The brains of Georgia’s elections sit in a nondescript former residential home in Kennesaw, where bedrooms and living areas are now offices and the former garage houses a training room where election official run through mock elections.
The state’s collaboration with the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University is one of the most unique election partnerships in the nation. The center has only one client – the state – and only a handful of staff and student assistants, yet it has a hand in almost every operation that touches Election Day.
It creates every ballot (even the local ones) used in every election every year across the state; sources every electronic poll book (list of eligible voters) used in every election for each of the state’s 3,000 precincts; and tests every single piece of voting equipment used across the state, among other things.
“Each election,” said the center’s director, Michael Barnes, “is a miraculous operation.”
Founded in 2002 through a partnership with the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, the center acts as a kind of repository for both state and local elections officials in the actual nuts-and-bolts of running an election.
“If we get a phone call at 7:30 in the morning on Election Day (from a local elections office) where the election management system is not responding, it’s not booting up to where they would be able to tally results that night, we can have an individual with a backup server in their car headed to that jurisdiction within about 30 minutes,” Barnes said.
In emergencies, the center can also print ballots if necessary – not enough for every voter in the state, but enough to make sure the correct absentee ballots get mailed out if last-minute changes temporarily upend a county’s regular timeline.
Both Barnes and Merle King, the center’s executive director, say the center’s institutional knowledge – it’s worked with three secretaries of state, both Democrat and Republican – is crucial.
Georgia has a uniform voting system, meaning every county uses the same equipment and procedures to ensure equitable access to voting for every eligible resident – no matter where they live or how rich or poor their county is.
“We’ve been asked by other states, would you consider doing these services for us?” King said. “And we’ve said no. It wouldn’t make us better at the job we do here.”