A new era of voting in Georgia is about to begin. Are we ready?

Questions surround elections in Fulton and across metro Atlanta

Voters will cast their ballots Tuesday in a new environment created by Georgia’s voting law that will test metro Atlanta elections, especially in embattled Fulton County.

Election workers will be challenged to keep lines short, report results quickly and avoid any doubts about election integrity.

Whether they rise to the challenge or fall short will be on public display as voters focus on the high-profile race for Atlanta mayor, municipal elections across the state and tax referendums. Even in a lower-turnout local election year, pitfalls abound.

Poorly run elections could result in state investigations under Georgia’s voting law, and the State Election Board has already ordered a performance review in Fulton. Continued shortcomings could add to the case for a state take over of the county’s elections management.

In addition, state law now requires counties to post online their total number of ballots cast — not the results, just the total number of votes — by 10 p.m. on election night.

Commission Chairman Robb Pitts attends meeting at the Fulton County government building in Atlanta on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)


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A long-standing law allows polling places in Atlanta to stay open until 8 p.m., which leaves just two hours to close down polls, tally memory cards and create reports. The county’s other voting locations close at 7 p.m.

“Fulton County has every intention of making the state-imposed deadline,” said Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts. “It may be tight in the city of Atlanta, which will have less time to count their votes since polls close an hour later in the city, but we still intend to make the deadline.”

Fulton County District 1 Commissioner Liz Hausmann speaks at a ribbon cutting celebrating the new assembly hall and renovations at the Fulton County government building in Atlanta, Georgia, on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright

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Credit: Rebecca Wright

Fulton Commissioner Liz Hausmann said the county has had historical problems with slow results, so the new deadline is concerning.

“I’d like for a boring election night,” she said.

Republicans at the state level, including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, question whether Fulton will be up to the task after years of persistent problems, including long lines and poorly trained poll workers.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger delivers an update on the general election during a press conference at the State Capital Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

“Democrat-led Fulton County needs to stop suppressing its own voters and solve its management issues once and for all,” Raffensperger said. “The reality is, they need a substantial overhaul of their leadership in order to accomplish this.”

Georgia’s voting law was passed by the GOP-controlled General Assembly soon after the 2020 election cycle, a response to supporters of Republican Donald Trump who demanded changes after his loss to Democrat Joe Biden. Its advocates say the bill guards against fraud. Detractors say it erects unnecessary obstacles to voting.

Much of the law dealt with absentee voting by requiring additional forms of voter ID, curbing ballot drop boxes and tightening deadlines.

But the legislation, Senate Bill 202, also affects Election Day.

It’s now illegal for volunteers to hand out food and water to voters waiting in line. In addition, ballots cast in the wrong precinct won’t be counted except after 5 p.m., when voters don’t have time to go to their assigned polling location.

Then after polls close, election workers must count ballots nonstop until they’re finished. All absentee ballots must be counted by 5 p.m. the day after the election, with the exception of provisional and overseas ballots, which can be tallied up to three days afterward.

Nia Corsten, a poll worker in Milton, said she’s skeptical of Fulton’s ability to run a smooth election, even this year, when the number of voters will be easier to manage than in last year’s presidential campaign. She said a successful municipal election this week doesn’t necessarily mean Fulton has solved problems.

“If this isn’t a success, it will be a big black eye on Fulton County,” Corsten said. “I’m hopeful that we won’t have the same problems. There’s a provision for state takeover. That might well have to be the case.”

Fulton elections head Richard Barron said the voting law’s tight deadline for reporting the number of ballots cast is particularly difficult in Atlanta because of its later poll closing times.

Fulton County elections director Rick Barron holds a briefing at State Farm Arena where absentee ballot processing is nearing completion.  John Spink / john.spink@ajc.com

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink

“I don’t know why the Legislature decided to hamstring the city of Atlanta,” Barron said.

When asked about their odds of hitting the deadline, he said: “I would say they’re good. I would say they’re one-third less than good in the city of Atlanta. We’ve never done this.”

Roughly half of Fulton’s polling places are in the city of Atlanta, Barron said.

The elections office in DeKalb County has also been under scrutiny in recent months and years, and is currently operating under interim leadership after the resignation of its director. But the county is under far less pressure than Fulton during this election cycle.

DeKalb includes roughly 10% of the city of Atlanta, but Tuesday’s tasks otherwise include only smaller municipal races and a countywide education tax vote that figure to produce relatively low turnout.

There are, however, potential complications.

A total of 13 Atlanta-in-DeKalb voting precincts will remain open until 8 p.m. Tuesday, but voters who show up after 7 p.m. must vote by provisional ballot.

Officials are urging residents to show up before 7 p.m. if possible to avoid having to vote by provisional ballot, which would be counted separately from votes cast with touchscreen voting computers.

And while the county’s Republican Party chairwoman has suggested the state pursue a takeover of DeKalb’s elections, the deep blue county has no Republican commissioners or state legislators to initiate the process. Any movement in that direction would likely have to come directly from the State Election Board.

Staff writer Tyler Estep contributed to this article.

Election changes in Georgia voting law

  • The State Election Board can replace county election boards after a performance review.
  • County election superintendents must report the number of in-person ballots and absentee ballots cast by 10 p.m. on the day of the election.
  • The number of ballots cast must be posted online or on the door of a county elections office.
  • Ballot counting must continue without stopping until finished except for reasonable breaks.
  • Any discrepancies between the number of ballots received and the number of ballots counted must be investigated and reported to the secretary of state.
  • All absentee ballots must be counted by 5 p.m. on the day after Election Day, with the exception of military, overseas and provisional ballots, which can be returned up to three days after Election Day.

Source: Senate Bill 202 and State Election Board rules

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