Ellison: County election workers went “above and beyond” to get the job done

Monday, the State Election Board approved an online portal for voters to request absentee ballots for November's general election. A record 1 million Georgians voted by mail in the June 9 primary to avoid precincts and interactions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The extensive problems that plagued voters across metro-Atlanta on Tuesday did not materialize in many rural Georgia counties, including Habersham. While some local voters were confused by the combined presidential preference and party ballots and several complained of glitches at sign-in, for the most part, voters in Habersham say they’re pleased with their primary election day voting experience.

The county recorded an overall 43% voter turnout as 11,877 of the county’s 27,485 active registered voters cast ballots. Approximately 3,400 voters turned out at the polls on election day, all others voted early, including some 5,888 who mailed in absentee ballots.

Susan Turpin casts her ballot in the June 9, 2020, primary.

While the voting ran smoothly, election returns were slow to come in. Now Habersham asked election Supervisor Laurel Ellison about that and other topics related to the June 9 primary.

Were there any problems reported to you and your office from the polls? If so, what kind? No, not really. I did not have any major issues reported from the precincts about voting equipment or other issues. Most of the calls from my poll managers were about checking on voters that were turning in their absentee ballot by mail or signing affidavits in order to be able to vote in person. Also, we had our normal types of calls to check to see if someone was registered to vote if they could not find them on the PollPads. We also had some calls where we helped walk our poll workers through procedures with the PollPads, but once they got more comfortable and hands-on with the PollPads at the beginning of the day, we received fewer calls.

Your office historically has issued partial returns throughout the evening, but not last night. Everything came in one report. Why was that? As you know, this has been an election year with challenges due to COVID-19. We had a large number of absentee ballots this time, due to the SOS (Secretary of State) sending out applications to every active voter within the state. Even though we had taken measures to begin the early processing of absentee ballots a few days prior to Election Day, by opening the envelopes and getting the ballots ready to scan, we did not begin the actual scanning process until Tuesday, due to having a lot of ballots coming back in the mail and having to process them on top of preparing for Election Day.

The state rolled out its new $104 million dollar voting system for this election. That caused some delays in Habersham as voters and poll workers got used to the system. In metro Atlanta counties, election officials reported major problems at the polls.

All of the voting equipment and computer system is new, and we had never used it through an entire election prior to this one. Using the new voting equipment and computer system comes with a learning curve, trial and error and just trying to determine the best way to prepare, conduct, and complete an entire election. Now that we have gotten through absentee/early/advance voting and Election Day, we have seen what did and did not work well, and we will learn from it.

What caused the delay in the release of Habersham’s election returns? We were delayed due to having a large number of absentee ballots to scan into a new scanner, having to process absentee ballots as they came into the office throughout the day and we had some issues uploading the information into the SOS Election Night Reporting system. There were other counties within the state of Georgia that had similar issues. Again, we all had a new voting system, new procedures, and an abnormal number of absentee ballots that we had to process on top of dealing with COVID-19 restrictions, implementing social distancing and sanitizing voting equipment, voter cards, and styluses.

Habersham North Precinct workers Tangye Teague and Renae Ramey helped voters scan their computer-generated paper ballots. They kept bleach wipes nearby to clean the equipment.

Any takeaways from this election as you and your staff prepare for the runoff? We will continue to try to get more poll workers for the advance voting locations as well as Election Day and also get more temporary office clerks as necessary. We will also make sure that the majority of the absentee ballots are scanned prior to Election day. Since we are now more familiar with the new equipment and computer system, we will know what to expect for the next election and that will enable us to produce vote totals more quickly.

Were you surprised by Tuesday’s voter turnout? Overall turnout? No, I am not surprised. With the number of absentee ballots that were mailed out and received back, we knew that the turnout could go either way.

When will runoff absentee ballots be available? As soon as possible after the June 9, 2020 election is certified.

What precincts will be open for the runoff? All of our normal precincts will be open.

Is there anything you’d like to add? I just hope that voters will be patient with all Georgia county election offices, their workers and their poll workers, and realize that this is all new to us and that it has been an unprecedented election year so far. We are working extremely hard to do our jobs to the best of our abilities. There is a lot of work that goes into conducting elections and it takes a lot of people to make it happen. My office staff, my temporary clerks, and my poll workers worked extremely hard to process all the votes, whether it be by mail or in person and they did an excellent job. Elections are so important, and these workers have gone above and beyond to get the job done.

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