The challenge of keeping voters safe and precincts open during the coronavirus pandemic led Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to postpone Georgia’s primary for three weeks, pushing it back to June 9.
Raffensperger announced Thursday that he’s delaying the election because of the health danger to voters and poll workers when in-person early voting would have begun later this month for the primary, previously scheduled for May 19.
“I certainly realize that every difficulty will not be completely solved by the time in-person voting begins for the June 9 election, but elections must happen in less-than-ideal circumstances,” Raffensperger said. “This postponement allows us to provide additional protection and safety resources to county election officials, poll workers and voters.”
Raffensperger said he lacked the power to delay the election until Gov. Brian Kemp extended Georgia's public health state of emergency, which he did Wednesday.
Georgia is one of 16 states that have either delayed their presidential primaries or switched to voting by mail with extended deadlines.
The Georgia presidential primary had already been pushed back once from its original date of March 24. A second election delay is an unprecedented step to prevent voters from gathering at polling places when they're supposed to be avoiding human contact.
Changing the election date could help avoid the possibility that illness could spread at precincts, a prospect feared in Wisconsin after voters went to the polls there Tuesday.
The number of COVID-19 patients and deaths in Georgia is projected to peak around April 21, a few days before in-person early voting would have started April 27, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
Even though many people will vote by mail, in-person voting locations must remain open, according to state law. Raffensperger mailed absentee ballot request forms to Georgia’s 6.9 million active voters, encouraging them to vote but stay home.
Both Republicans and Democrats supported the move to reschedule the election, but Raffensperger faced criticism for how he handled the situation.
House Speaker David Ralston said Raffensperger should have changed the election date sooner and avoided spending federal election money to send absentee ballot request forms to voters.
"Having arrived at this inevitable conclusion after unnecessarily spending millions of additional taxpayer dollars, we can now move forward on a more realistic timeline that inspires confidence on the part of poll workers and voters alike," said Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge.
Pressure to move Georgia's primary had mounted from all the state's 11 Republican members of Congress, who last week urged Raffensperger, also a Republican, to take action so that voters won't have to choose between their health and casting a ballot.
Democrats attacked Raffensperger for not going further when encouraging voting by mail.
“Delaying Georgia’s election does not ensure either public safety or Georgians’ right to vote,” said Saira Draper of the Democratic Party of Georgia. “That means providing paid postage, counting all ballots postmarked by election day, and mailing vote-by-mail ballots to all registered voters, not just some.”
Election officials across Georgia were scrambling to find enough people willing to work in voting precincts. Poll workers, whose average age is over 70, have been dropping out because they’re at higher risk during the coronavirus pandemic.
In southwest Georgia, an area hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, county election officials “could not overcome the challenges brought on by COVID-19 in time for in-person voting to begin,” according to the secretary of state’s office.
Besides the loss of election staff, voting precincts were closing.
Churches and assisted living centers that usually serve as voting locations have told election officials they’re unwilling to serve as polling places.
The new June 9 election date will give county election managers more time to recruit and train workers, as well as buy supplies to clean equipment and protect poll workers, Raffensperger said. In-person early voting will start May 18.
"This makes it necessary for the secretary of state to hire younger poll workers at a higher wage and to put in place safety protocols that protect all poll workers and voters," said Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, a Democrat from Stone Mountain.
During the primary, voters will choose candidates for president, Congress, the General Assembly, county commission, county sheriff and other offices.
Though former Vice President Joe Biden is the presumptive presidential nominee for the Democratic Party, voters will be able to choose among 12 candidates. Republican Party ballots will list President Donald Trump.
Candidates said they’re grateful they now know that the election date is set after weeks of speculation that it could be rescheduled.
"It's a hard date now. We can make decisions about when to do our advertising, which I think is important," said Dan McEntire, a Republican and carpet manufacturer running against Sen. Chuck Payne, a Republican from Dalton.
The primary date was moved to June 9 because that’s the latest it can be scheduled without missing deadlines for other elections this year leading up to the Nov. 3 general election, Raffensperger said.
Primary runoffs are scheduled for Aug. 11, and overseas and military ballots for the general election must be mailed by mid-September.
Raffensperger had resisted delaying the presidential primary again, previously saying he didn't have the authority under Georgia law to do so. He had called on the General Assembly or Kemp to take action.
Under Georgia law, a secretary of state can delay an election for up to 45 days if the governor declares a state of emergency. Kemp’s latest emergency order lasts until May 13.
Voters can return their absentee ballot request forms to receive a Democratic, Republican or nonpartisan ballot for the June 9 election. Request forms can also be downloaded from the secretary of state's website.
The absentee request forms that were mailed to voters list the old May 19 date, but they’ll be valid for the new June 9 election date. After voters return their request forms, they will be mailed absentee ballots starting later this month, according to the secretary of state’s office.
Key days for Georgia's 2020 elections
May 11: Voter registration deadline for primary election
May 18: In-person early voting begins for primary election
June 9: Election day for presidential and general primary
Aug. 11: Primary election runoff
Oct. 5: Voter registration deadline for general election
Oct. 12: In-person early voting begins for general election
Nov. 3: Election Day
Dec. 1: Runoff for state and local races
Jan. 5: Runoff for federal races