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As Georgia begins early in-person voting this week ahead of Election Day, registered voters are contemplating not only who to support at the polls, but also the worrisome issue about whether the election will be fair and if voting rights will be respected.
Doubt about the credibility of voting this fall has been fueled by a long history of voter suppression in Georgia, contemporary hyperpartisan rhetoric and widespread problems from the June primaries exacerbated by COVID-19 safety issues and the state’s new voting machines. Voters locally faced confusion in Chatham County earlier this summer when 10 polling sites had to be moved during the June primaries because schools and other public buildings were closed due to the pandemic.
Poll workers, officials dig in
Yet quietly and without much fanfare, many county officials across Coastal Georgia entrusted with the sacred duty of voting have diligently worked to solve the problems raised over the summer. They have overseen an increase in voter registration and enhanced polling center organization and prepared for historic volumes of absentee ballots in what is expected to be one of the largest turnouts of voters in recent state history.
One issue that has helped preparations is a robust number of new volunteer poll workers — aided by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s outreach to GeorgiaForward, GaVotingWorks, and other business and nonprofit organizations — and new procedures to handle early voting, including more secure ballot boxes for absentee ballots.
Still, with less than a month before the Nov. 3 election, a full snapshot of election readiness in Savannah and throughout Coastal Georgia is difficult to determine.
As of October 12, it’s unclear how many Coastal Georgia county polling places will be open for Election Day, as some struggle to accommodate ongoing state requirements for social distancing.
Officials in Coastal Georgia’s most populous counties, Chatham and Glynn, did not respond to repeated requests for comment about their preparations since June.
In smaller Effingham and Bryan counties, where 16.2 percent of the region’s registered voters live, officials say they are optimistic about the solutions to voters’ worries.
The 17-county area of Coastal Georgia that makes up U.S. House District 1, the area represented by incumbent Buddy Carter, has approximately 607,300 registered voters.
Three concerns top the list of worries about how the November vote will take place across Georgia: who qualifies as a registered voter, how polling places will deal with an expected crush of people eager to cast ballots that day and how to ensure that large volumes of mail-in or absentee ballots will be validated and counted.
During the 2016 general and presidential election, one in six voters nationwide, or 17 percent, cast mail-in, or absentee, ballots—a common practice employed by military members, seasonal residents, the elderly, people in assisted-living facilities, and even presidents. The COVID-19 pandemic upended traditional voting patterns. In Chatham, 51 percent of all ballots cast in June were by absentee. In Glynn County, 48 percent of all ballots cast were absentee.
Those trends triggered action around the state: the recruitment of more poll workers to count ballots and plans to scale up the number of secure drop boxes where voters can safely turn in their ballots, as a backstop for voters who mistrust the U.S. Postal Service to deliver their ballot, or who decide on Nov. 3 that they prefer not to vote in person.
Olivia Morgan, Effingham County’s director of elections and registration, says her office had a steep learning curve after the June primaries when they struggled with new voting machines and the shift in procedures triggered by COVID-19.
But she responded quickly. She had an enthusiastic response to recruitment for the 130 poll workers needed in her county, people representing a younger and broader demographic than the older workers who shied away from working the June primary due to COVID-19 concerns.
Some of those seasoned poll workers have also signed up for November, after learning the state is providing face shields and other protective equipment. Training protocols for poll workers will include a new four-hour session with hands-on troubleshooting for voting machines. “We’ve had four to five high school students sign up and people taking days off, including teachers,” Morgan said.
In Bryan County, Supervisor of Elections Cindy Reynolds needs 82 poll workers and troubleshooters for election day, 12 more than in a typical year. Her pool of volunteers exceeded those needs, giving her a deep bench for replacements if needed on Nov. 3. Interviews and background checks for those new poll workers is ongoing in September, and all staff will have three training modules ahead of Election Day, she said.
Voting by mail
Concern remains about absentee ballots, especially given the repeated assertions by President Donald Trump, without evidence, that mail-in voting is compromised by fraud.
The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy center, uncovered only 31 credible incidences of fraud out of more than 1 billion votes cast between 2000 and 2014. Other investigations have found that many allegations of double voting were the result of clerical errors.
Georgia’s new voting system has security built into the voting system, from the printed voting form with security barcodes, to a verification process to ensure the signatures on the paper match voter registration forms. For absentee ballots, should those be challenged based on postmarks, date of arrival, and damage, the county board of registrars has a verification process in which they send a “cure affidavit” to the voter to resolve the identified issue to ensure the vote is counted.
One potential snafu in this two-step verification could be delays in the postal system, the method for election officials to communicate with voters. Mail for Coastal Georgia is processed through the U.S. Postal Service’s Jacksonville distribution facility. Officials there did not respond to requests for comment about the process of sorting mail-in ballots. Absentee ballots began arriving in Georgia voters’ mailboxes in September.
To minimize potential impact of mail delays, voting rights advocates in Georgia sought to validate all ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 which arrive at ballot headquarters by 7 p.m. on Nov. 6. This deadline is the same for ballots sent by more than 5.7 million military members and U.S. citizens living abroad. One judge agreed, but an appellate court overturned that ruling. Now, absentee ballots in Georgia must be turned in by the time polls close on Election Day.
Another way to ensure timely collection of ballots are an increased number of secure drop boxes.
Georgia is one of 34 states that permit ballot drop boxes, and voters may hand-deliver their completed absentee ballots in such boxes starting Oct. 12 and through Nov. 3.
For the first time, Chatham County will have nine such secure boxes to serve the 193,000 registered voters spread across 632 square miles from Garden City to Tybee Island.
Prior to this election, the county only had one secure drop box. The new ones, paid for by The League of Women Voters of Coastal Georgia will be locked, anchored and tamper-proof and located on secure city or county properties, such as fire stations or libraries. (Click her for map) There will be 24-hour security cameras that offer 30-day backups, according to local League President Rebecca Rolfes.
Georgia election codes require the boxes to be checked every 72 hours by a collection team of two permanent staff members from the Board of Registrars. That schedule will increase to a 24-hour collection cycle soon, and teams will expand to include one staff member and one volunteer who has undergone a background check, drug screen, specialized training, and has been administered the same oath that poll workers take.
To address the expected tidal wave of mail-in ballots, state officials ruled in May that county election officials can begin opening absentee ballots as early as a week before Election Day.
This change in procedure is something that Morgan, Effingham’s elections director, welcomes. In June her office received a record-breaking 5,000 mailed-in ballots, which took three people three days to open and verify. With a high-speed scanner, her office was able to count 100 ballots per minute to certify the results in time to call the races the evening of June 9.
In Chatham, with the largest voting population in the state outside of metro Atlanta, it took several days for some primary races to be certified. The process was not without hitches, especially during a runoff and subsequent recount of the District 163 House of Representatives Democratic Party primary. The candidate who lost, Ann Allen Westbrook, said the process strengthened her faith in Georgia’s new voting system, if not her confidence in the Board of Elections’ transparency and communications.
Westbrook, who lost the primary by 19 votes, says, “We did not see one ambiguous ballot where either candidate disagreed,” she said about the manual recount which tabulated both absentee ballots and the paper backups of state voting machines.
A straightforward way to decrease tension on Election Day is for people to vote early, say local officials. “I wish more people would take advantage of absentee and early voting,” said Bryan County’s election chief Reynolds.