By QUINN SCANLAN, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — Hundreds of thousands of Georgians have already voted by mail this election, but Monday marks the start of the three-week early voting period, and election officials in some of the state’s largest counties are confident that as in-person voting begins, the 2020 general election will not be a repeat of the problem-plagued primary many voters experienced in June.
“All of our workers are trained, all the early voting sites are set up, so we’ll be ready to open on Monday morning and serve the voters,” said Rick Barron, director of elections and registration for Fulton County, the most populous county in Georgia and home to most of Atlanta.
Since the primary, county election officials have resumed in person poll worker trainings, now better equipped to operate in a world where dealing with coronavirus safety precautions is the norm. The majority have run at least one additional election, the runoff in August, giving election officials and voters another test run ahead of the presidential election, when turnout will be far greater than any of the elections already held this cycle. Several counties have expanded early voting opportunities and created contingency plans for what could go wrong during in person voting. The secretary of state’s office plans to deploy field technicians on Nov. 3 to every polling location across the state who are trained to quickly address the most prevalent problems that occurred on June 9.
Over 90% of problems during the primary were concentrated in the metro Atlanta counties of Fulton, Gwinnett, Cobb and DeKalb, according to the secretary of state’s office, and Fulton alone was the source of 70% of them.
“It’s not just one of, it is the most challenging, strange year I’ve ever been involved in while I’ve been involved in elections. It just seems like one thing after another,” Barron said.
After the presidential primary was postponed twice, and the state primary was postponed once, counties faced poll worker shortages, and training — especially in person — either didn’t happen at all or wasn’t up to par, an issue exacerbated by the fact that a brand new voting machine system was implemented for the 2020 election cycle.
“If you can find the silver lining in what COVID has done for elections, it has made more organizations and individuals aware of the need for poll officials,” Kristi Royston, elections supervisor for Gwinnett County, told ABC News.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office has partnered with numerous organizations across the state to recruit poll workers for November. More than 40,000 people have expressed interest in being poll workers through the state’s effort, and those names have been passed down to the counties, which bear the responsibility of signing up and training its poll workers.
Barron told ABC News that the onus was on Fulton County, not the secretary of state, to address the problems from the primary, and the county now has three elections under its belt — the primary, the runoff and a September special election — using the new voting equipment, and for the latter two, it was able to resume in person poll worker training.
The county is on track to have all poll workers assigned by Oct. 19, and trained by Nov. 1. Those working in the early voting locations have gone through even more training than those working Nov. 3 will go through, since they’ll be in the field for 19 straight days.
Since the primary, Royston said her office has regrouped, focusing on “communication throughout the preparations” as it assesses what needs to be improved and how to accomplish that.
“One thing all election administrators hope everyone would remember is there was a lot thrown at us heading into that primary,” she said. “It wasn’t that things were changing day to day. It was changing hour to hour.”
Janine Eveler, the director of elections and registration in Cobb County, said that in June, workers faced problems they just hadn’t anticipated. With the ability to train poll workers hands on again, and having greater familiarity with the new voting equipment, ideally many of those problems will disappear. But that hasn’t stopped Eveler from preparing for the unexpected.
“A lot of what we’ve been doing is planning for worst case scenarios,” she told ABC News. “Right now, we feel like we have a lot of those contingency plans in place. It’s just a matter of what happens on Election Day.”
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way Americans vote across the country. In Georgia, a state with three methods of voting — no excuse absentee by mail, in-person advance voting and in person on Election Day — that change is especially apparent.
In 2016, just over 200,000 Georgians voted by mail in the general election, but this year, already 410,000 absentee ballots have been returned, and there are still 22 days until those ballots are due. More than 1.5 million voters have requested absentee ballots so far.
According to a poll from Quinnipiac University published in late September, more than half of likely voters in Georgia plan to vote before Election Day this year, about a quarter of them by mail and about three in 10 during the early voting period.
