By Benita M. Dodd
On Thursday, November 5, the nation held its breath, waiting to see where Georgia’s 16 crucial electoral votes would go as poll workers laboriously counted absentee ballots into the night. Several states were in the same situation, prompting charges of fraud and protests outside polling places.
The acrimony is the logical result of a drawn-out process involving absentee votes, including mailed ballots, that invites questions about election integrity. In Chatham County, the Georgia GOP joined President Trump in filing suit after election observers said they saw late absentee ballots being added to a pile. The suit was dismissed Thursday; nevertheless, Georgia’s presidential vote appears headed for a recount.
Earlier this year, the primary highlighted the effects of a shortage of experienced poll workers. Typically older individuals, the number of Georgians willing to undertake this civic duty was shrinking already; COVID-19 expedited it. Furthermore, not all county election offices ensured workers were properly trained on the state’s new voting machines.
The Secretary of State’s office worked diligently with county officials to fix problems. So why was the count still such a mess, days after the November 3 vote?
Much of the problem was the unusually large early voter turnout. More than half of Georgia’s registered voters cast ballots before the general election, either absentee by mail or early in person, amid dire warnings of long lines on November 3 because of COVID-19 precautions.
Altogether, 4,919,122 of Georgia’s 6,864,584 active registered voters turned in a ballot. Just 905,967 voted in person on Election Day – fewer than one in five who voted and about half the number of Election Day voters in November 2018 for Georgia’s contentious gubernatorial election.
The early-voter turnout should have been expected; the Secretary of State’s office was both promoting early voting and providing updates. Indeed, the absentee ballot, much like the “Motor Voter” law, is promoted as a way to facilitate voting and improve turnout. Georgia law allows a voter to request an absentee ballot up to 180 days before Election Day; no excuse is required.
Claims that these policies boost turnout, however, merit scrutiny.
The turnout was 71% of eligible voters. In 2008, when President Obama was elected, the turnout was 76%; it was 73% in 2012 for his re-election. The turnout in 2016 was 76% in the Trump-Clinton matchup. Compare that with off-years: The turnout was 48% of active voters in 2006, 51% in 2010 and 49% in 2014. In 2018, when Brian Kemp beat Stacy Abrams in the gubernatorial race by 55,000 votes, the turnout was 61%.
Now for early votes. This year, in a pandemic-related aberration, early voters – absentee or in-person – made up 82% of the total vote. In 2016 it was 58%; it was 50% in 2012; in 2008, it was 54%. In off-years, early voters were 53% of the total vote in 2018. In 2014 it was 37%; it was 30% in 2010 and 20% in 2006.
But has voter turnout increased or did votes simply shift? Yes, there were slight increases in Georgia voter registration – larger in 2008, President Obama’s election, and in 2018, the Abrams-Kemp race – but overall, turnout appears to be driven more by the candidates fielded than by early voting options.
Is this shift worth the massive cost of opening polling places early in 159 counties, and scrambling to organize observers to ensure secure elections? It’s not as if the state was not warned. Hans von Spakovsky, writing in 1999, recalled how, in Fulton County,
in the 1996 election, it took a team of 57 staff members almost six hours to prepare 12,833 absentee ballots for counting. Early voting jurisdictions have experienced early voting turnout of 20% to 50% of the total votes cast. … [A] large number of ballots would greatly expand the time required to count the votes, even if the election staff is greatly increased (with corresponding increased costs) and could significantly delay final vote tallies and election results.”
There are role models. How did Florida, with two time zones and almost 11 million votes, manage to complete voting promptly and efficiently? Radio personality Erick Erickson asked, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush responded: “Because we learned our lesson after 2000 and changed our laws.” Now Georgia must learn what it takes to ensure this acrimonious, untrustworthy, extended process is never repeated. Election integrity is at stake.
Benita M. Dodd is Vice President of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Established in 1991, the Foundation is a trusted, independent resource for voters and elected officials. The Foundation provides actionable solutions to real-life problems by bringing people together. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (November 6, 2020). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.