Atlanta pollers scan the ballot papers and review them for inconsistencies in races in the US Senate in Georgia earlier this year. The state’s controversial new electoral law includes many changes for electoral officials. Sandy Huffaker / AFP via Getty Images Hide caption

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Sandy Huffaker / AFP via Getty Images

Atlanta pollers scan the ballot papers and review them for inconsistencies in races in the US Senate in Georgia earlier this year. The state’s controversial new electoral law includes many changes for electoral officials.

Sandy Huffaker / AFP via Getty Images

Three weeks after the law was signed, local election officials in Georgia are still trying to understand all of the implications of the state’s controversial electoral overhaul.

In a series of interviews, election officials said that while the Republican-led measure contains some good provisions, many felt incapacitated during the legislative debate and believe that parts of it will make Georgia’s elections more difficult and expensive.

One provision of particular concern to many officials is the new ability for the State Election Board to take over the electoral management of a county. The law authorizes the state body to assume office if the board of directors determines “non-compliance, misconduct or gross negligence in the administration of the elections” in at least two elections within two years.

Tonnie Adams, chief chancellor of Heard County on the Alabama state line, said the provision was problematic in conjunction with another change that replaces the secretary of state as chairman of the board with a general assembly agent.

“The legislature now has three seats, which it appoints on the state election committee,” he said. “We thought this was a gross overstepping of power by a branch of government.”

Joseph Kirk, the Bartow County’s polling officer, also questioned the hypothetical scenario.

The legislature could effectively “replace a non-partisan board of directors” [of elections] with a single officer in complete control of this department, “said Kirk.” So a person could come in and hire and fire and discipline as they see fit. And as I read this law, I really hope that you never have to go that route. “

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Both Kirk and Adams emphasized that a mechanism was already in place for the state to intervene in the troubled Georgia State Code administration of elections by the courts.

Tom Mahoney, chairman of the Chatham County Board of Elections in Savannah, has a different perspective. He supports the takeover provision in the name of strengthening voter confidence.

“I have to say that I welcome this audit because it is part of that transparency,” he said. “For people to have confidence in their choices, they have to be able to see it. They have to be able to complain about it.”

But Ware County’s polling officer Carlos Nelson wonders if the move was a “political move”.

“Or does it really increase integrity, or does it ensure that people have trust and integrity in the system? If that’s the case, if it’s just about integrity in the system, I’m fine. But if it’s political, know As a citizen, I would be a little worried, “he said.

“Crazy enough, I don’t think there is room for politics in elections,” Nelson said.

It’s not just Georgia; Other GOP-led states like Texas and Arizona are weighing measures to restrict local election officials. In its new law, Iowa added criminal penalties for officials who disobey the leadership.

“The vast majority of it is just a mess”

Democrats have railed against Georgia’s new electoral law for suppressing electoral access for marginalized communities in a newly shaped battlefield state.

The Republican authors of the law have defended it as an extension of electoral access that will improve election administration and increase voter confidence.

Many Georgian electoral officials, like Nelson of Ware County’s, have a more nuanced view.

“What is discouraging is that on both sides [of the aisle] … it is not so bad. It’s not as good as that. You know, it’s somewhere in the middle, “he said.

Carlos Nelson is the election officer in Ware County. Emma Hurt / Honeycomb hide caption

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The law’s authors said they had heard testimony from electoral officials, experts and voters for hours for several months.

One of them was Adams from Heard County. He testified several times as the legislative chairman of the Georgia Voter Registration & Election Officials Association.

There’s “cleanup” in the law that he’s excited about, including getting rid of the “Jungle Elementary School,” which was held in a race in the Georgia Senate last year.

“But the vast majority of it is just a mess,” he said.

Adams added that most of his lobbying “fell on deaf ears”.

For example, he pointed out new regulations on post boxes for postal ballot papers that make no sense to him.

The law restricts Dropbox locations and hours of operation, but adds a new requirement that all districts must install at least one Dropbox.

Heard County, which is in the country with fewer than 8,000 voters, must now add its first Dropbox. However, since the law also requires the box to be in an early voting location, Adams said it will not be used. Heard has an early voting place: the polling station, which is Adams’ desk.

“If someone picks up a ballot instead of throwing it in a box, they’ll just give it to us straight because we’re sitting here voting early,” he said. “We’ll have a Dropbox, but it’s useless.”

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For urban counties that have largely adopted dropboxing during a surge in postal voting due to the pandemic, the regulations have the opposite effect.

Milton Kidd, an election officer in suburban Douglas County, said his county must move from 10 dropboxes to one as the law restricts dropboxes by population.

Rick Barron, Atlanta polling officer for Fulton County, estimated the state’s most populous county will lose 30 of its 38 drop boxes under the new law.

Some districts are also losing access to mobile voting units. Fulton used two mobile voting buses during the 2020 election, but the law now only restricts them to emergencies. The district is therefore planning to convert the buses for use in voter education.

Kidd said Douglas County recently ordered a new mobile polling station that he can no longer use.

“Unfunded mandate”

The new law brings new costs and new burdens, say election officials. However, it does not include additional government support for the changes required.

“My main concern is the general efficiency and effectiveness of the polling station,” said Kidd. “I think this hinders our ability to hold elections as efficiently and effectively as possible.”

All 159 counties in Georgia are now required to print ballot papers on new “security paper” in order to allow the voting papers to be authenticated. Fulton County officials estimate this could add $ 40,000 to the cost of printing a statewide election.

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For Heard County, Adams sees an additional cost due to an additional required Saturday for early voting.

The legislators have touted this provision as an extension of electoral access.

But for Adams: “It’s really a problem because you have to find out that we have to put more money into the budget. In many counties, the budgets are already tight.”

That extra Saturday is required for all elections under the new law, which, according to Kirk in Bartow County, will be “very, very expensive” for low turnout races. He hopes to lobby the legislature to change this requirement.

Also as part of the overhaul, a district with polling stations with lines that last longer than an hour must add another polling station, voting equipment or election workers.

All of this will cost more money, said Douglas County’s Kidd, calling it an “unfunded mandate.”

At the same time, the law prohibits counties from paying for election administration costs through external funds or gifts, including private grants.

Kidd said grants were the “only reason” Douglas County could afford the 2020 elections.

Barron, in Fulton County, told the electoral board Thursday that training and compensation for election workers is likely to incur new costs due to the law.

“Survey managers in particular are facing more demands than ever before due to some deadlines [the new law]”Said Barron.

The law requires counties to report all of their outstanding ballots on election night and report the results by 5:00 p.m. the day after, which requires a new staffing model for larger counties like Fulton.

While Kidd welcomed a new provision in the law that would allow counties to recruit election workers from neighboring areas, he pointed out another point that counts must keep tabulating ballots until they are finalized – no pauses.

“We are not robots; we are human beings who have the same conditions as you,” he said.

Kidd said election officials were recently “attacked”.

“Elections are one of the few jobs where we expect perfection without recognizing people’s humanity,” he said.