Georgia Counties Tackle Processing Absentee Ballots As Election Day Nears

Workers in DeKalb County have begun processing thousands of absentee ballots for the November general election.
Workers in DeKalb County have begun processing thousands of absentee ballots for the November general election.
Credit Emil Moffatt / WABE

In an industrial warehouse attached to the DeKalb County elections office, dozens of workers wear N95 protective masks and sit at spaced-out tables. They’re a mix of county employees, poll workers and volunteers.  In front of them are bins of absentee ballots.

These ballots have already been verified and accepted, according to DeKalb County elections director Erica Hamilton, meaning the signatures on the outer envelope have been matched against what the county has on file.

“So what they’re doing is opening the ballots, stacking them in stacks of a hundred, making sure there’s no discrepancy — that the same amount of oath envelops we have is the same amount of ballots,” Hamilton continued. “Once they’re prepared, we’ll take them from this area down to our tabulation room and begin to scan them.”

The county has purchased two high-capacity ballot scanners to speed up the process. It also has a machine called an “extractor” that can separate ballots from envelopes at the rate of nearly 2,000 per hour.

Emergency Rules

Unlike some other states, Georgia has set up emergency rules allowing counties to start processing absentee ballots up to two weeks before Election Day. That means opening and scanning the ballots.

But the results cannot be added up until polls close on Nov. 3.

It’s all meant to make sure voters aren’t waiting too long for results. Through Sunday, more than 950,000 absentee ballots have been completed and returned statewide in Georgia.

“Where states have provided their officials more time to process the ballots, that is excellent, and it will ensure that they can do their jobs, perhaps with a little less pressure on them,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, who is with the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice. The group tracks election preparedness across the country.

In DeKalb County, voters have turned in 90,000 absentee ballots as of Sunday. Hamilton says many of them have been returned using one of the two-dozen drop boxes set up by the county, another emergency rule change approved by the State Election Board amid the pandemic.

“The one on Memorial Drive [at the main elections office] must be a big hit because we’ve had to empty that one three or four times a day,” said Hamilton. “There’s not a time when I don’t walk outside to see four or five people putting their ballot into the drop box.”

Absentee Ballots Nearing Record

In Georgia, more than 1.7 million people have requested an absentee ballot for the November election. That means it’s likely the state will eclipse the record for votes returned by mail set in the June primary (1.1 million).

Voters have until 7 p.m. on Election Day to return absentee ballots, which means the counting will continue on Election Night and likely a few days after.

Richard Barron, Fulton County’s elections director, said last week that the biggest snag with the absentee by mail process for this election has been slow delivery of ballots through the mail.

“Most of the issues that we have are just people waiting to get the ballots in the mail,” said Barron. “That is the most common question that we receive is ‘where is my ballot?’”

Voters can track the status of their ballot by using the state’s My Voter Page and ballot tracking system.

Just over 99,000 absentee ballots have been returned to Fulton County, which has set up its absentee ballot processing nerve center at State Farm Arena.

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