Credit: Stephen Fowler / GPB News
Battleground: Ballot Box | There is no offseason in elections administration
LISTEN: On today’s special episode, we take stock of the state of elections in Georgia roughly one year before the presidential race begins in earnest.
In Georgia, 2023 is the only year in a four-year cycle without a major election scheduled, but that doesn’t mean local elections officials are not busy. After the unprecedented stress of the 2020 election cycle, major election law overhaul in 2021 and mostly uneventful midterms in 2022, the people who run Georgia’s elections are already hard at work preparing for whatever 2024 may throw at them.
During a four-day training on Jekyll Island in February, hundreds of supervisors and local elections board members gathered for camaraderie and congratulations for making it through the chaos of recent years.
On today’s special episode, we take stock of the state of elections in Georgia roughly one year before the presidential race begins in earnest.
It was in the 70s and breezy on Jekyll Island, but for nearly 600 Georgia elections officials the unseasonably warm beachside weather was only enjoyed sporadically during breaks from annual training.
The Georgia Association of Voter Registration and Elections Officials conference, in years past, has been a time of somber reflection following the brutal 2020 election cycle and anxiety after the Republican-led Legislature approved a massive 98-page election law overhaul that drastically changed their jobs.
In 2022, the tone of the conference was notably brighter, as a new crop of elections workers stepped into the arena to take on the new rules, higher public scrutiny and regain public trust.
So this year, the cavernous ballroom of the Jekyll Island Convention Center was bustling with enthusiasm as officials celebrated a midterm election cycle — complete with a quick-turnaround U.S. Senate runoff — that saw record turnout, few issues and even fewer conspiracies linger after the votes were counted.
“We truly do lead the nation in elections now," Gabriel Sterling with the secretary of state's office said. "We've gotten attacked and attacked and dog cussed and everything else that ensued... And y'all do a damn great job, y'all make us look good. And we appreciate it."
Sterling was a frequent figure on TV and in interviews following the 2020 election, castigating fellow Republicans who attacked election workers and the integrity of their work. He told the conference that the state elections office is working on trying to get more resources for Georgia’s 159 counties and that the state elections office is underfunded, too.
“We are short staffed," he said. "We know that, and the Legislature in their wisdom has decided that we are gonna lose a couple of people to the state election board — which they need and they deserve. We want to replace those people and get some more."
Sterling said that while Georgia has about 30 people working in elections, North Carolina's similarly sized population has more than double the elections staff.
"We know we need more people,” he said. "We want to support y'all. We want to do everything we can: We fight and we scratch and we do everything we can to get those people for us."
There is no such thing as an off year for elections.
Even though most voters won’t have to think about casting a ballot in 2023, there’s constant work to be done: processing new voter registrations, handling districting changes made by new construction and the new residents who move into those new homes, responding to open records requests and training staff and poll workers, among other things.
State law also requires the elections supervisors and at least one member of their board to attend at least 12 hours of training, so the conference is a way to keep officials prepared and engaged for what’s to come. What’s to come includes a presidential race that will likely see outsized attention on Georgia, plus state legislative contests and other political offices.
Ryan Germany, former general counsel for the secretary of state’s office, had this word of caution setting the stage for 2024.
“Look, in Georgia, as you guys know, we're no stranger to scrutiny and litigation, but I think 2024 is going to be a whole new animal, even from what we've seen in the past,” he said.
Recent federal elections in Georgia have been decided by narrow margins, and in years past, the state has faced lawsuits from both Democrats and Republicans over how voting is conducted. Germany said the next presidential contest will likely be no different.
“I think that the best analogy is for what we're going to expect is this meteorological phenomenon called the Fujiwara effect," he said.
The Fujiwara effect is a meteorological phenomenon where two hurricanes approach each other in the ocean and eventually merge into a superstorm, Germany said, showing an image of the storms bearing down on a solitary piece of land.
"See that little space of ocean in between the two hurricanes? That's basically us," he said. "And they're both just colliding into us in Georgia.”
In 2018, Democratic candidates and groups filed the majority of suits against the state, its old touchscreen direct-recording electronic voting machines and election rules. In 2020, it was Republicans who primarily used the courts to challenge voting rules and decisions.
With Georgia a must-win state for either major presidential candidate, the time to prepare for litigation and instill proper procedures is now, Germany said, and asking counties for more resources to ensure success.
