Fulton County fixing backlog of 25,000 absentee ballot applications

People stand in line to vote at the South Fulton Service Center early on Friday morning, May 22, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

People stand in line to vote at the South Fulton Service Center early on Friday morning, May 22, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Fulton County elections officials have been scrambling to eliminate a backlog of 25,000 absentee ballot applications by Memorial Day.

The backlog, which was caused by overloaded computer servers, comes as Georgia officials change how elections are run to keep voters and poll workers safe from COVID-19.

Even before early voting began on Monday, the backlog created long lines outside some Fulton polling places. So on Tuesday, the county decided to open precinct two hours earlier just to manage the lines.

It didn’t fix the problem.

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Officials are also worried about whether voters have enough time to safely receive, fill out and submit their ballots before Election Day.

The influx of absentee mail applications has caused delays in other metro Atlanta counties, but not on the same scale as in Fulton.

Fulton’s director of registration and elections Richard Barron said the backlog should be gone by Monday.

Elections staff were slowed down by people submitting applications multiple times or in file formats that couldn’t be printed, like a quick video recording of their application, instead of sending a simple photo or PDF.

Barron said it means voters will likely get their ballots sometime the week of June 1. Election Day is June 9.

People stand in line to vote at the South Fulton Service Center early on Friday morning, May 22, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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And after they receive their ballots from a contractor in Arizona, voters still have to cast their ballots. They have two options. Mailed ballots must arrive at the county election offices by 7 p.m. on Election Day or it won't be counted, which is the subject of a lawsuit by the New Georgia Project.

So Barron has encouraged voters to use the 20 ballot drop boxes throughout the county monitored by camera 24/7.

When Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced in mid-April that Georgia would be mailing absentee ballot request forms to the state's roughly 6.9 million voters, he said he did so to save lives by encouraging voters to cast ballots from home.

When Barron and the Fulton elections board decided to only open five early voting locations, they also said they did so to keep people safe, hoping more voters would mail ballots.

When the time came, the problems became obvious.

Fulton told voters they could email the county their absentee-by-mail applications. But when the servers and staff couldn’t handle the deluge of thousands of emailed applications, Fulton voters got anxious — they had no ballot in hand, no confirmation email and no update on their application status. So they went to the polls to vote in person.

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That created 80-person lines at the South Fulton Service Center precinct this past week. And these weren’t just regular election lines, waits were increased because many had to cancel their absentee application that’s still stuck in the county’s server.

After seeing the lines, officials demanded chairs for the elderly waiting for hours. There are now chairs, but Barron said he doesn’t have the staff to sanitize them between voters.

“A solution seems to be creating another problem,” Barron said.

Fulton is essentially running two elections: An unplanned vote-by-mail election, and 16 days of early voting followed by Election Day.

Then there’s the Election Day reality of the pandemic. Barron said 200 to 300 previously committed poll workers have backed out for fear of catching COVID-19, and about 40 precincts have changed instead of letting the public inside. Staff also lost days getting their offices sanitized following a COVID-19 death of an elections employee, 62-year-old Riverdale grandmother Beverly Walker.

‘That’s on us’ 

Gwinnett elections head Kristi Royston said that, through Thursday, more than 200 people canceled their by mail ballot to vote in person. On the first day of early voting in Cobb County, 91 out of its 304 voters canceled the absentee ballot they had applied for, said Cobb elections director Janine Eveler.

Eveler said the longest lines in Cobb have been 1.5 hours.

Some voters at the South Fulton precincts waited in line three to four hours this week.

“The performance of this elections department was one of the most embarrassing public displays of incompetence and mismanagement that I have ever seen in my 13 years in elected office. It was unbelievable. It was unbelievable,” said Fulton commissioner Joe Carn, who is running for re-election in his southside district, during a Wednesday commission meeting.

Though the presidential primary was twice postponed, Carn said this was foreseeable.

“We knew that the state’s plan was a disaster, that was obvious: You send out 6.9 million absentee ballots by mail and (the state is) not prepared to process them, then of course people are going to abandon the mail-in process due to the extreme delays and say ‘I want my vote to count, I’m going to go in person.’ We have to anticipate this stuff. Yes, the state screwed up, but that doesn’t mean Fulton County needs to screw up again,” Carn said.

Xavier Benjamin (R) waits to vote at the South Fulton Service Center early on Friday morning, May 22, 2020. Benjamin said she arrived at the center at 6:20 am to secure her first place in line. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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Fulton has a well-earned reputation for Election Day issues, like posting results far later than neighboring counties.

“We have spectacular reasons every time there’s a goof-up in these elections, but it doesn’t matter what the reasons are to these residents,” he said.

As Barron began to respond during that meeting, Carn interrupted: "I don't really want comments here. I just want you to hear me clearly. This is unacceptable, absolutely unacceptable. And I know there are 101 excuses, regardless, you prepare and you get this stuff fixed."

Commissioner Liz Hausmann, who is not running for re-election in her northside district, said it is disingenuous to blame the state. She said Raffensperger did everyone a big favor by sending out the applications, but that Fulton messed up its end of the deal with the processing.

Barron agreed with her: “Once we get the applications back, that’s on us.”

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