperative fashion that it has so far,” Germany said.

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.