Absentee ballots delayed and polls close as Georgia primary approaches

Michael Hanson votes Saturday at the DeKalb County Voter Registration and Elections Office near Decatur. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Michael Hanson votes Saturday at the DeKalb County Voter Registration and Elections Office near Decatur. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Tens of thousands of Georgia voters hadn’t yet received their absentee ballots Monday as precincts continued to close, narrowing options for voters to safely cast ballots in the state’s June 9 primary.

The secretary of state's office might ask the National Guard to help voters at precincts on election day if too many poll workers quit because they fear catching the coronavirus.

The obstacles facing both absentee and in-person voters just eight days before the primary create the potential for long lines on election day and absentee ballots arriving too late to be counted.

Election officials said they’re working to ensure that absentee ballots are delivered in time, though voters might have to return them in drop boxes rather than put them in the mail. Absentee ballots will be counted only if they’re received by county election offices by 7 p.m. June 9.

“It’s definitely a tight time frame,” said Gabriel Sterling, the implementation manager for the secretary of state’s office. “The good thing is we have drop boxes in every metro county. It’s the safest option if you want to make sure your ballot is going to get there, or you can vote in person.”

But in-person voters might face problems as well. Over 10% of the state's precincts have closed, forcing voters into fewer locations where they'll have to maintain social distance from each other, likely creating long lines.

One major voting location, Grady High School in Midtown Atlanta, closed because of renovations, forcing nearly 18,000 registered voters into a temporary precinct at Park Tavern across the street in Piedmont Park.

Calling in the National Guard isn’t necessary yet, but it will be if precincts lack enough poll workers, Sterling said. Poll workers are often over 70 years old, putting them in a group considered to be at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

Many voters plan to avoid human contact at precincts — if they receive their absentee ballots in time.

About 95% of nearly 1.6 million absentee ballots had been delivered as of Monday, according to postal tracking data, leaving roughly 84,000 still in the mail. Those ballots should reach voters soon because they’re now being mailed from local election offices rather than flown across the country from an Arizona-based ballot processing company, Sterling said.

Voters such as Bobbie Wagoner fear they’ll have to choose between voting and risking their health if they don’t receive their absentee ballots.

Wagoner, a 69-year-old who lives in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood, said she requested an absentee ballot in early April, and when it finally arrived weeks later, it was the wrong ballot. She wanted a Democratic Party ballot but received a Republican Party ballot. She asked for a new ballot.

“I’m worried that I won’t get it in time,” Wagoner said. “I wonder how many people are out there without a ballot and not knowing what to do.”

Many of the voters who are still awaiting their ballots live in Fulton County, which faced severe backlogs exacerbated by delays after an elections employee died of COVID-19.

Last week, county election officials discovered they hadn't processed an unknown number of emailed absentee ballot requests. Election officials had sent all ballots to voters who mailed request forms, but forms that voters attached to emails to the county weren't always recorded.

An additional 3,300 absentee requests statewide, including 2,000 in Fulton, were never sent to voters because county election officials entered them into computer systems incorrectly, Sterling said. Those ballots were being mailed Monday.

A spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston, a critic of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger's effort to expand absentee voting during the coronavirus pandemic, said the problems validate his concerns. Rafffensperger sent absentee ballot requests in April to Georgia's 6.9 million active voters, encouraging them to avoid in-person voting.

“Sadly, this demonstrates that the concerns Speaker Ralston voices to the secretary of state about an impromptu, widespread mail-in voting effort have been proven true,” spokesman Kaleb McMichen said. “Whether to prevent unintentional errors or willful fraud, widespread vote-by-mail efforts require careful planning and stringent oversight.”

The voting rights group Fair Fight Action launched an effort last week to receive complaints about the state's absentee voting process, including delays and inaccurate information.

“We know that for every voter who reaches out and shares their story with us, there are hundreds if not thousands of additional voters who are facing the same challenge,” said Seth Bringman, a spokesman for Fair Fight Action, which is suing the state over its voting practices.

So far, 720,000 voters have returned absentee ballots and 150,000 others have voted in person during the first two weeks of early voting. An additional 850,000 voters received absentee ballots but haven't yet returned them, according to state election data.

Voters can check their ballot status on the state's My Voter Page at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov. Voters in Fulton whose ballots haven't been issued can contact the county elections office at 404-612-7060.