“There has been a lot of advertising trying to change voter behavior from in person day of election voting to shifting them to early voting and absentee,” Jordan Fuchs, deputy secretary of state, told ABC News.
Raffensperger’s office has spent $2 million making voters aware that all three voting options are still available to Georgians. They’ve run six different TV ads, targeting absentee voting first and then shifting the message to push for voters to show up during the early voting period to cast their ballots.
“We’re anticipating significant turnout during early voting, and what that actually means from a voter’s perspective, is you are going to see long lines,” Fuchs said. “You’re going to see a lot of people trying to social distance in these lines and voters need to be prepared for that.”
Election officials in Fulton, as well as Gwinnett and Chatham — the second- and fifth-largest counties in the state — have ramped up early voting compared with 2016, hoping to make it more available and more accessible to voters who are trying to avoid the polls on Nov. 3.
There will be up to 35 advance voting locations open every day in Fulton — more than the next three largest counties combined, Barron said. Thirty-three of these locations will be open on Monday, seven more than the number open on the first day of advance voting during the 2016 general election.
Counties are only required to offer early voting on weekdays, with one mandatory Saturday, during the three-week period, which ends on Oct. 30. But in Fulton, most of these sites will be open daily for the first two weeks, and during the final five days, sites will be open for 12 hours every day, which Barron equated to having five full election days in a row.
The State Farm Arena, where the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and WNBA’s Atlanta Dream play, will be one of those early voting locations. After the primary, the Hawks came to the county to offer up the venue.
Having a voting “super center” was hugely successful in Kentucky’s two largest counties during its June 23 primary. But Barron said Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce challenging the rest of the NBA to follow his lead “set in motion” the movement around the country of professional sports teams partnering with election officials to turn their massive venues into voting locations amid the pandemic.
Gwinnett County’s Royston told ABC News that for early voting, there are “more locations and more days and hours than we have ever had.”
The biggest change is offering early voting at each of the nine sites, including weekends, for the entire three-week period, a change from the 2016 general election when only the main office was open every day.
In Cobb County, all advance voting locations are operational for 12 hours a day, every weekday, and most will be open for both Saturdays.
Chatham County, where Savannah is, also expanded early voting, especially compared to the primary, said Colin McRae, the chairman of the Chatham County Board of Registrars, which oversees early and absentee voting. Instead of only two, like during the primary, there will be six advance voting locations, and in addition to the main office, one location, the Savannah Civic Center, which is downtown and near public transit, will be open one weekend.
“I would like to think that that we’ve been pretty forward thinking and responsive to the public’s requests about access to voting,” McRae said.
While he said he hopes there’s “record turnout” during the three weeks of early voting, McRae said he thinks that many voters who would normally show up may opt to vote absentee by mail instead.
“But I would never want to find out the hard way that we totally miscalculated on that,” he added. “So, you know what, I will be happy to take the criticism, if we end up having really, really low turnout at early in person voting sites.”
McRae gave a shout out to the “very active” local chapter of the League of Women Voters, which has set up a trolley system to bring voters with transportation challenges to early voting sites, which are often miles farther away than a voter’s assigned election day precinct.
When the State Election Board moved to allow secure absentee ballot drop boxes ahead of the primary, this local chapter raised the money to purchase eight of them in about five days because the board didn’t have to the funds to do it.
Officials in the counties ABC News spoke to said that even with in person voting starting, they’re still pushing voters to return their absentee ballots, too.
“We’ve been trying to beat the drum over getting your ballots in early,” McRae said. “One way to do that is taking advantage of the drop off boxes.”
Royston said that in Gwinnett County, officials pick up ballots daily, and in addition to not having to worry about potential mail delays, voters also don’t have to pay for postage when they use a drop box.
There are 36 drop boxes throughout Fulton County, 23 in Gwinnett County, 16 in Cobb County, and soon to be 10 in Chatham County.
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