In this episode, we’re continuing to unpack how Georgia’s election landscape has changed since the nationally watched 2018 governor’s race, from the delivery of voting machines to the coronavirus-stricken primary.

We left off at the end of 2019, where the secretary of state’s office began delivering Dominion ballot-marking devices, scanners and other voting equipment to 159 counties, facing several lawsuits over those machines.

2020 marked a new year, one where Georgia has been legally ordered to no longer use its old and paperless voting machines.  

By mid-February, the final trucks of voting equipment had left a nondescript warehouse northwest of Atlanta before the start of early voting in the presidential primary scheduled for March 24.

Gabe Sterling, the secretary of state’s resident logistics manager for this rollout, said it was a massive undertaking to deliver everything in a timely manner.

“It is next to impossible to explain how many things that had to go out, because it’s not just the big touchscreens — it’s the peripherals, it’s the ADA equipment, it’s every printer, it’s every scanner, it’s checking all the ballot boxes to make sure they’re not cracked or broken,” he said. “I did the math as something close to 200,000 pieces and parts — and probably even more than that’s gone out.”

All the while, county elections officials were preparing for the first big test of the new voting system, one of at least three statewide elections planned for the year. 

But then, the coronavirus struck. Cases in Georgia began to grow as early voting began for the presidential primary, and then Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger took a serious step: postponing the presidential preference primary to coincide with the general primary on May 19, then later ultimately moving both to June 9.

The coronavirus pandemic upended life as we knew it, forcing businesses to close, schools online, and sending elections officials like Lee County’s Veronica Johnson scrambling to make in-person voting safe.

“I'll be honest, it is getting a little scary; at first it's ‘Go with the flow and do what you're told,’ social distancing as much as you can and hand-washing and all of that,” she said. “But after a while, it really starts to get to you.”

I talked to her in April, when her southwest Georgia county was in the middle of a COVID-19 outbreak that is to this day one of the worst in the country. Her daughter is a nurse at the main hospital one county over in Albany. Trying to figure out how to bring people into close quarters to cast their vote and how to keep elderly poll workers safe was exhausting.
“This is very unprecedented,” she said. “I've been doing this 20 years and I can't wrap my head around everything that needs to be done right now.”

Elsewhere across the state, we heard similar concerns from county supervisors: Could you block someone from voting if they looked ill? How do we have enough machines to minimize lines but few enough that voters aren’t close together? Will my polling places drop out? My poll workers?

One thing helped: Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger took another unprecedented step of mailing absentee ballot applications to 6.9 million active voters to keep people away from the polls and engaged in the voting process.
As Bacon County’s supervisor attested to in the first episode, Georgians typically don’t vote by mail in large numbers. 

While that cut down on the potential number of voters at the polls, it created new problems as mountains of paperwork came in, such as what Phyllis Wheeler had to deal with in McDuffie County outside Augusta in east Georgia.

"We're a small county but we've just been overwhelmed by the number of ballots coming back," Wheeler said. "We've processed already over 3,500... in 2018, we only had 800."

Processing those thousands of ballots for the June primary was crippled after two staffers tested positive for COVID-19 on the second day of early voting. Still, like other elections officials in the state, there was a job to do and Wheeler was determined to do it.

"I'm gonna do the best I can... I started doing this here in '91 in McDuffie County, and I've never let them down,” she said. “I think they know that I'm going to do what I can do as best I can do it, and I'm going to keep this office rolling."

Later that week, the only early voting site in Appling County was closed for several days after one of 28 voters that showed up tested positive for the virus as well.

And in Fulton County, Georgia’s largest, an election worker died from the coronavirus, halting election operations for days and making a large backlog even larger.

Throughout the early months of 2020, local elections officials had warned of three main issues: a shortage of trained poll workers, longer lines because of fewer voting machines and fewer polling places open because of the virus.

Even with those repeated warnings, voters — and the national media — were not prepared for what happened on June 9.

In the weeks leading up to election day, 80 polling places closed in the greater metro Atlanta area, and one in 10 statewide moved somewhere else. 

The symbol of these changes and these problems emerged in Fulton County on June 9. A midtown Atlanta church was unavailable, so the two precincts that voted there moved to a midtown high school, which already had three precincts that cast their ballots there.

But right before the election, school officials told Fulton County that location would be unavailable as well, which led to 16,000 active voters being assigned to Park Tavern, normally known as an idyllic restaurant and event space tucked into the corner of Atlanta’s premier park.

While not all 16,000 voters showed up on election day, more people meant longer lines. In fact, more than 300 were waiting to vote before the polls even opened.

Elsewhere on election day, things were not going great, either.

