As early voting starts, Georgia aims to avoid another meltdown

Tom Mroz wears a face shield and mask while waiting to vote June 9 in the Georgia primary at the Park Tavern polling place in Atlanta. Election officials are hoping to avoid the many problems that occurred that day, forcing voters at some precincts to wait hours to cast their ballots. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Since Georgia’s chaotic primary last spring, election officials have scrambled to prevent another debacle.

Election directors across Georgia have hired thousands of poll workers, added tech support staff, bought additional voting equipment and improved absentee ballot processing times. They’ve been stocking up on masks and reviewing plans to social distance to protect voters and staff from the coronavirus.

With in-person voting starting Monday in what is expected to be the highest-turnout election in state history, the big question remains: Was all that enough?

Election officials are trying to prepare voters, particularly in large metro counties with a history of problems, for the possibility of long lines both during early voting and on Election Day.

ExploreFind early voting locations in metro Atlanta
ExploreElection 2020: Georgia voter guide

One of the most significant initiatives since June was a mass hiring effort to recruit new poll workers. Many of them, especially those over 70 years old, quit rather than risk catching the coronavirus during the June 9 primary.

Over 40,000 potential poll workers expressed interest to the secretary of state’s office, nonprofit groups and businesses, and their names were forwarded to local election officials to make hiring decisions.

But in some counties, staffing remains an issue for both early voting and Election Day.

In Gwinnett County, the election office is still short of its targets by hundreds of poll workers. The county would like to have 2,165 staff lined up for Election Day to ensure things go smoothly across its 156 polling locations. As of Oct. 2, it was 750 workers short of that goal. Its minimum staffing target is 1,845 workers, and election officials are hopeful they will reach that by Nov. 3.

In Cobb County, an issue is inexperienced staffers. Cobb closed one early voting site, Noonday Baptist Church. Elections Direct Janine Eveler said she didn’t have enough poll managers or assistant managers to oversee all the rookie clerks who aren’t qualified for management roles.

Eveler and other election directors are keeping hundreds of new poll workers on standby, ready to deploy to polling places when needed. Their assignments probably won’t be decided until the weekend before Election Day, she said.

First-time poll workers by nature are inexperienced and some of them won’t follow through with the job, Eveler said.

“It’s always two steps forward, one step back,” Eveler said. “We’re getting lots of lists from different groups. We’ll probably have more applicants than we can use. Most of the polls are filled right now, but it’s a moving target.”

ExploreHow to vote by mail in Georgia’s general election

The new voting equipment could be another issue.

Problems operating Georgia’s new voting computers contributed to extreme lines in the June primary. Elections officials have been conducting last-minute training, machine updates and tests in an effort to get ready.

Election officials are trying to limit problems by putting technicians in each of the state’s voting sites.

However, many of those technicians are being hired by counties and given only a few hours of training. Other techs are being provided by Georgia’s voting company, Dominion Voting Services. There are still 500 vacant election tech jobs that need to be filled, Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said.

The secretary of state’s office put several counties on a “performance enhancement plan” to correct a variety of problems, including late precinct hours, absentee ballot issues, long lines, late equipment delivery and unsecured ballots. While the plan doesn’t force counties to make changes, it says Chatham, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties will need to improve training, recruit poll workers and make contingency plans to have a successful election.

“We’re still going to see some troubles with in-person voting,” Fuchs said. “They’re going to see some long lines the day of the election. The mantra in our office is the line should continuously move and voting should never stop.”

An inadequate supply of voting equipment was another problem in some precincts and could be a problem again Nov. 3. Georgia’s $104 million voting system depends on more than 200,000 components across the state, including check-in tablets, touchscreens and printers that produce a paper ballot that must be inserted into scanners for the vote to count.

The state supplied equipment to counties based on their numbers of registered voters, but some polling places lacked all the components needed to accommodate the surge of voters who showed up for the primary. Some counties have purchased additional voting equipment to handle the number of expected voters.

But it won’t be enough in some precincts, according to an analysis filed in federal court by Muer Yang, an operations and supply chain management professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

“Although counties have made efforts to improve the voting equipment allocation for the 2020 presidential election, many polling places are identified to be likely to have long voting lines at some point on Election Day,” Yang wrote. “Some are due to insufficient Poll Pads, some are BMDs (ballot-marking devices), and some are scanners. In other words, the voting equipment should be sufficient at all three voting stages to prevent long lines.”

Court papers reveal that voting rights advocates have also raised concerns about whether large counties such as Gwinnett have enough voting machines and check-in tablets to help ensure lines move swiftly for the wave of expected voters.

Gwinnett Elections Supervisor Kristi Royston said staffing is a bigger concern than equipment, but she thinks the county will be ready.

“I’m not worried,” Royston said. “We’re trained up and we’re prepared and we’re working through any staffing concerns we have.”

Efforts to protect voters both from the spread of the coronavirus and from security threats also could add to issues at the polls.

“My concern is that people won’t understand that long lines might not be from equipment failures. It will be because of social distancing,” DeKalb Elections Director Erica Hamilton said.

Poll watching or efforts to intimidate voters also could disrupt voting. Because of such concerns, some local officials are enlisting police to ensure there are no disruptions, a move that could be controversial if voters fear a police presence at the polls.

“I hate having to do it, but I think this time we will do it to make sure,” Atkinson County Elections Supervisor Lorraine M. White said.

Another complication for Election Day: new polling locations for some voters.

Fulton County added 91 polling places for Nov. 3 after voters waited over three hours to cast ballots in some polling places in the primary. The county will have 255 voting sites in the presidential election.

One location, Park Tavern in Piedmont Park, became a national symbol of Georgia’s election failures after polling places closed because of coronavirus restrictions, resulting in over 16,000 voters being assigned to one polling place.

The new polling places mean thousands of voters will have a new location. That could add to confusion, but the county has hired line managers to direct voters to their correct locations or give them provisional ballots.

“All I want to do is fly under the radar,” said Fulton Elections Director Richard Barron, who thinks the changes will make Election Day go smoothly. “My main concern is voters knowing where they’re supposed to go on Election Day."

The load across the state at in-person voting locations might be eased by so many people casting absentee ballots. Through Wednesday, over 1.5 million people had requested absentee ballots in Georgia. Total turnout is expected to reach 5 million.

While some voters haven’t received their absentee ballots yet, election officials say they’re in the mail and should be delivered soon. Absentee ballots will be counted if they’re received by county election officials by 7 p.m. Nov. 3, according to a court ruling.

“I don’t want to be in a mile-long line,” said Charles Hale of Chamblee, pumping his fist after delivering his absentee ballot in a drop box at the DeKalb elections office. “There are so many people invested in this election.”

Early voting has also expanded, with Fulton County voters able to cast their ballots at State Farm Arena, the High Museum and over 30 other locations from Monday to Oct. 30. Other metro Atlanta counties — Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett — have opened a combined 32 early voting sites.

In Cobb and Gwinnett, voters will be able to go online to see wait times at early voting locations, helping them decide when and where to cast their ballots.

Early voting starts Monday

Three weeks of in-person early voting begin Monday in every county in Georgia.

All registered voters can visit an early voting site at their convenience, but they must vote in their home counties. Fulton County voters will be able to use the largest early voting site in Georgia at State Farm Arena, which is equipped with 300 voting touchscreens and 60 check-in stations.

The hours of early voting sites vary, so check your county’s election website or the My Voter Page at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov.

Early voting lasts until Oct. 30, the Friday before Election Day on Nov. 3.

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