ATLANTA — Georgia election workers are scrambling to review and certify the general election results under strict new deadlines required by a 2021 Republican-backed voting law while simultaneously preparing for a U.S. Senate runoff election that is happening sooner than usual, also because of the new law.
Many election staff report working 12 to 16 hours every day to finish a jumble of tasks on a compressed timeline required by the 2021 law. Those jobs include counting outstanding provisional and overseas ballots and certifying county election results; completing a hand-counted audit of the select ballot batches; inspecting and updating voting systems; and coordinating preparations for early voting in the runoff between Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) and Herschel Walker (R), which will begin as soon as Tuesday in some counties.
“This has probably been the hardest year I’ve ever seen in elections,” said Zach Manifold, the election supervisor for Gwinnett County, Georgia’s second most populous that forms part of the core of metropolitan Atlanta.
“I think everybody’s interested to see how the next few weeks play out,” Manifold said. “This runoff is basically telling everybody, ‘Congratulations, you did everything great in 90 days! Let’s see if we can do it in 28.’ So I think the deadlines have held up so far decently but I think you’re probably going to feel it a lot more in a runoff.”
After the 2020 presidential election, when former president Donald Trump and his allies falsely alleged rampant and coordinated election fraud, Georgia Republicans enacted sweeping legislation that overhauled the state’s voting laws. In addition to imposing new requirements for casting an absentee ballot, adding an array of rules to county election administration and increasing the power of legislators to investigate election offices, the law shortens the window between a general election and any potential runoff to about a third of the time.
The law — both in its practical effect and legal implications — has at times confused election administrators, like when state officials realized they could no longer legally offer Saturday early voting ahead of the runoff due to another law that bans voting around holidays, including a state holiday that once honored Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. After Democrats sued, a judge ruled Friday that counties can offer early voting on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Counties are facing pressure from voting rights groups to ensure voters have as much access to the ballot as possible under the shortened timeline. Georgia’s runoff election is taking place four weeks after the midterm election. In contrast, after the 2020 election, pivotal dual Senate runoffs took place in January 2021 to determine the balance of power in the Senate.
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“It’s been very hard. Elections are a complicated process already even without all the changes that have happened in the past couple of years,” said Manifold, who has a weekly meeting with other election supervisors over the most populous counties in the state.
Manifold, who has served in his position for a little over a year, said about 70 percent of his staff were new to election administration work. Many counties in Georgia, especially those in populous and Democratic leaning areas, report that at least half of their staff are new to their jobs, leading to “a lot of growing pains across the board,” he said.
The lack of experience has led to some hiccups, though counties reported relatively short and fast moving lines at polling places during early voting and on Election Day. Workers have not experienced the mass threats and harassment this year that drove so many from the profession in 2020.
Manifold noted that most counties have smoothly completed their certifications and audit processes in contrast to past years when errors and slow processing were often twisted into false claims and mounting threats against poll workers. He also praised the secretary of state’s office for “a terrific job” in supporting counties despite also employing a largely new and less experienced staff.
While Georgia’s 2021 voter law instructs counties to begin early voting for any potential runoff “as soon as possible” after a general election, election staff are occupied by the challenges of finalizing the last election before they can begin administering the next. Tasks like mailing absentee ballots or determining what dates in-person early voting will be available are largely in limbo as counties balance their various duties.
Voting rights groups have argued that early voting should begin as early as Nov. 22.
“There’s an extremely tight runoff window … which presents a significant barrier to both election offices and voters alike,” said Kristin Nabers, the state director for All Voting is Local, a voting rights group. The group is one of eight groups who sent a letter to counties urging them to hold early voting at more locations, hours and days than required by law.
“It’s not like you just vote, go get some more poll workers and you’re ready to vote again. There’s a lot of stuff that counties have to do in between, as far as counting, certifying, testing the machines, doing the limiting audit … everything has to go exactly right to stay on schedule,” she said.
In the meantime, many counties have decided to expand access to the runoff ballot beyond the minimum requirements of the 2021 voter law. A handful of counties, for instance, have agreed to open their polling places from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. rather than the standard 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. required by the law.
At least nine of Georgia’s 159 counties will hold Sunday voting in the Senate runoff the weekend after Thanksgiving and a day before mandatory early voting begins across the state. All are located in the state’s major population clusters. DeKalb and Douglas, both in metropolitan Atlanta — will hold early voting in the days before Thanksgiving.
“They’re very busy, but they are confident that they can get it all done,” said Matt Mashburn, a member of the state’s election board, on how county election workers are juggling the various demands. “I’m really proud of their attitude, they’re gonna roll up their sleeves, and they’re gonna get it done,” said Mashburn, a Republican.
Despite the administrative challenges, he said many election workers remain confident they can administer the runoff without major issue.
“Our poll workers and staff are so resilient,” Manifold said. “We throw everything at them and pile on new processes and forms, changing directives — and they always pull it off.”