Georgia, Still a Center of Election Skeptics, Prepares for November

by | Jun 2, 2024 | Progress & Solutions

Photo by Red Dot, Unsplash

Georgia, Still a Center of Election Skeptics, Prepares for November

by | Jun 2, 2024 | Progress & Solutions

Photo by Red Dot, Unsplash

Election skeptics haven’t taken their eyes off Georgia since the last presidential election. Officials there are working to make sure 2024 outcomes are as bulletproof as its 2020 results have proved to be.

Republished with permission from Governing, by Carl Smith

In Brief:

  • Political campaigns at all levels include messages that cast doubt on election integrity.
  • No state has faced more challenges to its processes than Georgia, even though its system is considered a model for other states.
  • At a recent briefing, Georgia election officials discussed what they are doing to be ready for the general election.

Georgia officials pulled off the biggest election in the state’s history in 2020, in the middle of a pandemic. Because the state was critical to the outcome of both the presidential election and control of the Senate, instead of being celebrated their work was challenged by dozens of lawsuits claiming various forms of election fraud.

Three audits, including a hand count of millions of paper ballots, failed to uncover evidence of misconduct, but today Georgia remains a flashpoint as the 2024 election cycle ramps up. Former President Donald Trump and a number of his associates are fighting criminal charges related to election interference in the state. This year, the first presidential debate will take place in Atlanta.

Against this backdrop, a panel of state and local officials met in Atlanta at an event organized by the Carter Center and Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy to discuss what they’re doing to be ready for November.

The panel was moderated by attorney David Becker, founder of the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research. Earlier in his career, Becker served as lead counsel for voting rights litigation for the Department of Justice. He opened the discussion by describing the 2020 election as “the most secure, transparent and verified election in Georgia’s history — and in American history.”

This wasn’t enough to calm the waters, however. In 2021, Republican legislators secured the passage of a controversial “election integrity” act. Among other things, it shortened the period during which absentee ballots could be requested, restricted the number of ballot dropboxes and changed ID requirements. It removed the secretary of state from the state election board and required that the board chair be selected by the General Assembly.

Last Saturday, the Georgia Republican Party selected a leading fundraiser for the “Stop the Steal” movement to represent it on the Republican National Committee. Nine of the people representing Georgia in Congress are considered to be election deniers. A borderless conspiracy machine is already setting the stage for rejecting 2024 results that partisans don’t like.

Other states see Georgia’s election system as a model of good practice. The conservative Heritage Foundation rated it second among all states in election integrity, but the people who run its elections aren’t taking anything for granted.

Who Gets to Vote?

A common strategy for casting doubt on election results has been to sow suspicion that large numbers of people voted who had no right to do so — they weren’t citizens, voted more than once, or were dead, among other scenarios. One of the boldest claims about 2020 was that 66,000 people who voted were underage. When political scientists examined the method used to come up with that count and did their own calculation, they found the average age of the “underage” population at the time of the election was in fact 42.

Georgia is among the states that automatically registers voters when they obtain a driver’s license. Residents must meet Real ID requirements to obtain or renew a driver’s license, which include documents giving proof of both residency and citizenship. This data is sent to county registrars by the Department of Driver Services in an electronic format that bypasses problems with handwriting legibility. Applications for voter registration are reviewed against these DDS lists.

Georgia is one of the 25 states that are members of the Electronic Registration Information System (ERIC), a tool created by election officials to enable secure sharing of their voter lists to keep track of voters who move or die, and to prevent registration in more than one state. Panelist Blake Evans, elections director for the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, is chair of ERIC’s board of directors.

ERIC makes it easy to compare Georgia’s voter rolls to those of the other members, Evans said. ERIC had been a bipartisan success story until it came under suspicion from those searching for possible causes of illegal votes. Several states have left it over the past year. Panelists noted the irony that attacks on a system designed to eliminate registration mistakes were coming from the same groups questioning the integrity of voter rolls.

It takes “extreme effort and extreme staff time” to compare lists with states that are not members of ERIC, Evans said. “We’re committed to doing it, because that’s what it takes to have clean voter rolls.”

Shauna Dozier, elections director for Clayton County, said her staff clean voter rolls on both daily and monthly bases, including scrolling obituaries. “We need the data for practical reasons,” Dozier said. The count of registered voters determines how many voting machines and polling places and how much paper will be needed.

Casting and Counting

An important component of election accuracy is that every voter who is eligible to vote has an opportunity to do so. Georgia offers about 21 days of early voting, including Saturday options. There’s also Sunday voting in Clayton County, Dozier says.

Absentee mail voting — or vote-from-home as its proponents now call it — is another option. The number of people voting that way soared in 2020 because of the pandemic, said Sara Tindall Ghazal of the Georgia State Election Board. In 2022, this went back to pre-pandemic levels of 5 to 7 percent. In-person voting is split about 50-50 between early voting and same-day voting.

Edward Lindsey, a former member of the Georgia House and the state election board, noted that some people are demanding changes that could eliminate some of these options.

“They’re pushing very hard on our policymakers in the General Assembly to curtail this,” he said. “They very much want to see us go back, curtail early voting dramatically — a lot of them even want to go as far as to say that you should only be voting on Election Day.”

Aside from the impact on access, confining voting to a single day can bring considerable risk, Becker said. Absentee and early voting options are insurance against the disruption that election-day power outages, cyber events or even bad weather could cause.

Georgia replaced paperless voting machines and implemented an auditable paper ballot system in 2020, enabling a hand count that was consequential in ending disputes over results.

Lindsey recalled controversy around the 2018 election, in which a discrepancy between the number of votes for lieutenant governor and the number of votes for other statewide offices led to legal challenges. If paper ballots had been available, those could have been resolved more quickly by physical evidence that many voters simply chose to skip this office.

Are We All Right?

A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 2 of 3 Americans are worried about the potential for violence from extremists if the November election doesn’t go their way. This didn’t happen during the midterms, but as in 2020 the presidential race is being front-loaded as suspect.

In Georgia, the Secretary of State’s Office has partnered with the Emergency Management Agency on tabletop exercises focused on physical security, Evans said, including law enforcement as well as election staff. Required training at the 2024 conference of the Georgia Association of Voter Registration and Election Officials touched on active shooters, conflict resolution, de-escalation and the use of Narcan in the event of opioid overdoses, Dozier said.

It's time to demand an end to rhetoric regarding election fraud from candidates up and down the line, said Lindsey, which is creating a need for training that wasn’t necessary a decade ago. Given the likelihood that this may not only continue but escalate, Ghazal emphasized the need for election officials to be proactive in explaining election processes and “prebunk” narratives that they know are coming.

In closing the discussion, Becker noted that he’s constantly being asked one question about the 2024 election: “Are we going to be all right?”

The answer is “yes,” he said. “It’s going to be the best-run election we’ve ever held in the United States, and certainly here in Georgia, thanks to all of you.”

Governing Magazine

Governing Magazine

Governing: The Future of States and Localities takes on the question of what state and local government looks like in a world of rapidly advancing technology. Governing is a resource for elected and appointed officials and other public leaders who are looking for smart insights and a forum to better understand and manage through this era of change.

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