Fulton leaders: This time, we’re ready for Election Day

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

It took taxpayer money, pride and endless work — but Fulton County’s leaders say they are prepared for the presidential election.

Following the rocky June 9 primary election, the county trained thousands of fresh volunteers, vastly increased early voting operations and doubled the amount budgeted for elections to $34 million.

“In spite of the challenges we face and others faced back in June, we are totally prepared for what awaits us tomorrow beginning at 7 a.m.,” Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said Monday over Zoom.

Those challenges include replacing staff who were lost at the last minute over fears of COVID-19 with workers who were inadequately trained on brand-new machines purchased by the state. That, and a faulty absentee ballot system that caused some ballots never to arrive, made for a national embarrassment seen in long lines.

There were multiple investigations into how Fulton ran its election, including one from the Secretary of State’s office that wrapped up Friday. The state and county signed a negotiated deal that shows how Fulton broke six state laws, and puts the county at risk of a $50,000 fine if it doesn’t continue improving the voting process.

The challenges didn’t stop there: 25 out of the 60 staff members at Fulton’s elections warehouse tested positive for COVID-19. Fulton elections head Richard Barron said Monday they haven’t had a positive case since Oct. 23 and most staff are safely back, but two are still at an ICU.

Then Tropical Storm Zeta knocked out power to seven early voting sites last week.

Still, Barron said early voting was a success. He expects a final turnout of about 80% for Fulton’s almost 800,000 registered voters.

He said that on Saturday the county was sitting at a 57% turnout — with between 140,000 and 170,000 expected to vote Tuesday.

As of Saturday, the county reported that 441,848 people had cast their ballots — about 312,000 voted early in person and just under 130,000 voted by mail. At that point in 2016, a total of 269,221 voters had cast ballots — a bit over 251,000 in person and a little fewer than 18,000 by mail.

The increase in early voting has been so massive that Barron said he has readjusted the number of machines at some of Fulton’s 255 polling places because so many people assigned to some precincts have already cast ballots.

One thing they can’t predict is voter intimidation at the polls, which is a concern this year. Barron said that’s why there will be a law enforcement officer at every polling place.

Fulton is preparing for scrutiny of all types. Fulton Board of Commissioners' Wednesday agenda shows that Pitts wants commissioners to pay to store the elections equipment for a year because of possible lawsuits this election cycle.

There have been countless documentaries, articles and political decisions centered on whether or not it is secure to vote in Georgia.

“Based on events which took place during the 2020 primary election, (the Fulton elections department) anticipated that there are likely to be legal challenges to Departmental procedures, the elections equipment used and results from the election,” according to the agenda item.

There is no estimated cost, only that they are looking to pay market rate on a lease for space large enough to socially distance.

Also looking ahead, Barron said Monday he hopes most of the absentee-by-mail results will post at 7 p.m. when the polls (hopefully) close on time. Then his team will process the in-person early ballots, and he hopes those results will be online by 8:30 p.m. or before.

With 55 miles between some places in Fulton, crews will drive the cards containing day-of votes to counting machines.

Fulton, home to one out of every 10 Georgians, is known for its late-night election results. But, even with a virus and an election like no other, Barron is hopeful he can make it a true election night.

“I hope to have most of the results done by 11 p.m.," he said. “But we are a big county.”