Georgia absentee voting instructions to be corrected

Georgia election officials said Tuesday they will correct absentee ballot instructions that erroneously told voters to insert ballots into envelopes that no longer exist.

Instructions mailed with future absentee ballots will tell voters that ballots should be placed inside a folded piece of paper labeled “Official absentee ballot,” which replaced an inner envelope that secured ballots in previous elections.

The inner envelope protected the secrecy of ballots so they couldn't be matched with voters' information printed on the outer envelope. Without the inner envelope in Georgia's June 9 primary, a county election worker could see how someone voted after opening the outer envelope.

Absentee ballots will be counted as long as they're received by the time polls close on election day, said Gabriel Sterling, implementation manager for Georgia's voting system. Absentee ballots must be returned in signed and dated envelopes, which are still included.

The secretary of state's office only learned that absentee ballot packets wouldn't include inner envelopes when voters began receiving them late last week, Sterling said.

The problem occurred because of a miscommunication between the state and its ballot mailing company, Arizona-based Runbeck Election Services. The privacy sleeve looked identical to typical inner envelopes in images approved by state election officials, Sterling said.

“It’s more important for people to get their ballots and turn them in than have a perfect set of instructions,” Sterling said. “We’re having to deal with the real world and the COVID situation. This was a Herculean effort. The main thing is ballots are going out the door.”

The secretary of state's office hired Runbeck to mail ballots to voters statewide to deal with a surge in people requesting absentee ballots so they can avoid human contact at in-person voting locations. In prior elections, ballots were mailed by county election offices.

So far, more than 886,000 voters had request absentee ballots through Monday.

"Voters are going to be confused," said Margaret Arnett, a DeKalb County voter and member of Indivisible Georgia Coalition, a left-leaning group. "There's an awful lot of people who have never done vote-by-mail before, and this is their first exposure to it. It's kind of like getting a desk from Ikea and the instruction sheet isn't right."

State law requires an inner envelope for absentee ballots. Sterling said the folded paper meets the intent of the law, which he said is to protect secret ballots if someone were to hold an absentee ballot envelope to a light and try to detect how they voted.

Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams, criticized the secretary of state’s office for the incorrect instructions.

“This was a careless mistake that will confuse voters and inundate already overwhelmed county boards with phone calls,” said Seth Bringman, spokesman for Fair Fight Action. “Despite the secretary of state’s incompetence, we encourage voters to cast their vote by mail so that voting in-person is safe for those who need it.”

The secretary of state’s office said the absence of an inner ballot envelope will help county election officials more quickly process so many absentee ballots. They will only have to open one envelope instead of two.

Revised ballot instructions were being finalized Tuesday, and they will be included in absentee ballots mailed to voters between this week and election day, Sterling said.

There’s no additional cost to changing the ballot instructions, he said. The state is paying Runbeck $1.88 and $2.38 per absentee ballot packet mailed, depending on its size.