Georgia’s election administrators are fighting bizarre conspiracy theories, ballooning costs and coronavirus-related staffing problems as they prepare for the state’s contentious, nationally watched Senate runoffs next week.
In interviews, eight Georgia election officials — including a top aide in the secretary of state’s office and county administrators around the state — said they were confident of holding a smooth election on Jan. 5 to decide control of the Senate. But those runoffs have pushed the people making the system work to their breaking point.
The pandemic has forced temporary closures in some election offices, and all officials can do is hope election week doesn’t bring more at exactly the wrong time. The state’s early voting and vote-by-mail programs have increased turnout but stretched resources and become a bitter partisan flashpoint.
All the while, stressed and fatigued election workers want to prevent reporting of the Senate vote counts from devolving into the mess that followed November’s vote, when President Donald Trump and allies spread unfounded claims about machines switching votes (Georgia uses paper ballots), the state’s voter signature verification process and other issues that fueled Trump’s overall claim that he was cheated. Ronda Walthour, the interim elections supervisor in Liberty County, said she wanted to hold more training for poll workers and observers before the Senate runoffs to address the issues.
“I’m going to try to have another class prior to the actual election, because I don’t want any issues like I had in November,” Walthour said. The litany of unfounded complaints and conspiracies about Georgia’s general election results stemmed partly from lack of knowledge about election administration — admittedly a niche subject even for political junkies before this year.
Walthour said some poll watchers thought they could “walk around and do whatever they wanted to do” in November, contrary to state guidelines that both dictate who can serve as a poll watcher and what they can do on site, generally restricting them from interfering in the voting process.
“The sheer flood of disinformation has undermined people’s faith,” said Gabriel Sterling, one of the top officials in the secretary of state’s office. “At the end of the day, what that means is you don’t trust your neighbor who’s running the election. … And that’s really weighing on a lot of them.”
The pandemic is also weighing on preparations, with election administrations hyperaware that Covid cases could throw a wrench in their plans at the last minute.
“We’ve had to close our elections office twice because of potential exposures to Covid-19,” said Marjorie Howard, the chair of the board of elections in Talbot County, a tiny county of about 4,500 registered voters. “It just so happened, thank God … it was not during an election week. Because that would have been horrible.”
Several election administrators noted concerns that the timing of the Senate runoffs, right after the holidays, could cause staffing problems.
“Not everyone is following the advice and not having large family gatherings or going to Christmas gatherings,” said Joseph Kirk, the elections supervisor for Bartow County. “All we can do right now is plan for contingencies, have a plan B available, and hope we don’t have to use it.”
Over the course of 2020, local election administrators across the country have had to recruit a whole new class of volunteer poll workers during the pandemic to replace seniors who disproportionately filled those roles in the past. On top of that, many offices needed significantly more workers than they were used to employing in order to process the unprecedented wave of absentee ballots that voters cast this year.
Lynn Bailey, the director of elections in Augusta’s Richmond County, normally has nine full-time employees on staff — but she had to add another 25 temporary employees who do everything from working early voting sites to processing absentee ballot requests and returns, which is a time-consuming process.
Election offices’ budgets have exploded under the strain. “This will go down as the most expensive election time in my career,” Bailey said. “We went into November with an election, when planned for back in the summer of 2019, came in at a budget of around $160,000. And I think the best estimate right now is that that election will come in at about $650,000.”
Roughly a quarter of the state’s counties received a grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, to which Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan gave $350 million this year to close gaps in local election budgets. Trump allies tried unsuccessfully in several states to block those grants, which the center reopened for the runoff elections.
Trump’s intense focus on Georgia since the election has piled onto the concerns facing election administrators as they prepare for the Senate races. State officials have blamed Trump for threats against election workers, and the president’s complaints about mail voting have turned his party against a practice that once had broad bipartisan support.
Already, Georgia appears likely to be the epicenter of Republican efforts to change mail voting rules next year. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger endorsed efforts to roll back the state’s no-excuse absentee voting program in 2021, after the Senate runoffs. Raffensperger, a Republican, has been a frequent target for Trump since the president lost Georgia. But rather than side with Trump’s fraud allegations, he cited the burden on election officials as justification for changing Georgia’s mail voting program — which his office has previously touted as a national leader.
“Asking county elections officials to hold no excuse absentee ballot voting in addition to three weeks of early, in-person voting, and election day voting is too much to manage,” Raffensperger said in a statement.
The push would mark a rollback of voter access in the state and is sure to meet stiff resistance from voting rights groups and Democrats next year, though Republicans have full control of the state legislature as well as the governorship.
In the meantime, local officials in Georgia are trying to get through the election year that wouldn’t end.
“It doesn’t even seem like Christmas to any of us,” said Deidre Holden, the supervisor of elections in Paulding County. “Nobody’s had any time off. And that’s to be expected, because we have to get through this election.
“But it’s been difficult,” she continued, praising her staff. “You are physically tired, you are mentally tired. You are basically exhausted. But we know that we have to keep going on.”
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