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The particulars of absentee voting, because this year the picky things matter

By Tom Baxter

This column is going to get into some picky computer details, because this year, picky computer details could decide some elections.

If you google “georgia absentee ballot,” the item you’ll see at the top of the list which Google spits out is a paid ad from the Trump campaign, urging his supporters to register to vote. At least that was true for me, when I did this a few hours ago.

Next on the list this morning was one of those Google-generated information boxes, which gives basic information and a link, “mail ballot application.” That takes you to a georgia.gov page. Another click, and you’ll get to an application for an absentee ballot.

To be clear, this isn’t the new online absentee ballot request portal that you may have read or heard about in the past few days, which lets you apply for a ballot online. This link takes you to a PDF of the paper application form, which you can print, fill out and mail, fax or deliver by hand.

You may have received a copy of this form in the mail, already filled out for you, from the Center for Voter Information or the Voter Participation Center, related non-profits which are seeking to increase voter turnout across the country. There should be noting wrong with using one of these completed forms to apply for a ballot … although there is one picky little thing.

My sharp-eyed wife noticed that an application she printed out from the secretary of state’s site has a line in the upper right corner for a voter registration number, which the Center for Voter Information form doesn’t have. Nor does the current PDF form you get through georgia.gov. A spokesperson in the secretary of state’s office said last week that the requirement for a voter registration number was added to the 2020 form, but didn’t know why that line isn’t currently on the form on their website.

Again, picky. But at a time when distrust is one of the few things both sides have in common, you can be sure that some of these very small questions could mushroom into very big deals.

As of last Friday, when the absentee ballot request portal got up and running, you don’t have to worry about paper forms. I tried it Monday, and quickly worked my way through the brief online form. “Success!” said a message which flashed on my screen, informing me that my application had been received. This was followed immediately by another message which said “Error! While submitting your Absentee Ballot Request, please try again later!”

Fortunately, the second message was wrong. I got an emailed confirmation that the request had been received, and the secretary of state’s My Voter Page shows that I’ve applied for an absentee ballot. That last error message notwithstanding, applying online was a fairly easy and straightforward process. But there is a fine line between the obvious and the baffling, especially for older voters finding their way online.

Fulton County Registration Chief Ralph Jones said Friday the county has already received 54,000 of the paper-form requests for absentee ballots. Presumably, people asking for ballots this early also plan to mail in their completed ballots early as well. But for those who wait, U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross gave a little more breathing room Monday, extending the deadline so that ballots postmarked on Election Day and delivered within three days must still be counted.

That’s expected to mean that thousands of votes which wouldn’t have been counted now will be. It also virtually guarantees that it will be days, at least, before a final result will be announced.

For all the attention focused on absentee voting, due to the pandemic and President Trump’s vocal opposition to it, the big story in this year’s election may be on the ground, and on Election Day. The parallel efforts by More Than a Vote, LeBron James’ group, and the Election Super Centers Project to convert the nation’s sports arenas into giant, socially-distanced polling places could have a big impact in November. State Farm Arena has already been used successfully for early and same-day voting in the August 11 primary runoff. Professional teams are lending support to similar efforts across the country.

It would be an irony if this year’s campaign ended with Republicans beseeching their voters to send in their absentee ballots, and Democrats directing their voters to big stadiums. But that could happen.

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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