Early voting in Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoffs brings high scrutiny, fewer locations

When voters go to the polls starting Monday morning, Darryl Hicks is confident that this time every ballot will count.

That wasn’t the case last month in Fayette County, where Hicks is chairman of the county election board — at least not at first. It wasn’t until a statewide recount that officials determined one memory card from a machine used during early voting hadn’t been accounted for in the first tally.

For the Jan. 5 runoff, which has garnered national attention and will determine the balance of power in the U.S. Senate, Hicks said the same mistake won’t occur again. Election officials initially missed 6,000 ballots in Fayette and three other counties.

Early voting for the runoff comes with a new set of challenges: fewer voting locations in some counties, limited weekend voting options and exhausted election workers being put under the microscope.

“We have our own internal plan to prevent what happened last time,” Hicks said. “We will solve the issue of forgetting to count a memory card.”

The solution is simple: a log sheet to ensure votes from every card are uploaded. But even the mundane is under greater scrutiny for this election.

The high-profile U.S. Senate races on the ballot are expected to drive up turnout, though not as much as the presidential race with its record 5 million voters. For the runoffs between Republican U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler and Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, over 1.1 million voters have requested absentee ballots so far, almost as many as the 1.3 million absentee ballots cast in the general election.

People wait in line for early voting in October at the Cobb County Tax Commissioner Office in Marietta. The county initially reduced the number of early voting sites for the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoffs from 11 to five. After concerns were raised, though, the county added two more locations for the final week of early voting. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

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Credit: Christina Matacotta

Cobb County, the third-largest county in the state, drew criticism from voting rights groups for reducing its number of early voting locations to five after 11 had been available before the general election. In response to those concerns, the county added two more voting sites for the last week of early voting.

Elections Director Janine Eveler said the county didn’t have enough poll managers to staff as many early voting sites. The multiple recounts after the general election forced long hours on workers, 15 of whom resigned.

“It’ll be pretty high turnout, but we’re prepared for that,” said Eveler, who installed extra check-in tablets to keep lines moving in the runoffs. “We have capacity for early, election day and absentee voting.”

Hall County has cut its number of early voting locations to four, from eight in the general election.

No one from the county returned phone calls seeking comment about the decision. But Jerry Gonzalez, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said the county is often “hostile” toward Latino voters. Some of the closed early voting sites were located in areas with high numbers of Latino voters.

“Georgia continues to implement voter suppression tactics,” he said. “Some election people feel like they want less people voting.”

In Forsyth County, election officials cut the number of early voting locations to five from 11. Elections Director Mandi Smith said a lower-turnout runoff with a shorter ballot won’t require as many voting sites as the general election, and the reduction in locations had been planned in advance.

“When we opened 11 locations for the general election, it was a concerted effort due to turnout, the length of the ballot, and the pandemic played into it,” Smith said. “We tried to move people through as fast as we could.”

Forsyth Democratic Committee Chairwoman Melissa Clink said the election board’s decision to cut the number of early voting locations is “anti-American.” She acknowledged that the decision was made this summer, before details about the runoff were known. But Clink said by having fewer locations, no Saturday voting and closing early voting at 5 p.m., the county has disenfranchised working people and the poor.

“If one person in Forsyth County has to stand in a long line, we’ve really failed them,” Clink said.

Patrick Bell, chairman of the county Republican Party, dismissed the idea that any votes were being suppressed in Forsyth, where 66% of residents voted for President Donald Trump in November’s election.

“We’re 70% conservative; why would we want to suppress the vote?” he asked. “To think our citizens wouldn’t vote because they had to go another 8/10 of a mile is ridiculous. We’re not talking about polls that are 15 miles apart. From one end of the county to another is 30 minutes, tops.”

Bell said there are fewer early voting locations because staff resources are strained over the holidays.

He is confident that voting will go smoothly in Forsyth but said he has concerns regarding the rest of the state. He worries about the potential for harvesting absentee ballots and that people who moved out of state are maintaining Georgia registrations. He’s also concerned that a slew of new residents could have moved to Georgia just to vote.

There is little proof of massive ballot harvesting or people moving in from out of state to vote, but Republicans have been pushing those narratives.

Some of the scrutiny over elections has fallen on Fulton County, where nearly 29,000 people registered to vote in November.

Fulton will open 30 early voting sites, including the largest in the state. State Farm Arena will host voters the first week of early voting and Mercedes-Benz Stadium will the second week.

This election cycle has been a challenge in the county, which started the summer as a national embarrassment because of long lines and some voters never getting the absentee ballots they requested.

On Thursday, the county had already received more than 125,000 applications for absentee-by-mail ballots, Elections Director Richard Barron said, and more than 8,000 ballots had already been returned. On election day, 254 voting sites will be open, similar to the general election.

Still, the issues this summer and Republican questions about ballot counting in the general election have left some worried about the county’s performance in the runoff.

“We now have a cloud over the operations of the election department,” said Fulton Commissioner Liz Hausmann, a Republican who has been paid $6,000 per month this year by the secretary of state’s office as a communications and policy contractor. “Confidence has eroded in our ability to conduct fair and honest elections.”

Early voting in Georgia

In-person early voting lasts for three weeks starting Monday, Dec. 14.

Some counties are offering weekend voting locations, but unlike in a general election, a weekend day isn’t required in the runoff.

There will be fewer overall days of early voting because voting sites will be closed on two Fridays for Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Normal election day precincts will be open on the day of the runoff, Jan. 5.

Voters can check their registrations and voting locations on the state’s My Voter Page at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov.