Voters wait in line at a polling place in Vinings.
Caption
Voters wait in line at a polling place in Vinings.

More than half a million absentee ballot applications have been processed for Georgia’s June 9 primary so far, overwhelming local officials who already face a shortage of poll workers and polling places.

While the state begins to ease social distancing restrictions to reopen the economy, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is urging Georgians to vote by mail in this election cycle to combat the spread of COVID-19. To help with the process, the state mailed absentee ballot applications to the state’s 6.9 million active registered voters.

As of Monday, county election officials had approved more than 590,000 absentee ballot requests, with hundreds of thousands more awaiting processing. With seven weeks remaining until the rescheduled election, applications for absentee ballots already double the number of absentee votes cast in the 2018 gubernatorial election

RELATED: Georgia Elections Officials Prep for ‘Unprecedented’ Primary As Coronavirus Looms

A GPB News/Georgia News lab survey of nearly three-quarters of the state’s 159 elections directors also finds many counties are left with fewer polling places to accomodate in-person voting.

An ‘overwhelming’ number of applications

Counties like Fayette, which has nearly 90,000 registered voters, are straining under the load of absentee ballot applications.

“We have been inundated,” Election Supervisor Floyd Jones said. “We've got applications that are coming in by the bucket loads over here and they come in email nonstop.”

The same holds true in Cobb County, where officials have approved 43,146 applications, more than anywhere else in the state.  

Cobb Elections Director Janine Eveler estimated last week roughly 100,000 more applications awaiting processing were stacked in mail trays across the office. 

Although the state has hired a third-party contractor to print and prepare applications and ballots for voters, Eveler said her office is struggling to keep up with the volume of incoming mail and email.

 

“We still have to staff for the data entry tasks, the opening the mail tasks and that sort of thing,” she said, adding that additional staff would be needed to process in-person and absentee ballots.

Other counties are following suit. 

Some elections supervisors, such as Marcia Ridley in Spalding County, are bringing on employees from other county departments to help with the paperwork. 

Absentee ballot applications are arriving at a rate of about a thousand per day, Ridley said, and the workload is more than her three-person department can handle.   

“I'm having to hire additional people because my county has roughly 43,000 active voters,” Ridley said. “I expect 40-something thousand applications to come in, which is new to everybody … No one was ever prepared for a pandemic such as this.”

In Fulton, Elections Director Rick Barron said he is also getting help from other county departments as emailed absentee ballot applications were recently coming in “every 10 seconds.” 

“We have an overwhelming amount of applications coming in,” Registration Manager Pam Coman said at an April 9 Fulton County Board of Elections and Registrations meeting. “I’ve been in the department 18 years and I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

About 10,000 applications had been processed in Fulton as of Tuesday with about 100,000 awaiting processing, Barron said. The county had about 17,000 total absentee votes in November 2018 out of 700,000 registered voters.

Losing polling places

Though the secretary of state’s office is encouraging Georgians to take advantage of absentee voting, state law requires that counties provide polling places for in-person voting on Election Day and for three weeks prior.

Churches, private businesses and other privately-owned facilities that agreed to serve as polls for the primary have since backed out over concerns about the virus. The cancellations have left some election supervisors scrambling to find new locations for people to vote.  

In the 10 counties with the greatest increase in registered voters — most around metro Atlanta — more than 75% of polling places are churches, schools and senior centers. As COVID-19 continues to spread across the state, so too does uncertainty about how many polls will be open and whether there will be enough poll workers willing to staff them.

Cherokee County Elections Director Kim Stancil said that before the announcement that the May primary would be pushed to June, eight of her county’s 41 polling places had backed out and another three were on the fence. 

“We’re just taking it day by day, because we can’t pressure them into answering when things are still locked down,” Stancil  said, adding that she is reluctant to insist on a commitment from property owners while the state is locked down. “They don’t know what it’s going to be like a month from now, so we can’t say ‘Okay, we’ve got to have your answer.’”

The Rockdale County Board of Elections voted earlier this month to have voters in three of its 16 precincts vote at a county-owned building. It even explored having voters wait in their cars to cast their ballots.

The Fulton County elections board is set to consider Thursday plans to relocate up to 11 early voting locations, most due to COVID-19, according to the meeting agenda.

Bryan Sells, an Atlanta attorney who specializes in voting rights, said counties should work to ensure there are more places to vote in the middle of a public health emergency, not fewer.

“I don't think it's the right time for boards of elections to start preemptively closing polling places for fear that they won't be able to have them open,” he said. “We're getting mighty close to the primary election here, and I think we run the risk of disenfranchising people if we start messing around too much with polling places.”

From 2012 to 2018, more than 10% of the state’s polling places have closed across half of Georgia’s 159 counties. In that time, Georgia has added more than a million people to its roll of registered voters.

Unprecedented decisions

Even in places relatively untouched by the virus, election administrators say they are seeing changes in voter behavior.

In northeast Georgia, about a quarter of Rabun County’s 12,000 active voters had requested an absentee ballot as of Monday night.  That’s three times the amount received for the 2018 governor’s race.

Elections Director Tammy Whitmire said the Rabun County Civic Center — the county’s only poll — is ready for the election, but the phone line to her office has been busier than usual with voters asking questions about the mail-in ballots.

“This is an adjustment for them,” she said. “They’ve never voted and went through this process.”

What’s more, many elections officials said they have not received any official guidance on how to deal with voters who come to the polls with obvious symptoms of illness. 

Henry County Elections Director Ameika Pitts said her office came up with its own protocol. 

A poll worker who notices a sick voter is to notify the poll manager or get personal protective equipment and ask the voter if they need help, Pitts said.

“Maybe pull them to the side and ask them a few questions and keep them out of the loop of the line,” she said. “It just depends on the particular symptom that is being noticed.” 

If a poll worker believes a voter is sick, they will provide advice on where they can get help and offer them the opportunity to vote absentee.

Back in Fayette County, Jones said he is struggling with what to do if such a situation occurs. 

“I have to be very honest with you. I don't know,” Jones said. “You run a risk of how do I know that it's COVID-19 versus you got allergies? ... And then again, even if you do, I don't know if I have a legal right to say ‘You’ve got to get out of the voting line and can't vote.’”

In Fulton County, where an elections employee died recently of COVID-19 and another was hospitalized with the virus, colleagues are struggling with difficult questions.

“We’ve kind of asked ourselves, ‘Would we be willing to go out and work at these sites for three weeks in a row?’” Elections Director Barron said. “But we’re going to have to ask these people, and they will do it, but I feel a responsibility to the safety of these individuals.”

Laura Corley is Deputy Editor of the Georgia News Lab

The News Lab is an investigative reporting partnership between Georgia universities, Georgia Public Broadcasting, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV. News Lab reporters contributing to the story were: Richard Chess, Imani Dennis, Eric Fan, Luke Gardner, Madilyn Harrell, Niraj Naik, Nicole Sadek, Mary Margaret Stewart and Ada Wood. Reporting for this story was funded in part by the Democracy Fund.