Georgia’s primary election this month made national headlines – for all the wrong reasons. From voting equipment malfunctions, to long lines at polling places and some voters not receiving their absentee ballots, a lot of Georgia voters were frustrated with the way the primary was administered. We all want to know what went wrong in Georgia’s primary. Mark Niesse, who covers Georgia government for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, followed the primary debacle extensively. In an email exchange, I asked him about last week’s chaotic primary and how election officials are preparing for the November General election. Here is our exchange.
“Most of the problems with Georgia’s new voting equipment were caused by unfamiliarity with it. Many poll workers, some of whom were hired at the last minute, had never hooked up these voting computers before. The most common problems involved difficulties encoding voter access cards, logging into voter check-in tablets and plugging each piece of equipment into the correct power supply. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Wednesday he wants a technician in every voting location in November. He also proposed more hands-on training for poll workers after they were mostly limited to online videos since the coronavirus pandemic began.”
“Fulton County’s elections office struggled to handle absentee ballot applications that voters had sent as attachments to email messages. Election workers initially tried to print every emailed absentee ballot application but were quickly overwhelmed by the task of organizing tens of thousands of forms. Then Fulton delayed processing emailed applications until after it finished with mailed applications. When election workers returned to the emailed applications, they overlooked some of them. Some voters never received their absentee ballots in the mail, forcing them to vote in person instead.”
“County and state election officials share responsibility in Georgia for elections, and both were strained by the coronavirus. Raffensperger’s absentee ballot program put a burden on county election offices to process request forms, but the program helped avoid worse problems at polling places by helping people vote from home. Raffensperger’s office is charged with training county election supervisors and providing training materials. Then those supervisors train their poll workers at the county level. Counties are responsible for keeping enough precincts open and hiring enough poll workers, but some precincts pulled out and poll workers quit. Perhaps the greatest source of lines was social distancing requirements that limited the number of voters inside a precinct to 10 or less at a time.”
Election officials plan to open more precincts, hire more poll workers and improve their training. However, it will be a challenge to find precincts and workers in November, just as it was in the primary, if the coronavirus pandemic persists.
The longest wait I heard of was about eight hours at Christian City Welcome Center in Union City, where the last voter didn’t finish until 12:35 a.m. on June 10.
Another issue with holding a vote-by-mail election that has not been talked about much: funding for the United States Postal Service. During this pandemic, most people are relying on the Postal Service for their everyday needs, from prescriptions, to paying bills, and yes – voting. Grace Panetta, who covers politics for Business Insider, noted that the USPS is borrowing $10 billion from the U.S. Treasury as part of the stimulus package that was passed by Congress in April. But the package did not provide debt relief for the USPS. And two lawmakers recently warned that the post office could run out of money by the summer if it does not receive more federal aid.
The bottom line is this: conducting a vote-by-mail election is not as easy as it looks. While all you have to do is complete a ballot and put it in your mailbox, there are lots of outside forces that help make sure your ballot gets to where it needs to be. And each of these forces are being impacted by the coronavirus pandemic in one way or another. Election officials are struggling to recruit volunteers to help count ballots, and the Postal Service is struggling to obtain the financial resources that it will need to stay afloat. If the general election November is anything like what we have witnessed in recent primaries, November is going to turn into “election month.”