Georgia election heads survived 2020; now they’re bracing for this year

County election directors hope for peace, plan for scrutiny
Cobb County Elections Director Janine Eveler talks with the media as election workers start the recount process in November 2020 at the Jim Miller Park Event Center in Marietta.  STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Combined ShapeCaption
Cobb County Elections Director Janine Eveler talks with the media as election workers start the recount process in November 2020 at the Jim Miller Park Event Center in Marietta. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

On the front lines of the 2020 election in Georgia, the stressed county administrators in charge faced unprecedented challenges of misinformation, threats, pandemic and recounts amid record-high turnout.

They hope they don’t have to go through anything like that again this fall.

Leaders of county election offices say they’re prepared for another intense voting season as they’re telling Georgians that their votes will count and that democracy still works.

Deidre Holden, elections supervisor in Paulding County, said she’s trying to restore voters’ faith after conspiracy theories sowed mistrust following Republican Donald Trump’s narrow loss to Democrat Joe Biden.

“What we’re up against is proving that we are conducting these elections with integrity and transparency, and we are doing what’s right,” said Holden, whose county northwest of Atlanta backed Trump with 64% of the vote. “We’re spending a lot of time putting out fires instead of doing what needs to be done, which is serving our voters and doing our jobs. It’s never going to stop.”

Voters are asking a lot of questions, and Holden said she’s giving them detailed answers about the tedious process of how Georgia’s voting machines are tested, how they work and how elections are kept secure.

Strains and turnover

Some election directors quit after 2020. In metro Atlanta, three of the region’s four largest counties — DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett — have replaced their election directors.

Cobb County Election Director Janine Eveler, who was recognized for excellence in election administration last year at a conference of Georgia election officials, said antagonism toward election officials escalated after Election Day.

The eyes of the nation were on Georgia during a hand recount of all 5 million ballots cast statewide, and security officers were dispatched to protect vote-counters worried about their safety, Eveler said.

“I do still get emails from the fringe. They send me all kinds of links with conspiracy theories from unreliable sources,” Eveler said. “We did learn from the 2020 elections how much more scrutiny there is. We’ve tightened up procedures. And the folks that ask these questions have learned more about what we do.”

Three vote counts and repeated investigations — including an audit of absentee ballot signatures in Cobb — upheld the results of the presidential election.

This year, Cobb has increased security and documentation to verify that ballots haven’t been tampered with, she said. About 56% of Cobb voters supported Biden.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

The burdens of running a transparent and accountable election have only increased, said Chris Harvey, Georgia’s former elections director. County election workers are expected to be better prepared to audit election results, maintain airtight election security records and respond to the public.

“They’re still trying to work through stuff that happened two years ago, and they’re looking at possibly a whole new round of it. If it ends up being close and allegations are made, it’s likely to start over again,” Harvey said. “Nothing has gone away. Everything just keeps getting added.”

In Forsyth County north of Atlanta, where Trump received 66% of the vote, Elections Director Mandi Smith said one of her biggest concerns this year is recruiting enough poll workers after so many left because of COVID-19 or the fallout from 2020.

“There’s a different spotlight on what we and our poll workers do than we had in the past,” Smith said. “People have always been watching, and we expect them to. Honestly, all we can ever do is take our past experiences and apply them to the future.”

While Smith said she’s confident in her employees and processes, she can’t predict how voters would respond to another tight or contested election.

Poll worker harassment

The 2020 election was a “perfect storm” of a new statewide voting system, COVID-19 and a heated political environment, said Milton Kidd, elections director in Douglas County west of Atlanta where 62% of votes went to Biden.

Poll workers dealt with people who took pictures of their license plates and called them “unpatriotic” while they were trying to do their jobs, Kidd said. In the elections office, angry voters repeatedly called and emailed employees with baseless complaints about the election.

“There are people in the community that are encouraging individuals to show up at polling locations to cause distractions and basically agitate in what will be a contentious time,” Kidd said. “The removal of civility from our electoral process pains me. I lose sleep because of that.”

Kidd said he’s prepared for high turnout, and he’s trying to educate voters about how they can get involved to learn about the election process firsthand by serving as poll workers or members of bipartisan vote review panels that count ambiguous ballot marks.

The difficulties of running elections stretched across Democratic and Republican counties, in both urban and rural areas.

In Jackson County north of Athens, where Trump won 78% of the vote, the 2020 election was a “nightmare” because of complaints from all sides about mask wearing rules along with a flood of absentee ballots that required additional workers to process, Elections Director Jennifer Logan said.

“There’s just a lot more people coming in and asking a lot of questions, but we use it as teaching moments,” Logan said. “People now are just superexcited about elections, which is good and bad. All of our efforts go to waste if you don’t show up and vote.”

Georgia 2022 election calendar

Oct. 10: Absentee ballots begin to be mailed.

Oct. 11: Deadline to register to vote

Oct. 17: In-person early voting begins

Oct. 22: First day of Saturday voting

Oct. 28: Last day to request an absentee ballot

Oct. 29: Second day of Saturday voting

Nov. 4: Last day of in-person early voting

Nov. 8: Election Day

Dec. 6: Runoff election (if necessary)

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