Georgia election officials breathe a sigh of relief after an uneventful vote

After the 2020 presidential campaign, election press conferences at the Georgia State Capitol were televised nationally as officials defended their work and pushed back baseless allegations of fraud.

But last week, few reporters and members of the public were present to watch the start of a risk-limiting scrutiny of a mid-term campaign.

The exam uses 10 pages dungeons-style dice to create a random number to start an algorithm that instructs counties which random stacks of ballots to hand count to verify the result.

Aside from that, it’s the right equivalent of watching paint dry.

But a mundane election process that gets little attention from voters or the media is part of attempts by state officials to “make elections boring again,” said Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer for Georgia’s secretary of state.

It’s been a tumultuous time being a campaign worker in Georgia. In recent years, the state has been at the forefront of electoral conspiracies and sweeping electoral law changes, and a runoff in the US Senate is once again making it a national political battleground with outsized attention. After an uneventful primary and smooth state election, Georgia election officials breathed a sigh of relief at an election cycle that lived up to the boring anti-hype.

Unlike the 2020 presidential campaign, no losing candidate claimed they lost due to cheating. Personal records for early voting were shattered with few reported problems, voter turnout on Election Day was low, and polling officials were able to go about their jobs without harassment or safety concerns.

In a convention hall next to Atlanta’s airport on Thursday, dozens of poll workers quickly worked their way through stacks of ballots being drawn for the Fulton County portion of the test, hand-counting the secretary of state’s race in pairs while interim election director Nadine Williams watched watched a sense of calm.

“We’re nearing the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “We have a very strong workforce and are very proud of our department, we have done a great job. But we know that anyway [December] Drain is upon us.”

Fulton County is Georgia’s most populous and hard-hit county, with threats and conspiracies following the 2020 election, when former President Donald Trump’s allies focused on several debunked claims about vote counting and poll workers as supposed proof that Trump’s defeat was actually a victory . Even before the presidential election chaos, Fulton was a frequent target of complaints about long lines, equipment problems and delayed election results. Under a sweeping 2021 election law, the county was placed under a performance review board and under additional surveillance in the recent election.

But Williams says workers and voters are now facing multiple elections with new rules and equipment, and that there is more confidence in Georgia’s electoral system with multiple back-to-back cycles without problems.

“At this point I think everyone is stronger because of certain things they’ve had to learn from the trials and I think we’ll be fine for the runoff,” she said. “And we’re very confident that we’re going to have a very successful runoff and finally be able to catch our breath at the end of this year.”

A difficult road to 2022

Local election officials across the country have faced many challenges over the past two years, and Georgia in particular has seen its share of struggles. In early 2020, the state implemented the largest-ever rollout of a new voting system while preparing for a high-profile presidential primary that was ultimately delayed twice. The coronavirus pandemic has led to a sharp decline in polling stations and people willing to staff them, while polling stations have been overwhelmed with absentee ballots.

This year’s Georgia presidential race was counted three times in as many weeks, and lies about the outcome and the election process led to threats, harassment and a sweeping change in the election law that transformed many aspects of how officials do their jobs.

But this election saw none of that and offered some signs of hope for those polling.

Under the new state law SB 202, counties were allowed to process absentee ballots sooner and had to count them faster.

Strongly Democratic Fulton County was one of the first counties to upload early voting results. Thus, the “red mirage” of early Republican advantage that has led some to claim cheating was absent in this election, and as wide spreads surfaced in statewide races, lost candidates conceded.

On election day in Atlanta, people line up to vote.
On election day in Atlanta, people line up to vote.

Ameika Pitts, director of elections in suburban Henry County, said after she finished her exam Thursday, it was a “calm between the storms” before she dived into preparations for the Dec. 6 runoff, but that this year is looking up felt different in a good way.

“It’s like a breath of fresh air, it’s like an exhale,” she said. “I’ve been in elections for as long as I have, the last two years I’ve felt kind of uncomfortable — and now it kind of feels like I used to be runoff from the general, so actually I feel like it was formerly .”

And it used to be very uneventful, Pitts said, but in a good way: where voters would approach them with questions about registration issues and candidates on the ballot, rather than with suspicions and allegations of fraud; where losing candidates move on instead of attacking the system; and where she felt safe in her work.

“And not always feeling like you have to watch your back or always be on the defense when you know what you know,” Pitts said.

While poll workers are less nervous, it’s not over yet. Once the state confirms the Nov. 8 election back Monday, counties are preparing for the Dec. 6 runoff, mailing ballots by mail, conducting pre-election device testing and preparing for a shortened early in-person voting period.

A return to pre-2020 election normalcy in Georgia also means lamentations, although their focus is once again on issues of ballot access rather than conspiracies and nebulous allegations of fraud.

Ahead of the contest that will determine Georgia’s US Senator for the next six years, a judge said Friday that Georgia law allows counties to offer early in-person voting on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, contrary to the Secretary of State’s instructions.

Overall, election officials in Georgia have a good sense of how things are going with voting — for now — and look forward to ending a long election season.

Williams, the Fulton County director of elections, said she will go into “hibernation” after the runoff is complete, while Pitts in Henry County is looking forward to a few weeks off before moving its staff to a new building in early January, which is what this means shows Even after the final count of votes in the runoff election, there is still a lot to do and prepare for the next election.

Copyright 2022 Georgia Public Broadcasting

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