Emergency rule allows Ga. absentee ballots to be opened early

Election officials can begin opening absentee ballots eight days before Georgia’s June 9 primary, according to a State Election Board rule approved Monday to deal with a deluge of mailed-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

The board voted unanimously to pass the emergency rule, which will help election officials handle record numbers of absentee ballots. In previous elections, absentee ballots couldn't be processed until election day.

Even though ballots can be opened in advance, election results in some races might not be known for several days after the primary because of the time needed to count absentee ballots.

It will take much longer to scan and count absentee ballots than it would on Georgia's new in-person voting system, which combines touchscreens and printed-out paper ballots.

So far, over 1.4 million voters have requested absentee ballots. Polls opened Monday for three weeks of in-person early voting.

“For this once-in-a-lifetime unprecedented emergency, this regulation painstakingly attempts to balance transparency and security,” State Election Board member Matt Mashburn said during the meeting held via teleconference.

The rule authorizes county election workers to open and scan absentee ballots in advance, but those votes can’t be counted until polls close at 7 p.m. June 9. Until then, votes will be stored in the memory of optical scanning computers, the same as votes cast in person during early voting.

So many people are planning to vote by mail as a way to avoid human contact at polling places. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the chairman of the State Election Board, encouraged absentee voting by sending ballot request forms to the state's 6.9 million active voters.

Voters said during public comments that they remain worried, especially in Fulton County, where tens of thousands of voters haven’t received their absentee ballots. Fulton had processed 110,000 ballot requests through Saturday, with many more still being processed.

"Many counties have a backlog of absentee applications, and it appears hopeless we'll get our ballots in time for the presidential election," said Garland Favorito, the founder of the group Voter GA, who applied for his absentee ballot on March 20 but hasn't received it.

Statewide, 1.25 million of the 1.44 million ballots requested have been delivered to voters, according to the secretary of state’s office. More than 360,000 ballots have been returned and accepted by county election offices.

“With this many absentee ballots coming in, if there is going to be a way to get results any time quickly after the election, we think we need to allow counties to start processing these absentee ballots early,” said Ryan Germany, the general counsel for the secretary of state’s office.