Billy Wooten, supervisor of the Chatham County Board of Elections, Savannah, Nov. 8, 2022

In the runup to Tuesday’s midterm elections, Billy Wooten, the supervisor of the Chatham County Board of Elections, was a picture of calm.

Although threats of violence against poll workers have skyrocketed since the 2020 election, Wooten said he wasn’t worried about disruptions from poll watchers or harm coming to any of the nearly 900 Chatham County election officials and workers administering the polls for any of the county’s 231,000 registered voters who decided to wait until Election Day to cast ballots.

“You ask a poll watcher to calm down. You tell him to calm down. You ask him to go outside and take a deep breath. If they don’t, you tell him they have to leave. If they don’t, you call the law,” said the man who oversees the nuts-and-bolts of mounting elections in the county.

Wooten wasn’t worried about frivolous, partisan-driven complaints from voters or the poll watchers and the political parties and nongovernmental organizations sponsoring them, either.

Election workers count absentee ballots at the Chatham County Board of Elections, Savannah, Nov. 8, 2022. Credit: Craig Nelson/The Current GA

Officials and lawyers in the secretary of state’s office in Atlanta “identify which ones are red-flag issues and which ones are just foolishness,” he said.

As polls closed on Tuesday, all signs suggested that Wooten’s confidence in the voting process was well-founded as county election officials, poll watchers, and voters all offered up in unison some variation of the phrase “very smooth” to describe the midterm balloting.

“It’s been great. It went very smoothly,” said Tom Mahoney, chairman of the Chatham County Board of Elections. “Very smooth as opposed to the primary elections,” said Beth Majeroni, a conservative stalwart who served as a poll watcher at Skidaway Community Church in Precinct 4.

There were some glitches — to be expected, perhaps, from so sprawling an undertaking.

“There were some technical difficulties this morning,” said James Hall, a member of elections board, without elaborating. Wooten himself said the election board’s computers weren’t designating three-dozen processed absentee ballots as finished. It was puzzling but would soon be fixed, he said.

There were more systemic criticisms of the voting system, too, casting doubt on just how far Tuesday’s apparently trouble-free elections will go in allaying lingering fears from the 2020 election that the voting system if flawed, if not rigged, especially with Donald Trump poised to enter the 2024 presidential race.

While praising how Tuesday’s voting unfolded, Majeroni said the use of paper ballots should be revived in Georgia to ensure the integrity of the state’s voting system.

But as Wooten and his staff awaited the arrival in sealed boxes of memory cards, computer tape, and paper ballots from each of Chatham County’s 79 polling stations on Tuesday evening, there had been no reports of significant voting irregularities, either from county election officials or from poll watchers accredited by political parties and nongovernmental organizations.

“I haven’t gotten a single phone call from a poll watcher all day,” Wooten said.

Avoiding controversy seemed unlikely

Heading into Tuesday’s election, that seemed an unlikely prospect.

Since the 2020 presidential election, Biden won Georgia by less than 12,000 votes out of 5 million cast, the belief that the state’s voting system if flawed, if not rigged, endures, even though the result was affirmed by multiple counts, one partially done by hand.

The results of an Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey earlier this year showed that among the state’s Republicans, 74% said there was widespread fraud in 2020, and over half doubted the integrity of upcoming elections compared with a quarter of Democrats.

To mobilize Republicans concerned about a repeat of 2020, the state GOP undertook a massive effort to train poll watchers for Tuesday’s midterm elections. Ninety-three of the 114 people it accredited as poll watchers monitored voting stations on Tuesday, said Debbie Rauers, a former member of the county election board.

The Chatham County Republican Party posted an email to its mailing list Tuesday morning with the subject line, “Election Integrity: See Something-Say Something.” It suggests how palpable the fear of voter fraud remains among some local Republicans.

“If you see something at the polls that you feel is questionable, call Election Integrity immediately,” said the email. “If you’re able, take pictures.” A telephone number in Atlanta for a call-in center overseen by GOP lawyers was included in the appeal, which echoes the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “see-something-say-something” campaign to raise public awareness about the signs of terrorism and terrorism-related crime.

‘He would have disowned me’

While the worst fears of some voters don’t appear to have materialized on Tuesday, there was no lack of drama.

As they waited for the polls to close and wondered why the expected heavy turnout of voters didn’t occur, a half-dozen election officials, technicians and lawyers representing the two main political parties sat inside a glassed-in office, peering at a computer screen to decide the disposition of 10 absentee ballots deemed unreadable during the initial count.

And as the clock wound down to 7 p.m. and the closing of the polls, there was a last-minute flurry, testaments in one way or another to how seriously some Chatham County residents take the right to vote.

Not wanting to risk any mishap, Chelsea Edwards, a 34-year-old hairstylist, drove in from Pooler to deliver her father Robert’s absentee ballot in person. He’s on a job in Indiana and had demanded she send him one by FedEx so he could complete it. “He would have disowned me if I hadn’t gotten it here in time,” she said, laughing.

Two postal employees came through the door with four absentee ballots in hand after the clock struck the top of the hour. They assured Wooten the ballots had been dropped into a mailbox before the 5 p.m. cutoff.

As he handed the ballots over to the registrar, explaining the circumstances, Jillian Rosborough, 22, raced through the door wearing a red t-shirt and hat emblazoned with the name of her employer, Byrd’s Cookies.

Rosborough and a colleague got delayed leaving work because of some last-minute tasks. Wooten looked up at the clock. It was 7:05 p.m. “I’m so sorry,” he said, his face and voice etched with sympathy. Rosborough burst into tears and wept.

She was still inconsolable as she got into her car in the parking lot.

“I just couldn’t get away in time,” she said through her tears.

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...