Opinion: The logistics of a May 19 primary in Georgia were daunting – before David Ralston spoke up

A poll worker wearing protective gloves waits to assist voters during special election voting at city hall to fill an empty city council seat on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Dacula. The voting happens to on a day that was supposed to be the test run for the state's new election system before coronavirus COVID-19 caused it to be called off.

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

A poll worker wearing protective gloves waits to assist voters during special election voting at city hall to fill an empty city council seat on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Dacula. The voting happens to on a day that was supposed to be the test run for the state's new election system before coronavirus COVID-19 caused it to be called off.

Even before House Speaker David Ralston weighed in, suggesting that it be postponed by more than a month, Georgia's May 19 primaries were shaping up to be a beast of a vote.

A dozen days earlier, as the extent of the coronavirus pandemic sunk in, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger had scratched the state’s March 24 presidential primaries and combined them with the May primary votes for down-ballot contests, for everything from county commissioner to the U.S. Senate.

Then Raffensperger announced that his office would send every active voter an absentee ballot application. A campaign season already roiled by an uncertain health crisis, an eruption of unemployment and a ban on any close-quarters gathering of more than 10 people had been transformed into Georgia’s first election by (mostly) mail.

Early in-person voting is to begin April 27. A limited number of the new touchscreen voting machines will be available. I’m guessing some form of disposable stylus will be offered to those who are willing to leave their homes to cast a ballot, or who aren’t under shelter-in-place edicts.

Now, back to Ralston.

On Thursday, hours before Gov. Brian Kemp was to address the state in a televised session with public health officials, the leader of the Georgia House asked the secretary of state to retrench yet again — by moving the May vote to a date no earlier than June 23.

Other states have already pushed their balloting into June or July. "A May 19th primary in Georgia would put our state the earliest, by more than a month, than any other in the South," Ralston wrote.

The House speaker offered up two reasons for the proposed shift.

“Pushing the primary back a month or more gives us more time to allow the situation to improve so that voters can vote in the manner in which they are most familiar,” Ralston wrote.

“More importantly, it would make our highest priority the health and safety not only of voters, but our hard-working poll workers and elections officials.”

That last point is important. Traditionally, a majority of poll workers in all 159 counties are north of 70 years old.

But I want to focus on Ralston’s other point — the logistical challenge that a mail-in election during a pandemic poses for both voters and candidates.

Before Ralston dropped his bomb, I’d had a conversation with Jordan Fuchs, the deputy secretary of state under Raffensperger, who outlined the situation (and later declined to comment on the House speaker’s letter).

Rather, Fuchs emphasized that the mail-in nature of the May 19 vote was temporary.

For instance, I asked the deputy secretary of state whether plans were afoot to repeat the mailing of ballot applications in July 21 primary runoffs. “We’re going to take this one election at a time," she replied.

Five states currently conduct all elections entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Georgia is not about to become the sixth.

“We are not going to all-mail-in voting. That’s not what this is,” Fuchs said. “People are used to and they want to vote in person — for so many historical reasons.”

There’s a reason that, in normal times, absentee voting makes up between only 5% and 7% of total votes cast, Fuchs said. Also, Georgia has too many different kinds of elections to make the shift to all-mail.

“You can’t just mail everybody a ballot in Georgia and think we’re going to be Washington state," she said. "It doesn’t work like that.”

This gets to the nub of the May 19 primary logistics. Remember that Georgia’s primaries are open. A voter can choose a GOP ballot in a primary one year and a Democratic ballot the next.

This means that every May 19 vote will require four transactions, all by mail:

-- Raffensperger’s office will send out absentee ballot applications to 6.9 million active voters.

-- Those voters will then mail that application to their county election board, asking for either a Republican or Democratic ballot. (Nonpartisan judicial contests will also be at stake.)

-- The counties will then mail the requested Democratic or GOP ballots to the voter.

-- That voter will then fill out the ballot and mail it back to the county election board.

Raffensperger’s office will pick up the cost that counties incur for the ballots and postage. Voters will have to reach into their own pockets for stamps.

That bothers Lauren Groh-Wargo, the CEO of Fair Fight Action, the voting rights group set up by Democrat Stacey Abrams after her 2018 gubernatorial loss. For decades, absentee voting was a GOP strength in Georgia — while Democrats focused on Election Day get-out-the-vote efforts.

Two years ago, the Abrams campaign flipped that script, sending out 1.6 million absentee ballots to voters. So Groh-Wargo knows the topic.

“First of all, a lot of younger-age voters and middle-age voters don’t even use postage or know how to get postage. And I’m not sure leaving their homes to buy postage would be permitted under a shelter-in-place order,” she said. (Democrat Teresa Tomlinson, a primary candidate for the U.S. Senate, has denounced the requirement for voters to buy their own stamps as “a modern-day poll tax.”)

Political candidates who dare not shake hands or kiss babies are already having to find new ways to reach isolated voters. Former Vice President Joe Biden has set up a small TV studio in his basement. Georgia candidates are trying to do the same with Facebook Live or Zoom or Skype chats.

But if the May 19 primary date holds, candidates may want to focus on another, more analog expense. They may want to shower their voters with postage stamps. Under federal law, that kind of spending is considered akin to a ride to the polls. State law is murkier on the topic.

Because voter turnout is likely to be the chief hurdle in a May vote.

Chip Lake is a GOP consultant advising U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, in his bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a fellow Republican. The first vote in that all-comers contest will be Nov. 3. Which means it remains logistically unaffected by the pandemic — for now.

In May 2016, statewide primaries attracted 577,660 Republican voters and 310,053 Democratic voters. Prepare for those numbers to dip sharply this year, Lake said.

“My first thought is that it’s going to decrease voter turnout. That means each individual vote will become more valuable,” Lake said.

“Not only is it a direct-mail environment, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. People are losing their jobs. They’re losing their businesses. They’re losing whatever value they had in their retirements, their 401(k)s,” he said. In other words, they’ll have survival on their minds, not politics. Or postage stamps.

“For both Democrats and Republicans, this is a big challenge for them because they’re going to have to make assumptions they’ve never had to make before,” Lake said. “In many respects, we’re always guessing on voter turnout. This, on the other hand — it’s completely from outer space. Not only is it something we haven’t dealt with before, but it’s something we haven’t prepared for.”

Like I said — a beast of an election is headed our way.