Georgia’s primary: How to vote in an unprecedented election

People stand in line to vote at the South Fulton Service Center in May. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
People stand in line to vote at the South Fulton Service Center in May. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

What you need to know about in-person, absentee and drop box voting

Editor’s note: Providing Georgians with the information they need to vote is a priority of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

On top of the planned move to a new system of voting machines, the pandemic has forced many additional changes and quite a few challenges. To help you navigate the changes, we’ve put together this guide to voting in Georgia.

The Georgia primary will be different from any previous election because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Record numbers of voters have cast their ballots by mail before Tuesday's election. Polling places now come with social distancing and disinfectant. Some precincts have closed, but turnout remains strong.

The changes have come to a presidential primary that has been postponed twice and combined with the general primary in an attempt to avoid the worst of the public health crisis. Now that the election is finally underway, here's what voters need to know:

What’s at stake

The presidential race is just the beginning of a long ballot filled with many candidates and questions.

Besides Republican President Donald Trump and Democrats including presumptive nominee Joe Biden at the top of the ballot, voters will also decide races from the U.S. Senate to county sheriff.

Voters can view sample ballots, check on their absentee ballot and find election information at the state's My Voter Page at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov.

Not everyone’s ballot will list the presidential race. Those who voted early, before the originally scheduled March 24 primary was postponed, will receive ballots with candidates for every race other than president. Their previous votes for president will be counted on election night Tuesday along with everyone else’s.

Besides president, Democratic Party voters will choose from among seven candidates for the U.S. Senate, including Sarah Riggs AmicoJon Ossoff and Teresa Tomlinson. On the Republican Party ballot, U.S. Sen. David Perdue is the only U.S. Senate candidate.

But voters won’t decide Georgia’s second U.S. Senate race until November for the seat held by U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

The special election to fill the last two years of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson's term includes 21 candidates from several parties: Democrats, Greens, Libertarians and Republicans. The most well-known candidates in that race are Republicans U.S. Rep. Doug Collins and Loeffler, as well as Democrats such as Matt Lieberman, Ed Tarver and the Rev. Raphael Warnock.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Georgia elections

Voting from home

Because of the coronavirus, election officials encouraged voters to use absentee ballots and avoid human contact at the polls. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger sent absentee ballot request forms to 6.9 million active Georgia voters.

Voters responded in droves. About 1.6 million voters returned the forms, an unprecedented increase in remote voting in Georgia. In the 2018 general election, just 220,000 people voted absentee by mail.

The shift to absentee voting caused several problems.

Some voters, especially in Fulton County, were still waiting for their ballots to be delivered. Ballots list the original date of the general primary, May 19, though they remain valid for Tuesday's election. Hundreds of thousands of voters who received absentee ballots haven't yet returned them.

Absentee ballots will only be counted if they’re received by county election officials by 7 p.m. Tuesday, according to state law. That means voters should get them in the mail by Thursday to feel confident they’ll be delivered in time.

But the coronavirus crisis brought an innovation that allows voters to avoid the U.S. Postal Service.

Many counties set up drop boxes where voters can deposit their absentee ballots instead of mailing them. Drop boxes will remain open until the 7 p.m. Tuesday deadline for ballots to be returned.

There are 20 drop boxes available in Fulton, eight in Gwinnett County, five in DeKalb County and four in Cobb County. Ballots must be returned in your home county.

In-person voting during COVID-19

Voters who decide to cast their ballots at early voting locations or neighborhood precincts might face lines.

Voters will be spaced 6 feet apart, and only a few will be allowed into precincts at a time.

Once voters get inside, they might face more delays. After being offered hand sanitizer, voters will wait for election workers to wipe down touchscreens. Then they’ll work through a long ballot filled with many choices on a voting system they’ve never used before.

New voting computers are being rolled out to all in-person Georgia voters in the primary, adding a paper ballot to elections for the first time in 18 years.

The voting equipment uses touchscreens that are similar to what voters are familiar with. But unlike Georgia’s previous voting system, the touchscreens don’t store votes. Instead, they’re connected to printers that create paper ballots, providing a way to check electronic results after years of complaints of alleged voting irregularities and security issues.

Voters will have the opportunity to check their printed-out paper ballots before depositing them into ballot scanners. Then ballots will be preserved in locked ballot boxes.

Delays will also arise from voters who requested an absentee ballot but later decided to vote in person.

Voters who never received or lost their absentee ballots must sign a form to receive a new ballot. Voters who bring their blank absentee ballots to polling places will face a slightly quicker process before being allowed to vote in person.

Before you go

A little preparation will go a long way, especially since over 10% of the state's precincts have closed. Many churches that normally serve as voting locations are unwilling to open their doors to voters because of the coronavirus.

Voters can check their precinct locations on the state’s My Voter Page. Election officials are also asking voters to wear face masks, but masks aren’t required.

Photo ID is required for in-person voting in Georgia.

Any voter can participate in Georgia’s primary election without having to register with a political party. Georgia is an open primary state, meaning voters can pick which party’s candidates they want to choose from. Voters can select a Democratic, Republican or nonpartisan ballot, but they should be aware that nonpartisan ballots exclude races for president, Congress and the General Assembly. Only judges and other nonpartisan races will be listed.

Voters who received an absentee ballot but didn't complete it can still return it on election day. Absentee ballots will be accepted at county election offices and drop boxes until polls close on election day. However, absentee ballots can't be delivered at local precincts.

Polls will be open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and then results will start to trickle in. Voters should be prepared for the possibility that the outcomes of some races might be delayed beyond election night because of the time it will take for election officials to count so many absentee ballots.

Runoffs will be held Aug. 11 for races where no candidate receives more than half of the votes cast. The winners of each party’s primaries will meet in the general election Nov. 3.

For more information about Georgia's elections, visit the AJC's elections news website at www.ajc.com/news/election/.

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