“You're expected to be experts in cybersecurity, logistics, management, communications, federal law, state law regulations, local rules dealing with using different spaces and everything, training, line management audits," Germany said. "And again, that's just what I came up with, thinking about it for a minute. So I understand that by suggesting you do even more, that it's a big ask.”
Clayton County's elections supervisor Shauna Dozier is the incoming president of the organization GAVREO and said voters should know that the people who run elections wear many hats and are always working to improve the election process, even when there’s not a major statewide election to pay attention to.
“There is no such thing as an off season for us," she said, repeating a common refrain of the conference. "Either we're preparing for an election or we’re conducting an election. And sometimes we're preparing and conducting elections at the same time. Typically, it takes us 6 to 8 months to prepare pre-election activities before we start with an election.”
So even though many of the training sessions were geared towards next year, plenty of counties will put that information into action in the near future, too, with plenty of local elections scheduled for this year across many of the 159 counties.
"While we're working on these special elections we’re also planning for 2024,” she said.
Many attendees and presenters at the conference have spent their entire careers working in voting, and have decades of experience navigating the ins and outs of election rules, of the equipment and the inevitable curveballs that get thrown into a process run by human beings.
But a notable exception this year came in the form of Noah Beck, the supervisor in Polk County in Northwest Georgia. At 23 years of age, Beck was likely the youngest person at the conference, and he gave a presentation about working with media outlets to help answer voting questions and disseminate accurate information.
“I think the first thing to recognize — and something to always value — is that knowledge is not a replacement for wisdom," he said between sessions. "You can't stack the two up against each other. And while everyone here is incredibly knowledgeable, wisdom is a lot harder to learn.”
Like many counties across the state, Polk is heavily Republican and more rural than metro Atlanta counties.
“But that doesn't necessarily put off skepticism," he added. "It doesn't necessarily soothe concerns. And it puts us in a situation where I still need to garner trust, I still need to make sure that integrity is visible, that it is alive and well and working in Polk County.”
Beck joined the Polk County elections office in March of 2022 and found voters from both parties didn’t trust different parts of the election system as an abstract concept, and that the suspicion came less from a place of conspiracy but rather more skeptical curiosity.
“A lot of times, a lack of knowledge, a lack of education is not necessarily the fault of the voter," he said. "It's not necessarily anything to be offended about. It is something to work towards, to fix. The biggest task that I think I was faced with coming in is that there was a lot to explain and people needed to hear it. People wanted to hear it. They were asking the right questions, they were bringing the right concerns — just with misinformation. They didn't have the full story.”
In a time where there are fewer and fewer local news outlets and tribalized politics build barriers of mistrust, Beck’s training session in GAVREO gave a roadmap for restoring people’s confidence in how elections are run — not only in their own communities, but also trusting what goes on in other places, too.
“We worked really, really hard to establish that relationship with our media partners so we could get the right information out there about what's going on in the elections department," he said. "You can't be there 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., but we are. And we can show you what's happening. We just don't have to tell you, we can show you our systems in place.”
It also probably helped that the midterms saw decisive victories for Republican statewide candidates — and Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock — that left little room for “what if?” with how the election went.
But elections officials don’t control who’s on the ballot or how many votes they get, and all they can do is prepare for every outcome and peel back the curtain for voters to trust the process no matter who wins.
In between the training sessions on subjects like using a new voter registration system, how to train poll workers, security procedures and handling absentee ballots, many of the state’s election officials looked genuinely relaxed and at peace — even with a long list of work to be done.
Like Ryan Germany, the former general counsel said during his session, the men and women who run elections are the unseen forces that, if all goes according to plan, work in the background to make voting go smoothly.
“You are all an integral part of making sure that our democracy works," he reminded them. "So I just want to say thank you for everything you have done and everything you continue to do. Many people don't realize how important and difficult the work you do is. Frankly, that just makes it more important.”
We’re likely a year away from average voters beginning to think about who they might support in the presidential primary, not to mention races for the state legislature, U.S. House or local government offices. But you can rest assured knowing that, somewhere in your county elections office, there are plenty of people already working to make sure you don’t give much thought about how these races will be conducted when it comes time to cast your ballot.
Battleground: Ballot Box from Georgia Public Broadcasting is produced by Stephen Fowler. Our editor is Josephine Bennett, our engineer is Jake Cook and our theme music was composed by Jesse Nighswonger. You can listen to our podcast at gpb.org/battleground or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening.