After rough June, Fulton and DeKalb have solid election performances

Poll workers at State Farm Arena where absentee ballot processing is nearing completion. John Spink / john.spink@ajc.com
Poll workers at State Farm Arena where absentee ballot processing is nearing completion. John Spink / john.spink@ajc.com

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

While the presidential election hung in the balance last week, elections officials in Fulton and DeKalb found themselves in a familiar place.

The state and the nation had turned their focus to the two counties at the core of metro Atlanta, waiting to see if their tallies — and deep troves of Democratic voters — would swing Georgia and clear the path for a Joe Biden presidency.

Both Fulton and DeKalb have unflattering reputations and lengthy histories of elections snafus: long lines and technical issues and failures to process absentee ballots in a particularly punctual fashion. Voters were most recently reminded of all that in June, during problem-filled primaries that resulted in state elections officials calling the counties out publicly.

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But this time? This time things went pretty smoothly.

Election Day lines were basically non-existent and absentee ballots were methodically counted. Fulton and DeKalb still had the nation’s attention — but only because folks on both sides of the political spectrum were eagerly anticipating their returns.

“They were focusing on DeKalb and it was not in a negative light," said DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond. "Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, that’s something we can all be proud of.”

Said Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts: "We knew what the challenges were and we didn’t back away from the challenges. I think the plan was executed flawlessly.”

This was always going to be a difficult election season because Georgia was undergoing the largest rollout of elections equipment in American history, replacing 18-year-old voting machines with a new system involving touchscreens, printed ballots and scanners.

COVID-19 made things even more complicated.

Ahead of June’s primary — which had been rescheduled twice due to the pandemic — Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger mailed absentee ballot request forms to the state’s roughly 6.9 million voters.

Fulton had prepared for 1,000 absentee-by-mail ballots before the pandemic, but 144,000 Fulton residents requested a mail-in ballots in June. The county’s system was overwhelmed. There were massive lines on June 9, in part because an unknown number of people never received their requested absentee ballots due to the broken system.

DeKalb had to deal with a similar surge in absentee voting and took more than a week to count all its votes. Problems with poll pads, the tablets used to check voters in at their precinct, created long lines and forced many DeKalb precincts to stay open well beyond normal closing time.

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Things weren’t flawless this time around either, but most of the problems were not self-inflicted.

In Fulton, a COVID-19 outbreak put 25 of their 60 elections warehouse staff out of commission. A moving company that was supposed to deliver equipment to precincts pulled out right before Election Day. A water pipe burst in a room where absentee ballots were being counted, harming no ballots but delaying counting for about two hours.

In DeKalb, letters notifying voters in 32 precincts of polling place changes were not put in the mail until the Wednesday before the election; many voters reported receiving them the Monday before Election Day or later. County officials were quick to say they had also posted digital ads about the changes on several local news sites; called or texted voters to remind to check their precinct location; and sent volunteers to “original” locations to steer voters to the right place.

Perfect? Nope. But a whole lot better than elections past.

University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said the absence of a negative review by word-of-mouth or on social media is just the beginning of a long process for Fulton and DeKalb — but that both capitalized on a chance to start repairing their relationship with voters.

Fulton elections head Richard Barron is applauded by workers on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020 counting ballots at State Farm Arena. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Fulton elections head Richard Barron is applauded by workers on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020 counting ballots at State Farm Arena. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Like other counties across Georgia, Fulton and DeKalb undoubtedly benefited from a relatively light Election Day turnout and new rules allowing them to begin processing absentee ballots weeks in advance.

But both counties had also put in significant work since June.

After the problems in June, Fulton’s county commissioners doubled the amount budgeted for elections to $34 million this year — roughly 5% of the county’s general fund.

Fulton added 91 polling places; had more early voting sites than Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties combined; hired half of the 6,000 people who volunteered to help on Election Day; paid for technicians and police officers at every site; and purchased two mobile voting units.

In DeKalb, similar efforts weren’t always easy. A rocky start with the National Vote at Home Institute, a nonprofit brought in to help optimize absentee ballot processing operations, left county officials scrambling to coax them back into the fold. The American Civil Liberties Union backed out of a program with the county, purportedly saying that elections staff was “being difficult.”

But in the meantime, DeKalb had purchased more absentee ballot scanners and poll pads, more than doubled Election Day precinct staffing and renewed their focus on poll worker training. They had a dozen early voting locations open for three weeks and made more than 30 absentee ballot drop boxes available.

“Anything you do you’re going to be criticized,” DeKalb elections director Erica Hamilton said. “It’s just about using that criticism to fuel you to do a better job.”

The election cycle, meanwhile, isn’t slowing down.

Both Fulton and DeKalb still have to certify their general election results later this week; a statewide recount appears likely to follow that. Advance in-person voting also started Monday for a Dec. 1 runoff in the special election to fill the remainder of late U.S. Rep. John Lewis' final term. And things are already revving up for two U.S. Senate runoffs in January — high-stakes contests that will make Georgia the center of the political universe for weeks to come.

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