Credit: Stephen Fowler | GPB News
Georgia Election Officials Prep For New Voting Law’s Impact
Elections officials from across the state descended on Jekyll Island this week for annual training on how to make things better for voters, including a new voting law.
It would be easy to lose track of all the changes to Georgia’s voting rules made by the 98-page Senate Bill 202, but for local elections officials, that’s not an option.
Across three days this week, hundreds of county supervisors, elections board members, probate judges and staff received hands-on training at the Georgia Association of Voter Registration and Elections Officials conference on Jekyll Island.
The session dealing with SB 202 ran for more than an hour, with the Secretary of State’s office going section by section to make sure no alteration goes unnoticed.
While Republicans, Democrats and federal lawsuits have zeroed in on a few higher-profile parts of the bill, dozens of pages of it that people aren’t talking about more directly affect how local officials do their jobs.
Some parts put more pressure on them, such as tighter windows to mail out absentee ballots, new processes for verifying applications and quicker deadlines to make sure every ballot is counted. There are new responsibilities for supervisors to provide more information about total ballots cast and election processes such as logic and accuracy testing of equipment. Other sections give more flexibility for voting machine allocation in lower-turnout elections, allow poll workers to serve in adjacent counties and crack down on long lines at overcrowded polls.
Charlotte Sosebee, the elections supervisor in Athens-Clarke County and outgoing co-president of GAVREO, said the conference and session was part of mandatory training required for those who run elections to constantly be on top of their game.
“It is best that we walk away with a clear understanding of what these changes are in SB 202 and how it will affect our jobs, from early voting to absentee ballots to tabulation to poll watchers,” she said. “And just having a clear understanding of what is expected of us so that we can create an environment that's going to be fair and efficient for our voters as well as the elections, that we can walk away knowing that we've done the best that we can do.”
There are still plenty of questions about how some of these law changes will look in real life — and plenty of questions about the intricacies of changes were asked throughout the week, but Sosebee told the audience they were more than capable of handling whatever is thrown at them.
“Senate Bill 202 is a biggie, but we're going to adjust with change,” she said. “We're going to move with the cheese.”
Elsewhere in the week, the sprawling ballroom of the Jekyll Island Convention Center was home to sessions about handling open records (always keep track of deadlines), handling media requests (always tell the truth) and a look at absentee voting changes that turned into a therapeutic sermon from Douglas County elections supervisor Milton Kidd about the rough year elections officials faced.
“All of you all are heroes and all of you all are the backbone of our democracy,” he said. “Without the ballot box, we would not have a democracy. This is the American democracy: sometimes chaotic, sometimes unorganized, sometimes all type of things. But this is what America is. The individuals in this room represent every aspect of America.”
2020 saw a roller-coaster of a year for elections, from the largest-ever rollout of a new voting system to a razor-thin presidential race that was counted three times, including once by hand — and all of it during a global pandemic that decimated the ranks of poll workers for the June primary and overwhelmed offices with more than a million absentee ballots in November.
The COVID-19 crisis closed elections offices, shifted voting behavior and ultimately took the lives of several elections staff and poll workers across the state, honored at the conference by an empty table at an awards banquet.
The raft of regulatory changes to nearly every aspect of elections in Georgia is not necessarily a daunting task for Georgia’s local elections officials — many of whom have spent decades overseeing the vote-counting process. But all the same, many ask for some grace as the new rules are put to the test.
Ann Russell with Bacon County does a lot of things to make sure her 6,900 voters are prepared for elections, including posting links to qualifying information on Facebook, sharing news articles about voting and answering any questions that may arise. Her advice to Georgia voters is to read about the changes themselves to help things go smoother.
“I just want to want voters to know that they need to be patient with all of us, because right now we're learning about Senate Bill 202, and it's just going to be quite a process,” she said. “ And voters need to be paying attention to everything that the elections offices put out there: all the training videos, the ads that their offices put out, the Facebook posts that we put out.”
Milton Kidd, the Douglas County supervisor, said voters can take things a step further and get involved in the elections process.
“There are things that the average person can do: You can be a poll worker, you can come work in elections offices,” he said. “If you have a vested interest in understanding your democracy, come work with us."
All eyes are on Georgia’s elections and the people who run them, and for Russell it’s reassuring to get the training — and be around people who understanding what it’s like to have a stressful job.
“It's been wonderful, it's made me feel that I'm not alone,” she said. “It's made me feel that I'm not the only one with questions, and it's been great to see everybody again.”
The fellowship and education are crucial to a group that survived a grueling election cycle, and Sosebee said one takeaway is that elections officials must be more proactive in explaining how elections work to push back against conspiracies and misinformation.
“I'm going to challenge our group to be more available to our communities and to offer as much voter education as possible so that they better understand the processes,” she said. “And that we be transparent in everything that we do, and hold us accountable for being transparent with the elections processes, because that's what we're supposed to do.”
The first real test of SB 202’s changes comes later this fall with lower-turnout municipal elections ahead of a spring statewide primary and the high-profile 2022 general election that will see hotly contested races for governor and U.S. Senate.