A DeKalb County poll location had only four out of 12 poll workers show up. Then, the machines weren’t working. And the icing on the cake: They ran out of backup paper ballots after just 20 voters, leaving many residents in line for hours.

“America has gotten to the point that we are now taking the liberties of people, even voting, from them,” 80-year-old Anita Heard said. “How can we do this? We’re supposed to be the best, and we have proven ourselves at this time to be worse than any country alive.”  

About 10% of Gwinnett’s polling places didn’t have machines when voting started after a botched delivery plan. Bibb County voters were given incorrect paper ballots when machines stopped working and in many predominantly Black communities, voting took longer.

Before the end of the day, dueling press releases were flinging blame at the state and the counties, and the first statewide test of Georgia’s new voting machines was declared a disaster.

Except most counties had few issues, and the secretary of state’s office honed in on Fulton County as the main culprit of voting woes.

Standing outside Park Tavern a week later, flanked by posters with more than a decade of Fulton election problems, the state’s top election official asked lawmakers to allow his office to more directly intervene in how counties run elections.
“From our data from election day so far, approximately 70% of all the issues in the state were in Fulton County,” Raffensperger said. “Fulton County’s issues are now conflated with Georgia’s elections overall in spite of the Georgia election officials and workers who have worked their fingers to the bone to bring us a successful election.”

He also called for a new plan to make November better for all voters, including more tech support in every polling place, better training for newer, younger poll workers and more polling places.

But most importantly, Georgia officials want you to vote before Election Day.

“Historically in the general election, we see about 50% of voters vote ahead of the election day, 50% on Election Day — we need to bump that number up,” he said. “Imagine what Tuesday would have looked like had we not had the absentee ballot program.”

A few weeks later, Fulton County got a big boost, when the Atlanta Hawks announced their giant arena — empty because of an NBA season played at Disney World — would be the state’s largest-ever early voting site.

"We aim to be a community asset, and in order to fulfill that goal, we need to be more than just a basketball team,” Hawks CEO Steve Koonin said. “We'll utilize our arena for all aspects of voting."

Atlanta’s public transit system reopened a station below the arena, parking decks were made free and Hawks staff were trained as poll workers to operate 100 voting machines.

While turnout was down in a runoff race, thousands of people used the arena with little issue.

The state election board also took steps to improve voting before November. They approved one rule that allows county workers to begin processing absentee ballots starting two weeks before Election Day — meaning they can do everything but tabulate the results before polls closed.

Also, while Raffensperger decided not to mail out absentee ballot applications to millions of voters again, Georgia did launch an easier way to request a mail-in absentee ballot.

Fill out your name, date of birth, county and driver's license or voter ID number and a couple minutes later, you’re done.

More than 1.3 million Georgians have requested an absentee ballot so far, and nearly a quarter million have been through that portal. 

As those ballots begin to go out in the mail, the November 2020 election is officially underway — but not without controversy.

On Sept. 8, Raffensperger announced the beginnings of an investigation into allegations of double voting in the primary.

For now, there’s no evidence that those voters did so intentionally, or that both votes counted, but his message was clear.

"Let me reiterate this: Every double voter will be investigated thoroughly," he said. "A double voter knows exactly what they're doing, diluting the votes of each and every voter that follows the law. Those that make the choice to game the system are breaking the law."

This came on the heels of President Trump encouraging his supporters to vote twice in North Carolina and a slew of misinformation about the absentee voting process, and many headlines about the state’s latest announcement didn’t help.

Still, many election observers feel that preparations for November are going smoother than expected, including former gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams.

“I am cautiously optimistic that the pledge made by the secretary of state that he would actually do his job this time, that he would make certain that there are technicians to repair the machines, that he will ensure that absentee ballots actually get sent out, that he will help our counties do their jobs, which is his job,” she said on a recent call with reporters.

Counties have recruited thousands of new poll workers to oversaturate the polls with help, held more training to get people comfortable with a complex system, and, in metro Atlanta, more polls are being added.

In Fulton County alone, officials approved more than 90 new places to vote since the primary, splitting up crowded sites but creating a new challenge as people might not know where to go.

And now we sit just five weeks before Nov. 3, watching and waiting to see how the changes and turmoil of the last two years will be remembered in the history books.

In the coming weeks, we’ll touch on everything from how poll workers are trained to how the courts have shaped our election laws and how to make a voting plan that works for you.

Battleground: Ballot Box is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show or anywhere you get podcasts.

Please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Our editor is Wayne Drash, our intern is Eva Rothenberg, our show is mixed by Jesse Nighswonger and the director of podcasting is Sean Powers.


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