Absentee ballots can begin to be opened, but not counted, in Georgia

Election workers were able to begin opening and scanning absentee ballots Monday under a new Georgia rule.

The rule, passed by the State Election Board in August, allows county election officials to start processing absentee ballots 15 days before Election Day.

But the rule also forbids tabulation of absentee ballots until polls close on Election Day. Scanned votes will be stored in the memory of optical scanning computers, the same as votes cast in person during early voting.

Processing absentee ballots in advance will help election officials manage unprecedented levels of remote voters during the coronavirus pandemic. Over 1.6 million voters have requested absentee ballots in Georgia, and more than 676,000 of them have been filled out and returned, according to state election records.

Election officials will be able to get a head start on the time-consuming job of processing absentee ballots. They’re permitted to verify, open, separate and scan absentee ballots.

Election results in close races might not be known for days because of the time it takes to count every vote. State law gives county election officials until Nov. 13 to certify the election, and then Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger must finalize results by Nov. 20.

Handling absentee ballots ahead of time will reduce the number of ballots left after Election Day.

Absentee ballot processing must be open to the view of the public, but only designated election employees can touch ballots, according to the State Election Board rule.

Before the rule change, absentee ballots couldn’t be processed until Election Day in Georgia.

County election workers verify voter signatures and registration information when absentee ballots are returned, before they’re opened.

If ballots are rejected, election officials are required to quickly notify voters and give them time to correct problems. So far, just 261 returned absentee ballots had been rejected across Georgia through Sunday, according to state election records.

It’s not too late for voters to request and return absentee ballots to drop boxes located in about 120 counties across Georgia. Absentee ballots can be requested online at ballotrequest.sos.ga.gov or by filling out a form on the secretary of state’s website.

Completed absentee ballots must be received by county election officials by 7 p.m. Nov. 3 to be counted.

Three weeks of in-person early voting is also underway in every county in Georgia.