On this episode of "Battleground: Ballot Box," Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Mark Niesse explains what to expect on Election Day in Georgia, from long lines to how votes are counted.

Georgia officials expect as many as two million people to cast their ballots in person on Nov. 3, adding to the massive 3.9 million who have submitted an absentee-by-mail ballot or showed up during the three-week early voting period. 

Mark Niesse joined me to help make sense of what we should all expect of Election Day and election night. Mark and I have been covering voting in Georgia for several years, chronicling the twists and turns of court cases, the rollout of the new voting system, and the effects of the coronavirus on elections. With tensions running high in our battleground state, Niesse said that there’s one definite takeaway from early voting.

“If we have a high number of early voters, we will also have a high number of Election Day voters," he said. "There's always the hope from election officials that some of those Election Day voters are voting early instead and the workload will be easier on Election Day, but I have no expectation that's what's happening. I think people are excited all around.”

Polls open at 7 a.m., and the Secretary of State’s office has told people who have waited to vote until Election Day to expect long lines — and that’s not necessarily a sign of things going wrong. Long lines are a direct result of high voter turnout, and can often be a reflection of civic enthusiasm. Niesse said that the speed at which the line is moving is more important than its length.

“If people can get in and out of the polls within a half hour, that's excellent," he said. "If it's over an hour, that's bad. And so we don't want people to have to spend an excessive amount of time waiting in line to vote.”

Additionally, social distancing protocols due to COVID-19 may also make lines seem longer than they truly are. As long as poll workers process voters efficiently, those waiting should progress relatively quickly, so don’t be daunted by seemingly endless, snaking lines. 

In the June 9 primary, some metro Atlanta voters, especially Black voters, waited in line for hours longer than other voters did, through a combination of poll worker problems with voting equipment and overcrowded polls. This mismanagement is not expected to repeat itself on a large scale this Election Day. 

Counties have trained thousands of new poll workers, existing poll workers have more experience, and, in Fulton County alone, more than 90 new polling places were added to alleviate the burden on large precincts. Early voting data shows that these added measures should make for an easier voting experience. 

This election will look different than the 2016 presidential race, too, because the direct-recording electronic voting machines that were used from 2002 until the end of 2019 have been replaced with touchscreen ballot-marking devices. Now, after you have filled out your choices on a touch screen, your ballot will be printed out. You can then look through your printed out ballot before inserting it into a scanner to be counted. Neisse said that these added steps can impede the speed of voting.

“Those are extra equipment, extra steps that voters must take," he said. "So it is inherently a process that has more steps than our old voting system, which has the potential to create a little bit more time it takes to vote.”

The tradeoff, however, is that this system produces a paper record that can be used by elections officials for audits and recounts, should something go wrong during and following Election Day. 

While technological delays may happen on Election Day,  there are several things you can do to flag those problems and make sure they get addressed.

“A good sign that something is wrong is if the line isn't moving at all,” Neisse said. “So what should voters do? The main thing is, you know, on Election Day, you have to vote in your designated precinct polling place. If you're there at a particularly busy time and there's no technical problems, you can come back later. If you think there might be a slower time, like late morning or early afternoon, you can also call.”

There are also several hotlines in place for voters to report issues. The nonpartisan Election Protection Hotline, run by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, can provide you with advice and will also report serious issues to the authorities.  

Media coverage can also help get the line moving.

“You can also reach out to me,” Niesse said. “It's interesting how you see when the moment something hits the news, problems seem to get fixed a little bit quicker. So I am happy when our reporting can have an impact and call attention to issues. Feel free to contact me. My email address is Mark.Niesse@AJC.com. We also have an AJC Google form you can fill out to report your problems.”

We are also a part of ProPublica’s Electionland program, so if you report problems to them or the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline, it will get to us as well. 

So if you plan to vote today, here’s what you should do:

Check your polling place on the My Voter Page at mvp.sos.ga.gov. Go during off-peak times like midmorning or early afternoon, pack your patience and take a deep breath. Look at your sample ballot beforehand to know the candidates and constitutional amendments you’ll have to vote on. And if there’s a problem at your poll, contact your county elections office, the Secretary of State’s office — as well as me and Mark. 

When the polls close and results start trickling in, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. First, the best source of results is from the Secretary of State’s office website, which is where counties upload their totals. Additionally, it will take time to get Election Day results in.

“And just because polls close at 7:00 p.m., that doesn't mean results will show up immediately,” Niesse said. “That just means that after polls close at that point, county election officials can begin the process of counting votes. And even for early votes and absentee ballots that have already been opened and scanned, they still need to take those memory cards and they still need to insert them into the central county election computer servers.”

A new rule change allowed counties to begin processing absentee ballots two weeks ago, and many larger counties have been working through those ballots. Niesse said the bulk of results should start coming in at 9 p.m. — and that includes absentee votes, early in person votes and Election Day votes.

A number of early votes will still need to be counted after Election Day, but most of them will be counted on election night. In close statewide races, that means the direction of the races won’t be as clear as, say, some blowout state House and Senate races.

“Elections are never over on Election Day,” Niesse said. “Every ballot is counted in every election. The difference this year is that there are more absentee ballots than there have ever been in Georgia before, and those take a little bit longer to count. In Georgia, state law gives counties 10 days to certify their election results. That brings us to Nov. 13th. And then the Secretary of State will certify statewide results within seven days afterward by Nov. 20th. So the election actually won't be over until Nov. 20th, when all the counties and the state have gone through all the results.”

But just because the election isn’t officially over until Nov. 20th, we won’t have to wait that long to have an idea of who won most races. The Associated Press is usually the most reliable outlet for calling race results.

“A race probably won't be called until other media organizations are almost 100 percent certain that they're right because nobody wants to get things wrong and nobody wants to be the source of causing disinformation,” Niesse said.  “You know, that's more important in this election than ever.”

And it’s important to note that the unofficial results trickling in could swing dramatically back and forth between two candidates. For example, at 8 p.m., the first votes may come in from rural Republican counties, while Democratic strongholds like DeKalb may start reporting only around 9 p.m.

Throughout the day, avoid sharing things on social media that may seem too good to be true, or may be super outrageous, without checking with a trusted source. 

Battleground: Ballot Box is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show gpb.org/battleground 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.

Tags: Election 2020