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Why Local Election Officials In Georgia Take Issue With Many Parts Of New Law

Atlanta election workers scan ballots and check for discrepancies earlier this year for Georgia U.S. Senate races. The state's controversial new voting law contains many changes for election officials.
Atlanta election workers scan ballots and check for discrepancies earlier this year for Georgia U.S. Senate races. The state's controversial new voting law contains many changes for election officials.

Three weeks after it was signed into law, local election officials in Georgia are still trying to understand all the implications of the state's controversial election overhaul.

In a series of interviews, election officials said that while the Republican-led measure has some good provisions, many felt sidelined as the legislation was being debated, and believe that parts of it will make Georgia elections more difficult and expensive.

One provision that particularly worries many officials is a new ability for the State Election Board to take over a county's election management. The law empowers the state panel to take over if, in at least two elections within two years, the board finds "nonfeasance, malfeasance, or gross negligence in the administration of the elections."

Tonnie Adams, chief registrar of Heard County on the Alabama state line, said this provision, coupled with another change — which replaces the secretary of state as board chair with an appointee of the General Assembly — are problematic.

"The legislature now has three seats that they appoint on the State Election Board," he said. "We thought that that was a gross overreach of power from one branch of government."

Joseph Kirk, Bartow County's elections supervisor, also took issue with the hypothetical scenario.

The legislature could effectively "replace a bipartisan board [of elections] with a single appointee that has complete control over that department," Kirk said. "So a person could come in, and hire and fire and discipline as they see fit. And as I read this law, I'm really hoping they never need to go that route."

Both Kirk and Adams highlighted that there was already a mechanism for the state to intervene in problematic elections administration in the Georgia state code, through the courts.

Tom Mahoney, chair of the Chatham County Board of Elections in Savannah, has a different perspective. He supports the takeover provision in the name of strengthening voter confidence.

"I have to say that I welcome that scrutiny because that's part of that transparency," he said. "For people to have confidence in their elections, they have to be able to see it. They have to be able to complain about it."

But Carlos Nelson, elections supervisor of Ware County, wonders whether the measure was a "political move."

"Or is it really increasing the integrity, or making sure that people have trust and integrity in the system? If that's the case, if it's all about integrity in the system, I'm OK with it. But if it's political, you know, as a citizen, I'd be a little worried," he said.

"Crazy enough, I don't think there's room for politics in elections," Nelson said.

It's not just Georgia; other GOP-led states, like Texas and Arizona, are weighing measures to curtail local election officials. In its new law, Iowa added criminal penalties for officials who disobey guidance.

"The vast majority of it is just a mess"

Democrats have railed against Georgia's new election law as suppressing voting access for marginalized communities in a newly minted battleground state.

The bill's Republican authors have defended it as an expansion of voting access that will improve election administration and strengthen voter confidence.

Many Georgia election officials, like Ware County's Nelson, have a more nuanced take.

"What's discouraging is that on both sides [of the aisle] ... it's not as bad as that. It's not as good as this. You know, it's somewhere in the middle," he said.

Carlos Nelson is the elections supervisor in Ware County.
Emma Hurt / WABE
Carlos Nelson is the elections supervisor in Ware County.

The law's authors said they heard hours of testimony from election officials, experts and constituents over several months.

One of those was Adams from Heard County. He testified multiple times as legislative chair for the Georgia Voter Registration & Election Officials Association.

There are "cleanups" in the law he is glad about, including an elimination of the "jungle primary" that played out in one of Georgia's Senate races last year.

"But the vast majority of it is just a mess," he said.

Adams added that his lobbying largely "fell on deaf ears."

For example, he pointed to new provisions regarding absentee ballot dropboxes that don't make sense to him.

While the law restricts dropbox locations and hours, it also adds a new requirement for all counties to install at least one dropbox.

Heard County, which is rural with fewer than 8,000 voters, will now be required to add its first dropbox. But because the law also mandates that the box be inside an early voting location, Adams said it won't be used. Heard has one early voting location: its elections office, where Adams' desk is.

"When someone brings a ballot in their hand, rather than dropping it in a box, we're just going to have them give it directly to us, because we're sitting here doing early voting," he said. "We're gonna have a dropbox, but it's useless."

For urban counties that broadly adopted dropboxes during an absentee voting surge because of the pandemic, the regulations will have the reverse effect.

Milton Kidd, director of elections in Douglas County, in suburban Atlanta, said his county will have to move from 10 dropboxes to one because the law restricts dropboxes by population.

Rick Barron, elections director for Fulton County in Atlanta, estimated the state's most populous county will lose 30 of its 38 dropboxes under the new law.

Some counties will also lose access to mobile voting units. Fulton used two mobile voting buses during the 2020 elections, but the law now restricts them to emergencies only, so the county plans to convert the buses for use in voter education.

Kidd said Douglas County had recently ordered a new mobile polling place it now won't be able to use either.

'Unfunded Mandate'

The new law brings new costs and new burdens, election officials say. But it does not specifically include additional state support for the required changes.

"My greatest concern is the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the elections office," Kidd said. "I think that this hinders our ability to deliver elections in the most efficient and effective manner possible."

All of Georgia's 159 counties are now required to print ballots on new "security paper" to enable ballot authentication. Fulton County officials estimate that could increase a countywide elections' printing costs by $40,000.

For Heard County, Adams sees additional expense because of an extra required Saturday of early voting.

The legislation's authors have touted that provision as expanding voting access.

But for Adams, "It's really a problem because you have to figure out, we have to put more money into the budget. Budgets are already tight in a lot of counties."

This extra Saturday is required for all elections under the new law, which Kirk in Bartow County said will be "really, really expensive" for low-turnout races. He's hopeful to lobby the legislature to get that requirement changed.

Also under the overhaul, a county with polling places with lines longer than an hour must respond by adding another polling place, voting equipment or poll workers.

All of those will cost more money, Douglas County's Kidd pointed out, calling it an "unfunded mandate."

But at the same time, the law outlaws counties from paying for any election administration costs through outside funding or gifts, including private grants.

Kidd said grants were the "only reason" Douglas County was able to afford the 2020 election.

Barron, in Fulton County, told its Board of Elections Thursday that poll worker training and compensation will likely be a new cost because of the law.

"Especially with the poll managers, there's going to be more demands on them than ever before because of some of the deadlines that are in [the new law]," Barron said.

The law requires counties to report their total outstanding ballots on election night, and report results by 5 p.m. the day after, which for larger counties like Fulton will require a new staffing model.

While Kidd appreciates a new provision in the law that allows counties to recruit poll workers from neighboring areas, he pointed to another item that requires counties to continue tabulating ballots until they're finished — no breaks.

"We are not robots; we are human beings that have the same conditions that you have," he said.

Kidd said elections officials have been "under attack" recently.

"Elections is one of the few jobs in which we expect perfection without recognizing the humanity of people," he said.

Copyright 2021 WABE 90.1