Start Of Early Voting In Georgia Kicks Election Season Into Full Gear

There will be 300 voting machines set up at State Farm Arena for early voting, which runs through Oct. 30.

Emil Moffatt / WABE

Hundreds of thousands of Georgians have submitted their completed absentee ballots, but Monday will mark the first votes cast in person in Georgia for the 2020 general election.

With a record 7.6 million Georgians registered to vote and interest in the November elections high, officials are expecting a record turnout of voters.

Yet, amid the excitement is concern about how the process will go and if voters will be able to cast a ballot safely during the ongoing pandemic.

Counties have increased their investment in elections for November, spending millions of dollars overall.

In Fulton County, which saw the longest lines in the state during the June primary, officials are hoping to have 80% of voters cast their ballots before Nov. 3.

To encourage this, the county has set up 30 permanent early voting sites, several pop-up sites and purchased two mobile voting units.

“We’ve made a commitment to enfranchise all the voters in this county, we’ve always had a big early voting program, but this time, in 2020, it’s even bigger,” said Richard Barron, Fulton County’s elections director.

The crown jewel of this year’s early voting program is the county’s partnership with State Farm Arena, where 300 voting machines and 60 check-in stations have been set up.

“It is going to be worth the extra drive to come here because of the atmosphere involved,” said Barron. “You’ll also get your own special sticker that you won’t get at any of the other facilities.”

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond speaks about the county’s partnership with CORE4 Atlanta, which is hosting an early voting site this year. Seated is DeAngelo Simmons, CEO of CORE4. (Emil Moffatt/WABE)

In DeKalb County, there are a dozen early voting sites that will be open for the three-weeks leading up to Nov. 3. But, unlike Fulton County, DeKalb officials aren’t publicly setting goals for how many people they’d like to see vote early or by mail.

“I don’t have a percentage, I want everybody to make their plan, I want everybody to choose however they would like to vote,” said DeKalb’s elections director Erica Hamilton.

Among the early voting sites in DeKalb County is CORE4 Atlanta, a basketball training facility in Chamblee, owned by former Atlanta Hawk Paul Millsap.

Poll Workers

A major stumbling block during the June primary was a lack of poll workers. Many experienced Election Day employees decided not to participate because of the coronavirus. This shortage in experience, combined with a new electronic voting system, led to many of the delays voters faced.

But Hamilton says DeKalb has been able to replenish its force of poll workers, including a pool of about 600 workers on standby.

“We have had a tremendous amount of response from our ACLU, from Metro Atlanta, from Leadership Atlanta, from the Secretary of State’s office providing us with the people who would love to work the polls,” said Hamilton.

After June, counties have placed an emphasis on in-person training of poll workers, a way to bolster their knowledge of the new voting equipment.

This is critical says Nerissa Dyess, training supervisor in Cobb County. She also says poll workers and voters should be confident that precautions will be taken to keep everyone safe.

“We require all of our poll workers to wear masks. Social distancing, we can place stickers on the floor for 6 feet apart, especially for line management,” said Dyess. “All the voters will get a stylus and a tissue too, so they won’t have to touch the equipment. We wipe down equipment throughout the day.”

Absentee Ballots

With more than 1.5 million absentee ballots requested in Georgia for November’s election, the state is on pace to break the record for vote-by-mail that it set in the June primaries.

Counties have bolstered the number of absentee ballot drop boxes. There are 37 drop boxes in Fulton County, 21 in DeKalb; 23 in Gwinnett and 16 in Cobb County.

The drop boxes are under 24-hour video surveillance and are emptied frequently by county elections officials.

Voters can still request an absentee ballot, although officials are urging Georgians to do so as quickly as possible to account for processing and mail delays.

The Secretary of State has set up ballot tracking technology that can be used for ballots requested up until mid-October. After that, when counties take over the process of mailing absentee ballots, the same tracking won’t be available.

Whether they are mailed or returned to a dropbox, absentee ballots must be received by county elections officials by 7 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 3.

Because of a special rule set up by the State Elections Board, counties will be able to start processing and scanning (but not tabulating) absentee ballots on Oct. 19. This should allow counties to get a jump start on processing an expected record number of votes cast by mail.