Georgia election officials are preparing for the runoff

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ATLANTA — Georgia poll workers are scrambling to review and confirm general election results under strict new deadlines mandated by a Republican-backed 2021 election bill while preparing for a U.S. Senate runoff that will takes place earlier than usual, also because of the new law.

Many poll workers report working 12 to 16 hours each day to complete a jumble of tasks in a condensed timeframe mandated by the 2021 law. These duties include counting outstanding provisional and foreign ballots and confirming county election results; completing a hand-counted review of the selected ballots; reviewing and updating electoral systems; and coordinating preparations for early voting in the runoff between Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) and Herschel Walker (R), which will begin as early as Tuesday in some counties.

“This has probably been the toughest election year I’ve ever seen,” said Zach Manifold, the election commissioner for Gwinnett County, Georgia’s second most populous county, which is part of metro Atlanta’s core.

“I think everyone is interested in seeing how the next few weeks play out,” Manifold said. “This runoff is basically saying to everyone, ‘Congratulations, you did great in 90 days! Let’s see if we can make it in 28.’ So I think the deadlines have been kept decently so far, but I think you’ll probably feel it a lot more in a runoff.

After the 2020 presidential election, when former President Donald Trump and his allies falsely claimed rampant and coordinated voter fraud, Georgia Republicans enacted sweeping legislation that overhauled the state’s election laws. In addition to imposing new requirements for casting a ballot-by-mail, introducing a set of rules for county election administration, and strengthening lawmakers’ powers to inspect polling stations, the law shortens the window of time between a general election and a potential runoff to about one third the time.

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The law — both in its practical effect and its legal implications — has confused election officials at times, such as when state officials discovered that another law prohibiting voting on public holidays, including one state, means they could not vote before Saturday’s runoff early voting more legal Holiday that once honored Confederate General Robert E. Lee. After Democrats sued, a judge ruled Friday that counties can offer an early vote on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Boroughs are facing pressure from voting rights groups to ensure voters have as much access to vote as possible under the reduced deadline. The runoff election in Georgia will take place four weeks after the midterm elections. In contrast, following the 2020 election, two crucial Senate runoffs were held in January 2021 to determine the balance of power in the Senate.

“It was very difficult. Elections are already a complicated process, even without all of the changes that have taken place in recent years,” said Manifold, who holds a weekly meeting with other election officials in the state’s most populous counties.

Manifold, who has been in his position for just over a year, said about 70 percent of his staff are new to election administration work. Many counties in Georgia, particularly in populous and Democratic-leaning areas, are reporting that at least half of their employees are new to their jobs, leading to “a lot of growing pain across the board,” he said.

The lack of experience has caused some hiccups, though counties have reported relatively short and fast-moving polling station lines during early voting and Election Day. Workers this year have not experienced the mass threats and harassment that drove so many out of the workforce in 2020.

Manifold noted that most counties completed their certification and testing processes smoothly, in contrast to years past when errors and slow processing often led to false claims and increasing threats against poll workers. He also commended the office of the secretary of state for “doing a great job” in supporting counties, although new and less experienced staff were also largely hired.

While Georgia’s 2021 election law directs districts to begin early voting for a possible runoff election “as soon as possible” after a general election, poll officials are busy with the challenge of completing the final election before they start conducting the can start next. Tasks like mailing out absentee ballots or determining what dates early voting in person will be possible are largely in limbo as counties balance their various duties.

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Voting rights groups have argued that early voting should begin as early as November 22.

“There’s an extremely tight runoff window … which is a significant obstacle for both polling stations and voters,” said Kristin Nabers, the country director of All Voting is Local, a voting rights group. The group is one of eight groups to have sent a letter to counties urging them to hold early voting in more locations, hours and days than the law requires.

“It’s not like you just vote, get more campaign workers and be ready to vote again. There’s a lot of stuff that the districts have to do in between, in terms of counting, certifying, testing the machines, doing the boundary check…everything has to go just right to stay on schedule,” she said.

Meanwhile, many counties have decided to expand runoff access beyond the minimum requirements of the 2021 election law. A handful of counties, for example, have agreed to open their polling stations from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. instead of the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. required by law.

At least nine of Georgia’s 159 counties will hold a Sunday vote in the Senate runoff the weekend after Thanksgiving and one day before mandatory early voting begins statewide. All are located in the major population clusters of the state. DeKalb and Douglas, both in metro Atlanta, will vote early in the days leading up to Thanksgiving.

“They’re very busy, but they’re confident that they can do anything,” said Matt Mashburn, a member of the state election commission, of how the county’s election officials juggle the various demands. “I’m really proud of their attitude, they’re going to roll up their sleeves and they’re going to make it,” said Mashburn, a Republican.

Despite the administrative challenges, many poll workers remain confident that they can manage the runoff without major problems.

“Our campaign workers and staff are so resilient,” Manifold said. “We throw everything at them and stack new processes and forms, change policies — and they always follow through.”