Politics

Voting in Georgia’s Primaries Could Look Much Different Amid Pandemic

Voters wait in line on Election Day in Atlanta in 2018. With concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, Georgians have flooded county elections offices with absentee ballot applications for the states 2020 primaries.
Voters wait in line on Election Day in Atlanta in 2018. With concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, Georgians have flooded county elections offices with absentee ballot applications for the states 2020 primaries.
Credit David Goldman / Associated Press
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Thousands of absentee ballots for Georgia’s June primary elections are set to be mailed out on Tuesday.

Early voting locations will re-open their doors in less than a month in advance of Election Day, June 9.

It’s all set against the backdrop of the coronavirus, which has already wrought havoc this spring on voting in the state, delaying the state’s primaries not once, but twice.

“Historically in Georgia, we are a people that enjoy voting in person, about 95% usually,” said Gabe Sterling, Chief Operating Officer with Georgia’s secretary of state’s office.

But with concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, Georgians have flooded county elections offices with absentee ballot applications. As of Sunday, some 526,000 applications had been received.

Georgia has had “no-excuse” absentee voting since 2005, but voters have used it relatively sparingly. But after the March 24 presidential primary was pushed back, the secretary of state’s office began a push to get more people to vote by mail by mailing absentee applications to all 6.9 million registered voters.

“We figured we could keep people safe and take pressure off polling locations by making strong use of our available and existing structure around absentee voting,” Sterling said.

With Georgia’s primaries now scheduled for the second week of June, voters still have several weeks to apply for an absentee ballot. But Sterling cautions that voters should leave enough time for counties to process the applications and for the third-party vendor, Runbeck Election Services, to mail ballots.

Ballots can be returned either by mail or in person at county elections offices. Last week, the State Election Board also approved an emergency measure that would allow counties to set up secure drop boxes for voters to return their ballots.

The secretary of state’s office says it’s exploring using newly-available security elections funding to possibly offset the cost of those drop boxes for counties.

With a higher-than-usual volume of absentee ballots expected to be cast for the June primaries, Sterling said they are making preparations to assist counties with the Election Day workload.

“We’re in the middle of procuring more high-capacity tabulation equipment to put into – especially – the large counties,” said Sterling, who also said the secretary of state’s office is working with counties on what they can once ballots begin arriving.

Ballots can’t be actually counted until Election Day, but workers can verify signatures and remove the outer envelope so the ballots are ready to be scanned June 9.

Meanwhile, voting rights groups around the country have been pushing for expanded access to vote-by-mail in light of the pandemic. But former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, founder of Fair Fight, said her group is also working to make sure in-person voting is still readily available for those who can’t vote by mail. These groups include the disabled, those who might need language assistance and the state’s homeless population.

“Voting by mail can work for the majority of the population,” Abrams said. “ And that should be done in order to allow those who do have to vote in person to allow them to do so safely and within CDC guidelines.”

Abrams is among those calling for billions more in federal funding to help pay for postage for mail in ballots and applications – as well as to recruit more younger poll workers who are not as susceptible to life-threatening health problems caused by COVID-19.

Correction: This report has been updated to show that Georgia has had “no-excuse” absentee voting since 2005.

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