Georgia presidential primary date uncertain because of voting machines

Voters line up to cast ballots at Henry W. Grady High School in Atlanta for Georgia’s presidential primary in 2016. The state’s primary for 2020 will not be scheduled until new voting machines are put in place. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

Voters line up to cast ballots at Henry W. Grady High School in Atlanta for Georgia’s presidential primary in 2016. The state’s primary for 2020 will not be scheduled until new voting machines are put in place. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

Georgia election officials won’t set the state’s presidential primary election date until new voting machines are in place.

The delay raised concerns from some county election directors who said they might have to move polling places if churches and other facilities get booked before an election date is announced.

> UPDATE: The Georgia 2020 presidential primary date has been set for March 24

The uncertain timing also creates the possibility that the presidential primary won't take place until after many other states have already weighed in, potentially diminishing Georgia's relevance in deciding each party's candidate. The Georgia primary was held on Super Tuesday — the first Tuesday in March — in each of the past two presidential election years.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is holding off on deciding a date for the 2020 primary until the government completes its $150 million purchase of new statewide voting equipment, likely in July. At least four companies are bidding for the state's $150 million contract to provide touchscreen voting machines that print out paper ballots, replacing Georgia's 17-year-old electronic voting system.

“Until a vendor has been chosen — and until a specific implementation plan is designed to distribute Georgia’s new voting machines — we will not set a date for the 2020 presidential preference primary,” Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said.

That could make Georgia the last state to decide when voters will head to the polls next year. Almost every other state has already set its presidential primary election, including at least 10 states that will vote on Super Tuesday on March 3.

Douglas County Elections Director Milton Kidd said the uncertainty surrounding the primary election date is already causing complications with scheduling poll workers, printing schedules to mail to voters and booking voting facilities.

“I have 300 poll workers who all have other lives outside of working elections, and I can’t give them a time frame,” Kidd said. “The 2020 election will be one of the largest elections in state history, and not having a date puts us in limbo.”

Voters might not head to the polls until April or later. The state’s request for proposals from voting machine companies said the winning vendor has until March 31 to deliver election equipment to Georgia’s 159 counties. Each county must train poll workers and hold three weeks of early in-person voting before Election Day.

Cobb County Elections Director Janine Eveler said she hopes the date of the presidential primary is set soon.

“Depending on when it’s scheduled, we may find that our usual locations are unavailable and they’ve already been booked,” Eveler said. “It becomes confusing for voters if we’re always moving from place to place. We’re trying to get the same locations, and the preferred locations are booking up now.”

Other county election supervisors were less concerned about the state’s lack of commitment to a primary date, saying there’s still time before the delay becomes a problem.

“There are a lot of planning matters that are on hold until we know the vendor (for voting machines). I’m fine with it for the time being,” Fulton County Elections Director Rick Barron said. “The state knows what’s at stake.”

In Columbus, poll-worker training has already been scheduled for February, so they’ll be ready for whenever the presidential primary election is held, Elections Director Nancy Boren said.

“It’s really not been an issue for us at all,” Boren said.

Georgia gained prominence in the national presidential selection process in 2016 when Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is now the state's governor, championed the idea of what was called the "SEC primary" — a college athletics-themed Election Day that gave Southern states the spotlight when they voted at the same time.

At the time, many candidates for both the Republican and Democratic parties were seeking nominations. Next year, there will be little competition among Republicans because President Donald Trump is seeking re-election. When Raffensperger, a Republican, sets the primary date, it will mostly affect the Democratic Party’s nomination process.

On Super Tuesday in 2020, large states California and Texas will have planned their presidential primaries on the same day as many states in the South, eliminating the region's importance as a one-day voting bloc.

But Georgia voters could still be relevant in the state-by-state presidential nominating process, even with a later primary date, said Allan Keiter, who runs the website, where anyone can customize election maps to create scenarios in which Republican or Democratic candidates would win the presidency.

With so many Democratic candidates running, the field might not significantly narrow down until well after the March elections.

“It’s pretty likely that the race will carry on for quite a while after Super Tuesday,” Keiter said. “It’s hard to know, even when they set their primary date, if later or earlier would be better.”

Under state law, Georgia’s presidential preference primary election could be held as late as the second Tuesday in June next year. Raffensperger has until Dec. 1 to select the presidential primary date.

“There are certain things you can’t plan at this point because you don’t know which vendors’ voting equipment we’ll have,” said Russell Bridges, the elections director for Chatham County. “We’re just eager to get the new voting system and get started.”

Presidential election timeline

July 2019: New Georgia voting technology expected to be announced.

Nov. 5, 2019: Up to 10 counties will test Georgia's new voting machines during local elections.

Feb. 3, 2020: Iowa caucuses.

March 3, 2020: 10 states vote in presidential primaries during Super Tuesday.

March 24, 2020: Georgia presidential primary (updated).

July 13, 2020: Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee.

Aug. 24, 2020: Republican National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.

Nov. 3, 2020: Election Day.

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