X

Ballot drop boxes approved for Georgia voters during coronavirus

State Election Board members prepare for an emergency hearing at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education in Athens, Ga., on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The hearing will decide whether Athens election officials broke state laws when they switched to paper ballots filled out by hand. [Photo/Austin Steele for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)
State Election Board members prepare for an emergency hearing at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education in Athens, Ga., on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The hearing will decide whether Athens election officials broke state laws when they switched to paper ballots filled out by hand. [Photo/Austin Steele for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

The State Election Board voted unanimously Wednesday to allow Georgia voters to turn in their absentee ballots at drop boxes, an option that avoids human contact during the coronavirus pandemic.

Drop boxes can be set up on government property before Georgia's primary on June 9. Voters will be able to submit their absentee ballots without having to pay for postage or hand them directly to county election workers.

The addition of ballot drop boxes is another accommodation for running an election while trying to preserve public health.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger sent absentee ballot request forms to Georgia's 6.9 million active voters, encouraging them to cast their ballots without having to show up in person. He also decided last week to delay the primary for three weeks until June 9, giving local officials more time to hire poll workers and prepare for the election.

“All the decisions we’ve made so far have put voters first,” Raffensperger, the chairman of the State Election Board, said during its meeting held online and by phone.

MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia

MORE: Real-time stats and the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak

The drop boxes will be optional for counties because some might not be prepared to install them in time for the primary. The secretary of state’s office is considering whether to use federal coronavirus relief money to help local governments pay for drop boxes.

Drop boxes can open beginning April 21, and ballots must be collected daily by election workers. Absentee ballots will be mailed to voters starting next week.

Saira Draper with the Democratic Party of Georgia said the drop boxes need to be available 24 hours a day and funded by the state government.

"If counties have the funding and guidance from the secretary of state to be able to set up drop boxes quickly, drop boxes would alleviate some of the challenges they face now," Draper said. "But without the support of the state, this option is meaningless for many counties, and voters will be the ones who suffer.”

Georgia’s drop box initiative was based on a similar provision in Utah, one of five states that primarily rely on voting by mail.

Absentee voting is expected to greatly increase in Georgia's primary as voters seek ways to participate without having to risk illness. In past elections, about 5% of Georgia voters submitted their ballots by mail.

In-person precincts must remain open on election day and during three weeks of in-person early voting, according to state law.

Each of Georgia’s 159 counties can decide whether to install one or more drop boxes, which must be monitored by video cameras for security, according to the drop box rule approved by the State Election Board.

Drop boxes can be located outside or inside. They must be securely fastened and be built with an opening slot that prevents ballot tampering, damage or removal.

“This is a very good idea,” said State Election Board member David Worley, a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia. “I just think it’s the right thing to do.”

Absentee ballots will be counted if they’re received by county election offices by 7 p.m. on election day.

The State Election Board will consider later whether to allow absentee ballot drop boxes in future elections, even after the threat of the coronavirus has passed.