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It’s been a couple of weeks since Georgia’s new electoral law was signed and those in charge of implementing it are still trying to understand what it will do. Many Georgia election officials say the law will make things harder and that their contributions have been ignored. Parts of the law target them directly as well. Emma Hurt reports from the member station WABE in Atlanta.
EMMA HURT, BYLINE: The pandemic made 2020 a difficult year for election administrators. But it was even more complicated for Carlos Nelson of Ware County, Georgia.
CARLOS NELSON: I will remember that this was the year we couldn’t do anything right.
HURT: In November, his office made a mistake and accidentally counted some postal ballot papers twice. The county updated its initial vote count, giving former President Trump 37 additional votes.
NELSON: Then the conservative media got it under control and said it was a change of vote from Biden to Trump.
HURT: Nelson caught the mistake the day after the election. An examination and recount went perfectly. Trump won 70% of the county.
NELSON: But that wasn’t good enough. It was like the cat was out of the pocket now. They have machines that turn voices around.
HURT: He says voters were already skeptical about whether the elections would be fair, but that made it even worse. Some people accused off duty grocery store pollers of casting votes.
NELSON: And if that happened in Ware County, there are probably 13,000 other votes that got flipped, you know? I’m like, come on guys.
HURT: The authors of Georgia’s electoral law say it will add to declining voter confidence, but Nelson says none of this prevented the bug from happening again. He and other election officials say there are parts of the new law they like, but their contributions have often not been taken into account. Tonnie Adams conducts elections in rural Heard County. He testified several times about the bill on behalf of the Georgian Electoral Union.
TONNIE ADAMS: It seemed like everything we told lawmakers – you know, that’s something we think needs to be changed. Here are some pieces of code that don’t make sense that you wrote – that fell on deaf ears.
HURT: Republicans who wrote this bill point out having heard hours of testimony from election officials, experts, and voters. But Adams points out new drop box regulations that don’t make sense to him. For larger counties, the law means less dropboxing. But Heard County, with fewer than 8,000 voters, has to get one now. The box must be in an early voting location that is the Heard County polling station.
ADAMS: If someone picks up a ballot instead of dropping it in a box, they’re going to give it to us right away because we’re sitting here voting early. So here really no Dropbox is required.
HURT: And there is another provision that worries him. The new law empowers the state electoral board to appoint someone to take over the electoral management of a district in the event of problems.
ADAMS: The legislature now has three seats that it appoints on the state election committee, and we thought that this was a gross violation of power by a branch of government.
HURT: Adams says there was already an opportunity for the state to intervene in court. According to the new law, a takeover can take place if an election supervisor has proven in at least two elections: “non-compliance, misconduct or gross negligence”.
MILTON KIDD: What is wrongdoing?
HURT: Milton Kidd is the polling officer in suburban Douglas County in Atlanta.
KIDD: I want you to quantify and codify some of these terms used. When you conduct an acquisition, at least give us the mechanism by which we will be valued.
HURT: Tom Mahoney, chairman of the Chatham County Board of Elections, Savannah, supports this provision of the new law.
TOM MAHONEY: I have to say that I welcome this audit because it is part of that transparency. In order for people to have confidence in their choices, they need to be able to see it and complain about it.
HURT: Georgia is not the only state considering laws against election administrators in order to increase confidence. Iowa added criminal penalties for election workers who disobey the leadership. Texas, Missouri, and Arizona are considering other measures to restrict local officials. It’s Milton Kidd again.
KIDD: Elections are one of the few jobs where we expect perfection without recognizing the humanity of the people.
HURT: He also refers to the provision that forbids the districts to take breaks when counting the ballot papers on election day. But right now, Kidd and his colleagues, like Carlos Nelson in Ware County, are just trying to figure out how to implement the law.
To see if you think this law extends or restricts access …
NELSON: I’ll leave that to the experts, you know (laughter)? You know our job is to provide access, enter, you know, and just get people to vote, you know?
HURT: And let’s pat all the election officials on the back, he says.
For NPR News, I’m Emma Hurt in Atlanta.
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