Runoffs bring changes to Georgia elections after primary problems

Emanual Frazier (R) stands in line to vote at The Wolf Creek Library in Atlanta Saturday, August 1, 2020.  STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Emanual Frazier (R) stands in line to vote at The Wolf Creek Library in Atlanta Saturday, August 1, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Fresh off a primary marred by long lines and late poll openings, Georgia’s runoffs on Tuesday provide a second chance for election officials to prepare for the true test: the presidential election in November.

The runoffs come with several changes in response to the hard lessons of the June 9 primary, when the coronavirus pandemic and a new statewide voting system added to the difficulties of running an election.

Poll workers have been retrained, with hands-on classes instead of online tutorials. Technicians will be ready at every voting location in metro Atlanta’s four core counties. Voting machines will be delivered to polling places well in advance. Voter check-ins have been streamlined.

But improvements in a low-turnout runoff are just the beginning of the work needed to hold a successful general election in November, when over 5 million voters are expected to participate.

A voter casts his ballot Saturday at the Wolf Creek Library in Atlanta, where long lines forced the polling place to stay open until 10 p.m. for the June 9 Georgia primary.  STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
A voter casts his ballot Saturday at the Wolf Creek Library in Atlanta, where long lines forced the polling place to stay open until 10 p.m. for the June 9 Georgia primary. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

After poll workers quit and polling places closed because of the coronavirus, election officials are trying to hire new workers, add voting sites and adjust to social-distancing limitations.

“This is what voting looks like in a pandemic,” said Gabriel Sterling, the voting implementation manager for the secretary of state’s office. “Losing polling locations means you have more people voting in fewer locations, which de facto leads to longer lines. We’re still learning how to deal with this.”

The runoffs will settle races for the U.S. House of Representatives, the Georgia General Assembly, district attorneys and other county offices.

There are many ways state and county election officials said they’ve adjusted since the chaotic primary.

For example, there’s no longer a need for poll workers to call county election offices to confirm that someone who requested an absentee ballot hasn’t already voted. That issue caused major slowdowns in Fulton County, where many voters said they never received absentee ballots they had requested. Computers now display whether absentee ballots were returned.

In Gwinnett County, where some voting equipment wasn’t delivered until after polls opened in the primary, voting computers are now being shipped to precincts well in advance, Elections Supervisor Kristi Royston said. Trucks began loading voting machines to send to precincts on Wednesday.

“There’s a learning curve right now,” Royston said. “The more opportunities we have to use this equipment, the better off we’re all going to be as far as understanding how it works, how we need to set it up and how we need to deploy it.”

Fulton County, which experienced the most severe problems in the primary, opened the largest early voting site in Georgia at State Farm Arena. The county plans to add dozens of polling places before the presidential election.

“As we move toward this vital general election, we are confident that the increased training of poll workers, restructuring of polling sites, and implementation of social distancing and other precautions will ensure a positive experience for all voters,” Fulton spokeswoman Regina Waller said.

People practice social distancing Saturday at the Wolf Creek Library in Atlanta while waiting to cast their ballots during in-person early voting for Tuesday's runoffs. The coronavirus pandemic added to the difficulties of running the Georgia primary on June 9 when numerous polling sites were overwhelmed as voters waited in lines for hours. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
People practice social distancing Saturday at the Wolf Creek Library in Atlanta while waiting to cast their ballots during in-person early voting for Tuesday's runoffs. The coronavirus pandemic added to the difficulties of running the Georgia primary on June 9 when numerous polling sites were overwhelmed as voters waited in lines for hours. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Voting slowdowns also occurred because poll workers were unfamiliar with Georgia’s voting system, which adds a paper ballot to the voting process for the first time in 18 years. Voters use touchscreens to make their choices, then insert a printed-out paper ballot into a scanner.

The postponement of the March presidential primary, along with a lack of in-person training, led to difficulties for poll workers when the primary finally arrived, Cobb County Elections Director Janine Eveler said.

“They had a hard time because it was so long ago, and they didn’t have much hands-on experience,” Eveler said.

In advance of the runoff, workers were trained at the county civic center, where they could work with the equipment in a large space that preserved social distancing, she said.

Sam Tillman, the chairman for the DeKalb County elections board, said DeKalb is buying more high-speed ballot scanners and increasing its number of poll workers in each voting location.

“Everything we’re doing for the election this month is in preparation for November,” Tillman said. “The runoff is going to be a small election, but we’re using it as a training ground.”

Primary runoffs in Georgia typically see a turnout of about 11%. By comparison, turnout in the June primary was 32%. About 63% of voters participated in the 2016 presidential election.

Early voters at the Wolf Creek Library in South Fulton, which didn’t close until after 10 p.m. on the primary election day, said election officials need to do better.

“We need more voting locations,” said Christina Campbell, who waited 45 minutes to vote in the primary. “Lines discourage voters, and so will COVID. But we have to push through it. It’s an important election.”

Election changes for Georgia runoffs

  • Increased poll worker training
  • New poll workers hired
  • Technicians in every voting location in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties
  • Quick-reference troubleshooting guides for poll workers
  • Stickers label how to set up voter access card encoders and power supplies
  • Simplified absentee ballot cancellation process for those who decide to vote in person
  • Equipment deployed to voting locations days in advance

How to vote in the runoff

View sample ballots, find your polling place and review your voter registration information on the state’s My Voter Page at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov.