How Fast Can Absentee Ballots Be Counted in November? Two Metro Atlanta Counties’ Answers Differ

Fulton County says it should be mostly done counting absentee ballots the day after Election Day in November, but DeKalb County says it may take a week.

Emil Moffatt/WABE

Two weeks before the Nov. 3 election, workers in Fulton County will spread out at State Farm Arena to start opening envelopes, verifying signatures and processing absentee ballots. They’ll be scanned initially, but not added up until Election Day.

Fulton elections director Richard Barron says that if all goes according to plan, this should allow the county to be mostly done counting one day later.

“We’ll have about 5% to still scan the day after Election Day,” said Barron.

But in DeKalb County, the process is expected to take a bit longer, that county’s elections director Erica Hamilton says.

“Those jurisdictions do have something right down the street that’s a bigger arena,” said Hamilton, referring to State Farm Arena. “We don’t have something like that in DeKalb, but we’ve been looking, that will allow us to scan, open and have the public all in one place viewing it.”

She says even with the purchase of high speed scanners, it’s likely to be a full week after Election Day before all the votes in DeKalb are counted, even though DeKalb has about 200,000 fewer registered voters than Fulton.

With a record number of absentee votes expected in Georgia and across the country in November, elections experts are cautioning against expecting results immediately.

At the DeKalb County Board of Elections meeting Monday, board member Dele Lowman Smith expressed disappointment that the board hasn’t followed through to implement changes it recommend after the June election that might have sped up the process.

“Unfortunately, because of that, we have not been able to scale up the absentee by mail operations and relocate them off site, which was what we voted on two months ago based on the report that we got from our consultants,” she said. “That window has closed now.”

DeKalb County is spending tens of thousands of extra dollars for more elections personnel. But with Nov. 3 quickly approaching, the days are dwindling for DeKalb to figure out a way to handle the unprecedented load of absentee votes in a timely manner.

Lowman Smith didn’t place blame DeKalb’s elections department or Hamilton, but said the nature of elections has changed significantly since the pandemic began six months ago.

Still, she says, people will be looking for election results as soon as polls close on Nov. 3.

“The implications of being able to get results in a relatively timely manner is much, much greater this year than it probably has been, certainly in an election in my lifetime,” said Lowman Smith.