Georgia taking steps to improve its voting process for the November electionsSecretary of State Brad Raffensperger greets poll workers in Leesburg, Ga. in January at an early voting site for a special election (Special: Secretary of State's office)
By Maria Saporta
As we approach the Nov. 3 general election, Georgia’s reputation is at stake.
Already, Georgia was hit with a ton of negative national headlines during the June 9th primary elections as voters faced a number of obstacles and delays in trying to cast their ballots.
So, how can we make sure we don’t repeat that experience in the time leading up to the general election?
That’s the question I asked a number of leaders – specifically seeking solutions to the problems that we faced.
The good news is that Aug. 11 runoff elections were a much smoother experience as several elements of the voting process were improved.
But the runoff only had about a tenth of the voters expected to cast their ballots for the November elections, which includes races for the next president of the United States, two U.S. Senators, all 14 of Georgia’s congressional seats and countless other local races.
“We expect the 2020 General Election will have a record turnout of five million people,” said Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Secretary of State, in a recent telephone interview. “We understand the importance of voting. We understand the challenges, and we are working through them.”
To find solutions, though, it’s important to analyze what went wrong in June. In short, it was a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances.
One of the biggest problems was a lack of poll workers. The average age of poll workers in Georgia is over 70, according to Raffensperger. Because that age group is most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic, many longtime poll workers chose to stay home.
The state also introduced new voting machines and a new voting process, which required the use of four different technologies – the pads to check-in voters, the actual voting machine, the printer that printed out the ballot and the scanner. Unfortunately, many of the poll workers who did show up had not been adequately trained or were not comfortable using the technology.
Then, there was a surge of voters combined with shifting precincts that led some people to experience extremely long lines, or worse, to walk away without voting.
The COVID pandemic created a number of other challenges, such as the concerns for voters who wanted to avoid possible exposure and opted to vote by mail.
Those who applied for absentee ballots had issues. Some did not receive their ballots in time, and others may have experienced delays after mailing in their ballots, leaving them unsure of whether their vote was counted.
The good news is there are comprehensive efforts underway to address nearly all the issues that Georgia struggled with in June, according to Raffensperger and other officials working behind the scenes..
The Secretary of State’s office, Georgia’s 159 county boards of elections, civic organizations and the business community are “laser-focused” on the state being able to hold secure and credible elections.
“The most important thing going forward is making sure we have enough poll workers for the fall,” Raffensperger said. “We need a total of 5,000. We have up to 3,000. We need them on board sooner rather than later.”
To bridge the gap, the Metro Atlanta Chamber launched a recruiting initiative to attract tech-savvy poll workers – reaching out to the business community to join in.
“That was a sweet spot and an opportunity for us,” said Dave Williams, senior vice president of policy, infrastructure and governmental affairs for the Metro Atlanta Chamber, in an interview on Aug. 14. “Already, 652 people have signed up to be poll workers from 150 companies in 32 different counties.”
Delta Air Lines on Friday also reached out to all of its Georgia employees and retirees – urging them to become poll workers.
One of the most important efforts was initiated by Steve Koonin, the Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena. The arena was turned into an early voting megasite with 100 voting machines. Now the plan is to triple that number for the 15 days of early voting this fall. Free parking is provided, an adjacent MARTA station is available, and the arena provides ample space for social distancing.
For those who would rather cast an absentee ballot, the Secretary of State’s office is building a digital portal for voters to request a ballot. Also, most counties in the state have established drop boxes where people can place their ballots under video surveillance and avoid having to rely on an unpredictable U.S. Postal Service.
Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU –Georgia, is working with the Secretary of State’s office and other jurisdictions to implement solutions.
“Voting should not be a partisan thing,” Young said. “Georgia’s reputation as a business center suffers when we can’t hold a well-run election.”
From her perspective, when problems arise, “it’s the most marginalized people who will feel it the most.”
Young did speak well of the work Raffensperger is doing. “I think the Secretary of State has been a good professional partner given the constraints they’re under,” she said, adding that some in the legislature have resisted making sure the voting process is accessible to all.
For example, Georgia law currently states that poll workers must live in the county of the precinct where they are working. That restriction can make it even more challenging to get poll workers.
When asked how the business community can help, Raffensperger quickly ticked off some ideas. Companies can give their employees time off to go vote, or they. can adopt a precinct to help ensure a smooth process. But most importantly, companies can help the state recruit poll workers, he said.
Fulton County often has been in the spotlight when it comes to issues with voting.
But Dick Anderson, Fulton’s county manager, said they have taken “an all hands-on deck approach.”
Anderson said the county has contracted to have a technician available at all its voting sites (which could total 225 in November) to troubleshoot any problems that could arise.
The county also has 20 drop boxes – mostly at its libraries where voters can drop off their ballots. It also has increased its budget from $15 million to $22 million to accommodate the extra measures and the special election for Congressman John Lewis’ seat.
“We think it’s absolutely critical for Georgia to get this right,” Anderson said. “It’s a direct reflection of the competence of government. We have an opportunity to set a new standard.”
Georgia also is in the spotlight because of its changing demographics.
“People believe Georgia is transitioning from red to blue so there’s additional interest,” said Raffensperger, who is confident Georgia can rise to the occasion. “Georgia is very dynamic, and Atlanta is a forward-thinking metro region.”
Here are ways you can get involved:
To figure out how to vote, go to Georgia’s My Voter Page, click here.
To become a poll worker through the Secretary of State’s office, click here.
To become a poll worker through the Metro Atlanta Chamber, click here.
To become a poll worker in Fulton County, click here.
To get general election information on the ACLU website, click here.
And to find all the dropbox locations in Georgia (provided by the Georgia Peanut Gallery), click here.
To read a recent challenge that political consultant James Carville issued to Georgia about its voting system, click here.