What if you held an election, but no one came?
That, of course, is hyperbole, but because of COVID-19 concerns or simple convenience, a staggering number of Georgians will bypass the ballot booths on June 9 and instead vote by mail.
The primary, which was scheduled for May 19 but delayed because of COVID-19, also includes the Democrats’ presidential preference contest similarly delayed from March 24.
Some 6.9 million active voters were mailed absentee ballot applications. The number of registered voters in Georgia is estimated at more than 7.3 million. By May 24, more than 1.58 million absentee ballot requests had been received at county offices statewide. Of all the statistics available from GeorgiaVotes.com, one of the most stunning is that more than 69 percent of 2020 early voter applicants did not vote in the 2016 primary election.
As for the party affiliation of those requesting absentee ballots, 48.7 percent had requested Republican ballots, 47.5 percent Democratic ballots, and 3.8 percent nonpartisan ballots.
By age, more than 42 percent of those requesting absentee ballots were age 65 and older and slightly more than 29 percent were ages 50-64. By gender, nearly 57 percent were female and nearly 43 percent male. By race, 64 percent were white, 35 percent African American, 1.5 percent Hispanic, and 1.6 percent Asian.
By May 24, nearly 617,000 people had voted by absentee ballot or in-person early voting (which ends June 5), with slightly more than 60 percent cast by people who did not vote in the 2016 primary.
Those voting in person will cast votes on the state’s new $100 million-plus system of touchscreens and printouts, which allow voters to check their ballot before inserting it into scanners attached to locked ballot boxes.
Absentee voting is controversial in some quarters. The speaker of the Georgia House, Republican David Ralston, warned that absentee ballots could compromise the integrity of the election. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, also a Republican, created a task force to investigate allegations of fraud.
According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution: “Of hundreds of cases heard by the State Election Board over the past five years, 34 of them involved absentee ballots.
The most common allegations involved failures by county election officials to process absentee ballots correctly by inappropriately rejecting them.” In the 2018 general election, about 3 percent of absentee ballots were rejected, “usually because they were returned after election day, voter information was missing or signatures didn’t match,” the AJC reported.
To solve a potential problem – counting that extraordinary number of absentee ballots – the state election board will allow election officials to begin opening ballots June 1. In the past, absentee ballots were not processed until election day.
Even with this measure, they will not be counted until June 9. And the results of some races still may be delayed by the absentee ballot count.
Polling places tend to be in schools, churches and senior centers, places that may be off-limits because of COVID-19, reducing the number of sites available for voting. Raffensperger encouraged absentee voting also out of concern that COVID-19 will depress the number of poll workers, who tend to be age 60 or older, a population that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labels as at higher risk for contracting the virus. The state has purchased 35,000 face masks and 30,000 containers of hand sanitizer for polling places.
To protect those who turn out in person to vote early or on June 9, the CDC recommends that election administrators regularly disinfect equipment and enforce social distancing. But there appears to be no uniform policy on what election officials should do if a voter shows symptoms of the virus at the polls.
Georgia is an open primary state, which means that a voter need not be a member of a particular party to vote in its primary.
There are a dozen candidates on the Democratic presidential ballot, though all but one — former vice president Joe Biden — have ended or suspended their campaigns. The estimated 275,000 voters who cast ballots during early voting before the presidential primary was delayed do not get a do-over.
Otherwise, ballots are full of competitive races for U.S. House and Senate seats, as well as state, county and municipal posts. Runoffs will be Aug. 11. The general election is Nov. 3.