Georgia election officials scramble to prepare for runoff
“It’s probably been the toughest year I’ve ever seen in an election,” said Zach Manifold, the election supervisor for Gwinnett County, Georgia’s second most populous county that’s part of the heartland of the metropolis of Atlanta.
“I think everyone is interested to see how the next few weeks go,” Manifold said. “This second round says to everyone, ‘Congratulations, you’ve done it all in 90 days! Let’s see if we can do it in 28.’ So I think the timelines have held up well so far, but I think you’re probably going to feel it a lot more in a second round.
After the 2020 presidential election, when former President Donald Trump and his allies falsely alleged widespread and coordinated voter fraud, Republicans in Georgia enacted sweeping legislation that overhauled state election laws. In addition to imposing new requirements for voting by mail, adding a set of rules to county election administration, and increasing lawmakers’ power to investigate election offices, the law shortens the window between a general election and any potential run-off about a third of the time.
Extend access? A historical limitation? What Georgia’s electoral law really does.
The law — both in its practical effect and its legal implications — has sometimes confused election administrators, such as when state officials realized they could no longer legally offer early voting on the Saturday before the second round in because of another law that prohibited voting on holidays, including a state holiday that once honored Confederate General Robert E. Lee. After Democrats filed a lawsuit, a judge ruled Friday that counties can offer early voting on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Counties are under pressure from voting rights groups to ensure voters have as much access to the ballot as possible in the shortened time frame. The second round of elections in Georgia takes place four weeks after the midterm elections. In contrast, after the 2020 election, a decisive Senate runoff was held in January 2021 to determine the balance of power in the Senate.
“It was very hard. Elections are already a complicated process even without all the changes that have happened over the past two years,” said Manifold, who has a weekly meeting with other election supervisors in the state’s most populous counties.
Manifold, who has been in the role for just over a year, said about 70% of its staff were new to election administration work. Many counties in Georgia, especially those in populated and Democratic-leaning areas, are reporting that at least half of their staff are new to their jobs, causing “a lot of growing pains at every level,” a- he declared.
Lack of experience resulted in some hiccups, though counties reported relatively short and fast lines at polling places during early voting and on Election Day. The workers did not experience the mass threats and harassment this year that has driven so many out of the profession in 2020.
Manifold noted that most counties smoothly completed their certifications and auditing processes, unlike previous years when errors and slow processing often turned into misrepresentations and mounting threats against election officials. He also praised the Secretary of State’s office for “a terrific job” in supporting the counties despite employing largely new and less experienced staff.
As the 2021 Georgia Elections Act directs counties to begin early voting for any potential runoffs “as soon as possible” after a general election, election staff are busy with the challenges of finalizing the last election before they can begin voting. administer the next. Tasks such as mailing out absentee ballots or determining when in-person early voting will be available are largely in limbo as counties balance their various duties.
Georgia’s Senate race is heading for a runoff. Here’s how it will work.
Voting rights groups have argued that early voting should begin as early as November 22.
“There is an extremely tight runoff window … which presents a significant hurdle for election offices and voters,” said Kristin Nabers, state director of All Voting is Local, a voting rights group. The group is one of eight groups that sent a letter to counties urging them to hold early voting in more places, times and days than the law requires.
“It’s not like you just vote, go get other poll workers and you’re ready to vote again. There are a lot of things that counties need to do in between, like counting, certifying, testing the machines, doing the limitation audit…everything has to go perfectly to stay on schedule,” she said.
In the meantime, many counties have moved to expand access to the second round beyond the minimum requirements of the 2021 Elections Act. A handful of counties, for example, have agreed to open their polls from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. rather than the standard 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. required by law.
At least nine of Georgia’s 159 counties will hold a vote on Sunday in the Senate’s second round the weekend after Thanksgiving and a day before mandatory statewide early voting begins. All of them are located in the main population groups of the state. DeKalb and Douglas, both in metro Atlanta, will hold early voting in the days leading up to Thanksgiving.
“They’re very busy, but they’re confident they can do anything,” state board member Matt Mashburn said of how county election officials juggle the various demands. “I’m really proud of their attitude, they’re going to roll up their sleeves and they’re going to make it happen,” said Mashburn, a Republican.
Despite the administrative challenges, he said many election workers remained confident that they could administer the second round without major problems.
“Our poll workers and staff are so resilient,” Manifold said. “We throw everything at them and accumulate new processes and forms, change guidelines – and they always succeed.”