Fulton: Elections will be more expensive, more complicated

Voters cast their ballots on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020 at State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)



Voters cast their ballots on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020 at State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Having the eyes of the nation trained on you isn’t cheap.

That’s why Fulton County spent a record-breaking $38.3 million to run the blockbuster 2020 election cycle. But officials expect elections costs to keep going up.

To put the $38 million presidential pricetag into perspective: Fulton spent $9.9 million in 2016 and about $6.1 million in 2012

Compare the $11.1 million the county spent during the historic 2008 election to the $11.5 million the county plans to spend on the 2022 general election.

Fulton elections head Richard Barron said Wednesday he expects it will cost $7.2 million to run this year’s municipal election, which includes the Atlanta mayoral contest. That doesn’t include the cost of a runoff.

After a calamitous June primary — with some voters waiting hours in line, many because they never received mail-in ballots because Fulton’s system was overwhelmed — the county nearly doubled the amount budgeted to administer the election.

Barron said Fulton then spent $18.7 million on supplemental staff, $8 million on additional equipment, $4.3 million election day workers and $5.2 million on postage along with county staff overtime and rent for buildings/equipment.

Already a chaotic year with the largest rollout of new elections equipment in U.S. history, COVID-19 ruined all plans. Barron, who was fired then saved, has taken blame and said he welcomes all help and auditing to improve the county’s elections.

Like other metro counties, he said many factors drove cost and complexity: more voting sites, additional staff/equipment, record turnout and unprecedented numbers of absentee-by-mail ballots.

But there’s something else he expects will keep elections costs up for taxpayers.

Republicans say they created SB 202, signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, to make voting more secure. The law bars volunteers from handing out food or water to voters waiting in lines, reduces the number of days to vote by mail, requires proof of ID for mail-in votes and limits the number of ballot drop boxes Fulton can use from 38 to eight.

A majority of county commissioners, all four Democrats, voted Wednesday for a resolution to oppose SB 202 that asks the county attorney to explore options, in court and otherwise, to fight the implementation of the bill.

“Anytime we have a bullseye on our back, we have a duty to serve the constituents,” said Fulton Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman, who sponsored the resolution. The Southside commissioner added that she feels the bill amounts to voter suppression.

“I just think it’s partisan rhetoric,” said Republican Commissioner Bob Ellis, who represents part of North Fulton.

When asked about results of the bill, Barron said he and his staff are preparing for how the reduction in days to vote by mail will affect the system.

“We’re going to see more people requesting absentee-by-mail ballots and having those cancelled during early voting, and that will probably have an impact on lines,” Barron said.

Barron told elections board members Thursday he plans to increase poll worker pay because of all the new restrictions from SB 202. As if elections with 860,000 registered voters weren’t hard enough before, he said it’s only about to get more confusing.

“For the poll managers, there’s going to be more demand on them than ever before because of some of the deadlines in SB 202,” he said.

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