Georgia's delayed presidential primary brings the possibility that election officials will mail absentee ballot applications to older voters, or even to every voter in the state, both of which would be unprecedented steps to avoid human contact in an election amid the coronavirus.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Monday that he wants a “robust absentee ballot program” in advance of the new election date on May 19.
State election officials are considering options to increase mail-in voting, such as sending absentee ballot applications to Georgia's 2 million voters older than 60 years old, a population at greater risk from the coronavirus.
Another possibility would be to mail absentee ballot applications to all of the state's 7.2 million registered voters.
Raffensperger said he still expects large turnout for the primary, which will combine the presidential primary along with the regularly scheduled general primary featuring races for the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, the Georgia General Assembly and local offices.
With more than a week before the original date of the presidential primary, March 24, Raffensperger said he and the Democratic Party of Georgia agreed Saturday to call it off.
“We judged that the risk presented by the drastic spread of COVID-19, and the time that remains before the upcoming election, made it imperative that we delay the election,” Raffensperger said Monday. “We made the decision in the interest of public health, safety and security.”
Georgia already allows any voter to request an absentee ballot, which he or she can fill out at home and return by mail.
But voting by mail isn’t nearly as popular as voting in-person, either at early-voting locations or on Election Day. About 6% of Georgia voters submitted absentee ballots in the November 2018 election for governor.
Mass mailing absentee ballots could ease some of the burden of first processing individual absentee ballot applications, said Tammy Patrick of the Democracy Fund, a Washington-based organization that advocates for fair elections.
“Being able to scale up is going to be a challenge,” Patrick said. “If you mail out a ballot to everyone, you’re taking out the application piece of the equation, and it buys time” for county election officials to manage incoming ballots.
In-person voting on Georgia's new $104 million voting system, which uses touchscreens to print paper ballots, is expected to resume when early voting begins again April 27. Georgia law requires three weeks of in-person early voting along with Election Day voting.
But the coronavirus is making in-person voting more difficult, Cobb County Election Director Janine Eveler said. More than 100 poll workers out of about 1,200 in Cobb quit last week.
“We will be pushing for mail ballots, and everybody can apply, and you don’t need a reason,” Eveler said. “It’s safer.”
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about Georgia’s delayed presidential primary:
Q: If I already voted early in the presidential primary, will my vote count?
A: Yes. More than 273,000 people cast their ballots in the primary before the election was postponed Saturday. Those ballots will be counted May 19. About 88% of people voted in-person; the rest voted by mail.
Q: How will election officials account for voters who already cast their ballots for president?
A: Georgia's voting system has the ability to provide different ballots based on whether voters participated in the presidential primary. Those who didn't already vote in the presidential primary will receive a ballot that includes all contests. Those who have voted in the presidential primary will receive a ballot that excludes that race.
Q: Can I still return my absentee ballot for the presidential primary?
A: Absentee ballots received by county election offices by March 24 will be counted. After that date, voters will need to complete a new absentee ballot for the May 19 primary.
Q: Will voter registration reopen for the presidential primary?
A: Yes. The voter registration deadline for the May 19 election is April 20. Georgians who weren't registered in time for the originally scheduled presidential primary can sign up for the delayed election.
Q: Can voters cast a ballot for a different political party in the general primary than they did in the presidential primary?
A: Georgia is an open primary state, meaning voters don't have to be affiliated with a political party to cast ballots in partisan primaries. Voters who already cast ballots will be able to choose a different party's ballot in May than they did in March. For example, voters who cast a Democratic Party ballot in the presidential primary can choose a Republican Party ballot in May. However, voters who haven't yet cast a ballot in the presidential primary must choose one party's ballot for all the races in the May primary.
Q: Is it legal to postpone the presidential primary for nearly two months?
A: The secretary of state's office, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party agreed to the delay in the interest of public health. State law says postponements in the event of an emergency shall not be longer than 45 days. Early voting ended after Saturday and will resume April 27, a period of 43 days.