Georgia election chief vows ‘honest’ vote as mail ballots smash records
Georgia has received a record of nearly 1 million absentee ballots ahead of Tuesday’s primary election, smashing the 2016 count of 36,000 votes as the coronavirus pandemic reshapes how people vote.
In March, Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced his office would send absentee ballot request forms to nearly 7 million active voters in the state in an effort to reduce in-person voting during the pandemic.
The stakes for pulling off the unprecedented expansion of mail voting are high as President Trump continues to raise the threat of mail fraud, which experts have said is overstated.
Georgia is a presidential battleground in 2020 and also features two competitive Senate races, giving the state outsized influence over which party will be in control of the upper chamber.
In an interview with The Hill, Raffensperger said that absentee voting is susceptible to isolated instances of fraud in states with outdated voter rolls or fewer checks and balances. But he insisted that Georgia has implemented appropriate “guardrails” to ensure the integrity of the election.
“I think that President Trump has a concern and I believe that everyone involved in elections should make sure it is very hard to cheat and easy to vote, and we accomplished that,” Raffensperger said.
“I can see why people would be concerned how the absentee ballot system is used if there are no guardrails, no rules,” he added. “And so we’re trying to have a structure in place where everyone is treated fairly, with honest elections and the appropriate guardrails in place.”
Georgia will hold its primaries on Tuesday, including the Democratic contest to challenge Sen. David Perdue (R) and for House races.
Voters requesting an absentee ballot must provide personal information, such as date of birth, on their request forms. Signature matching is done at two separate points in the process. Georgia also recently passed a law requiring regular updates of its voter rolls to ensure ballots are sent to the right place.
The Trump campaign has sued several states over their efforts to expand mail in voting, but Raffensperger said he had not heard from Trump officials about his efforts.
A total of 1,267,000 ballots have been cast in Georgia so far. A strong majority of those — about 941,000 — are absentee ballots that have been mailed in or dropped off.
About 326,000 people voted in-person during the 16 days of early voting that ended Friday. In prior elections, about 95 percent of Georgians voted in person.
Of the estimated 7 million people who were sent absentee ballot requests, about 1.5 million requested primary ballots in the mail, which the office of the secretary of State had described as “shattering all previous records.”
There are still about 600,000 outstanding, which must be returned by the time polls close Tuesday to be counted.
The returns so far are fairly evenly split between parties. About 627,000 people have returned Democratic primary ballots and 617,000 have returned Republican primary ballots.
The high volume of mailed ballots will take longer to count.
Raffensperger said the state will begin announcing results when polling places close at 7 p.m. Tuesday but that it “could take upward of a couple of days” to have final results “in some of these really tightly contested elections.”
There has been one hang-up so far.
In Fulton County, the largest county in the state with more than 1 million people, there have been complaints from voters who requested absentee ballots but did not receive them.
Those voters can still cast ballots on Election Day but will have to go to the polls to do so.
The secretary of State’s office has opened an investigation into the matter and Raffensperger criticized officials in the county, which includes Atlanta and the suburbs around it.
“Fulton County made several unwise decisions that we would not have made … and I think that’s unacceptable,” he said. “We opened an investigation into that and other matters. … But by and large, all the other counties worked through their issues and got the absentee ballots out, so it stands as an outlier and it’s very unfortunate.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) was one of the first governors to begin reopening his state’s economy during the pandemic.
Raffensperger said he expects between 200,000 and 400,000 people to show up to vote in person Tuesday, creating another burden on the state to create a safe environment for voting amid the coronavirus.
The secretary’s office purchased and distributed 35,000 masks and additional protective equipment for poll workers.
The state is providing grants for additional protective equipment, hand sanitizer and infrastructure, such dividers or tape needed to keep people a safe distance apart.
There will be red “X” markings on the sidewalks spaced six feet apart to instruct people where to stand in line. There will be three Stylus pens for each touch screen ballot box so voters do not have to use their fingers. The pens and screens will be sanitized after each person votes.
Voting places will have far fewer machines due to social distancing requirements, likely resulting in longer Election Day lines.
“It just means more time, that’s why we’re grateful and pleased by turnout with absentee ballots and 16 days of early voting. … That relieves the pressure of voters showing up to vote on Tuesday,” Raffensperger said.
The absentee voting spike comes ahead of a November election that will find Georgia in the spotlight as a battleground.
Polls show Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden running neck and neck in a state that has not gone for the Democratic presidential nominee since 1992.
Georgia will also hold two Senate elections, including Perdue’s. There will be a “jungle” primary in November for the seat currently held by Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R). The top two finishers in the primary, regardless of party, will square off again in January if one candidate does not win majority support in November.
Raffensperger said he hasn’t decided yet if absentee ballot request forms will be sent out proactively ahead of the November election.
“One election at a time,” he said.