Georgia laws could pose a “pending threat” to poll workers in 2024

Milton Kidd has been Georgia's elections director since 2012.

But since the 2020 presidential election, he has felt the climate around his work changing. Part of that is due to increasing threats and hostility from constituents, but part of it is related to new regulations that Kidd said have limited his office's resources and changed the way he operates.

“We pay lip service in this country to valuing elections,” Kidd, director of elections and registration in Douglas County, Georgia, west of Atlanta, told USA TODAY. “But the laws that are being passed don’t show that.”

Since 2021, more than half of U.S. states have passed laws that could limit voter access and limit officials' ability to administer elections, according to a new report from the nonpartisan Voting Rights Lab, which tracks election-related laws nationwide.

At the national level, former President Donald Trump and House Speaker Mike Johnson have passed laws to ban non-citizens from voting, which is already illegal in federal elections. Your proposal has little chance in the Democratic-led Senate.

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But major battleground states in 2024, including Georgia and North Carolina, already have other key new rules in place that could help decide the results of a close presidential election.

In Georgia in particular, a series of election rules passed over the last three years risks overburdening election officials and, in some cases, imposing criminal sanctions on them. New ballot measures passed by the Republican-led state Legislature in late March and awaiting Gov. Brian Kemp's signature could further disrupt how election offices operate, experts say.

Liz Avore, lead author of the Voting Rights Lab report, argued that these laws “take steps toward treating election officials almost as if they were crime suspects” and “treating election offices as if they were crime scenes.”

But for poll workers USA TODAY spoke with, the main concern is that the increased regulations could hinder the recruitment of poll workers for the 2024 election, who play an important role in election administration.

Republican leaders in the state, including Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, have defended the laws, arguing that they increase security and provide clarity about the laws to election officials.

Raffensperger said he doesn't see a problem recruiting poll workers in 2022 after some of the first election laws were passed, and doesn't expect one in 2024. He also praised the work of Republican officials in recent elections.

“Because we had people with spine committed to Georgia’s election administration and results, we do not see the poll worker recruitment problem that plagues other states,” Raffensperger said in a statement.

Poll workers in Georgia face felony charges

In recent years, Kidd said one of his biggest fears at work was making a mistake on the job that could land him in prison.

According to the Voting Rights Lab report, Georgia is among nine states that have enacted laws that increase investigations and prosecutions of election crimes.

A measure passed in the state's sweeping election integrity law of 2021 opened the possibility for poll workers to be prosecuted if they provide an absentee ballot request form to a person who does not request it. Another passage in 2023 made it a felony, punishable by up to a year in prison, for officials to accept more than $500 in private funds for election administration.

Until a few years ago, neither measure was illegal.

Election offices across the country, including in Georgia, accepted grants to supplement funding provided by their states in 2020. The extra money allowed them to hire more poll workers, better inform voters and strengthen other skills.

With the sun not quite above the horizon yet, polls have opened in Mississippi and ballots are being cast for the Democratic and Republican primaries.  Voting at the Canton National Guard Armory began quietly as Dana Gordon of Canton, Miss., became the first voter of the day to fill out his ballot on Tuesday, March 12, 3024.  Polling stations are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m

But false claims that private money influenced the 2020 election led Georgia and 26 other states to pass laws barring the use of outside money.

In Georgia – a state that had a $16 billion budget surplus in 2023 – there have been no efforts to increase election office budgets or provide alternative sources of funding due to the ban on private money.

The state has now taken measures that have changed the way elections are conducted and may lead to an increased workload for election offices.

These include, among other things, laws that clarify that residents can challenge an unlimited number of voter registrations that they believe are ineligible to vote and that shorten the time frame for tabulating and reporting early voting.

Because of the changes, Kidd argued, it's not inconceivable that poll workers could make such felony-level errors — especially in another possible runoff election, when they have to juggle multiple tasks under tight deadlines.

“We are expected to pull off the largest election in U.S. history and the associated runoff with fewer resources than in 2020,” Kidd said.

“Because of all the changes you rush through, you end up working with inexperienced people most of the time,” he added. “So yes, you have the opportunity to make mistakes.”

Impact on the recruitment of election workers

Joseph Kirk, elections director in Bartow County, Georgia, an area about an hour northwest of Atlanta, said he does not believe the new laws criminalize poll workers.

Instead, for him, the changes are more about politics than election administration.

Concerns about politically motivated election law changes are not new in Georgia.

In 2018, while serving as secretary of state, Kemp was accused of suppressing minority votes during his race for governor against Stacey Abrams. The Republican, as Georgia's top election administrator, canceled 1.4 million voter registrations, including nearly 700,000 in 2017, as part of what his office called “voter roll maintenance.” A few weeks before the election he would later win, Kemp implemented a program that put 53,000 voter registrations – most of them black citizens – on hold.

But Kirk said he sometimes worries that recently passed laws could hurt his country's ability to recruit the workers needed to run elections.

“There is more fear among poll workers and temporary workers about making mistakes than there is about actual changes in the law aimed at increasing penalties for those mistakes,” Kirk said.

A law passed in 2022 gave the Georgia Bureau of Investigations the authority to audit county election offices, investigate election crimes and subpoena documents.

Voting rights advocates have suggested that the law give the governor, who appoints the head of the State Bureau of Investigations, greater authority to oversee elections.

Avore of the Voting Rights Lab argued that the rule poses a “hanging threat” to poll workers, who may fear their offices will be investigated for discretionary decisions or administrative errors and potentially lose their jobs.

Kirk said one of the keys to his success in running elections over the past two decades has been maintaining a knowledgeable and dedicated workforce by encouraging the same temporary workers to come back year after year to help.

The threat of investigations has made this difficult. Some workers have begun retiring, and Kirk said he believes that is partly because laws have created an “atmosphere” of “hostility” that discourages people from wanting to return.

“We all make mistakes. We are human,” Kirk said. “The finding of an administrative error should not cast doubt on the outcome of an election.”

A compound cycle

Kidd, of Douglas County, also expressed concern that the new laws will discourage people from applying to be temporary poll workers. From 2020 to 2022, he said, he saw a nearly 70% turnover rate among poll workers. He expects a similar rate after every election this year.

According to a recent report from the Bipartisan Policy Center, the high turnover may be at least partly related to the increasing complexity of the role. The report found no connection between high levels of harassment of election officials and turnover rates, but suggested that “laws that add burdens and liability to the roles of local election officials” may play a role.

And Kidd argued that his county's recruiting challenges in 2024 could be exacerbated by a Georgia law that cuts the time frame for runoff elections in half.

The state requires a runoff election in races in which no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote. Lawmakers changed the 2021 runoff date from nine weeks after the election to four weeks, citing concerns that the schedule would be too stressful for candidates and voters.

The current RealClearPolitics polling average in Georgia, calculated from polls released between early March and mid-April, shows neither Trump nor Biden reaching that 50 percent threshold. Trump has 49.7% support and Biden has 45.7%, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

If there is a runoff election, the four-week deadline could cause difficulties for election workers, Kidd said.

“A four-week campaign for the November election means poll workers will be working over the holidays, including Thanksgiving, where it is difficult for us to recruit poll workers because everyone is with their families,” he said.

Because the state requires three weeks of early voting, the new time frame also means election offices will have just a week after the November general election to count results, reprogram equipment, print new ballots and absentee ballot request forms to send.

In a state known for its close election results, especially in presidential election years, this could have devastating effects on the system.

“You haven't even finished the last election yet, you're basically having to do a U-turn and do everything again in three days that took you months to prepare for,” Kidd said.