— By Stephen Fowler, GPB News, March 3, 2020 —
As early voting kicks off for the March 24 presidential primary this week, county elections officials are anticipating higher-than-average turnout from a record number of registered voters while also rolling out a new type of voting machine.
It’s the first major election for the $104 million ballot-marking device system, and GPB News asked officials across the state how they are preparing to run successful elections.
Just off the town square in McDonough last week, in a conference room lined with precinct maps and post it notes, ballots were being cast on the state’s new $104 million voting machines.
In this mock election, staff ran through the electoral process on repeat, from checking in the voter to printing out a paper ballot to checking the ballot and inserting it in a scanner.
Henry County Elections Director Ameika Pitts said this stress test of sorts is one of many steps officials like her are taking to make sure the new machines are ready for the presidential primary.
“It’s important because sometimes things happen,” she said. “And this is a good opportunity to run through everything, and know that everything is running smoothly.”
Grayson Davis is the elections supervisor at the county. He said there’s a lot of things that have to be done before the first ballot can be cast at the 37 polling places, like delivering supplies, signs and the voting machines.
“Even before the delivery though, we have to test every piece of equipment,” he said. “We always want to make sure that everything is in working order.”
Davis said that training poll workers on the new machines was a smooth process, and that their biggest concern was making sure people knew how to make sure the various cords were plugged in correctly to the ballot-marking device, printer and other equipment.
Pitts has worked with elections for nearly two decades, and anticipates more people are likely to vote this year, which is why the county opened an additional early voting site for the presidential primary, giving voters six options instead of five.
Henry County isn’t the only place seeing an influx of interested voters.
In Bibb County, record high registrations plus the new voting system led Supervisor Jeanetta Watson to have extra workers on hand throughout the voting process.
“We’ll have greeters and we’ll have floor people, anybody that can help move the process along so that the lines don’t bottlenecked and get back up because of the new process,” she said. “But voters will find that the touchscreen technology is pretty much exactly like what we had before.”
The biggest change to how Georgians vote is the addition of a printer that creates a paper ballot with the text of your choices and a QR code. That code is what gets scanned and counted once the polls close.
Georgia has 159 counties, which means 159 different sets of challenges and changes that come with running an election.
Decatur County has the most experience with BMDs, running both a pilot election in November and a special state House election.
Stephens County spent more than 30-thousand dollars this year to rewire its only polling place to handle the new machines.
Forsyth County voted last fall to create five new precincts with five polling locations to keep up with turnout, and places like Henry and Bibb say adding more places to vote in the future is a possibility.
When you factor in all of the things that go into running an election AND the fact there are *three* elections this year, there’s a lot on elections officials’ plates.
“We’re not a small county here in Bibb, so if you go to a smaller county that may only have ten thousand voters in four precincts with 20-30 machines, that’s different than 31 precincts with 424 pieces of voting equipment,” Watson said.
But she added that her staff has worked around the clock to make sure they’re trained and poised to make the voting process simple.
“It’s a lot of information to try to absorb it once,” she said. “But we’re confident that we’re going to be prepared and we’re going to make it happen and be ready to accept voters at the polls.”
At a press conference for the Chatham County Board of Voter Registration ahead of the deadline to register for this election, Chairman Colin McRae said absentee ballot requests indicated participation in this presidential primary looked to be higher than previous ones.
“The 1,616 absentee ballots that we’ve already sent out as of today, the 21st of February… that already eclipses the entire number of absentee ballots that were sent out for the 2016 presidential preference primary,” he said. “So we foresee a pretty active participation in this March 24 election.”
McRae said the number of registered voters in Chatham has grown by nearly 19% in the last four years, and that has meant changing up the availability of early voting.
A new polling place for early voting in Pooler is available following long lines in the area during the 2018 gubernatorial election, for example.
Sometimes finding a polling place can meet some unforeseen challenges: a satellite early voting location at the Savannah Civic Center is moving to the West Broad YMCA to avoid parking issues caused by the city’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities.
In counties that have multiple early voting locations available, registered voters can cast their ballot at any of them, even if it is not their Election Day location. On Election Day, voters must show up to their assigned polling place.
You can check your polling place and registration status here.