The coronavirus first forced postponement of the March 24 presidential primary, which was rescheduled for May 19, already the date of Georgia’s primary for the U.S. Senate and other offices. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger then moved the combined primary to June 9.
Raffensperger, a Republican whose office oversees elections, faced other problems. Many senior citizens, who make up the bulk of poll workers, were unwilling to risk their health, and a call for younger volunteers went out. Much of the electorate had no desire to risk their health by standing in lines, so the state sent absentee ballot applications to 6.9 million registered voters. In the end, more than 1.1 million Georgians voted by absentee ballot in the primary.
The primary also was the first statewide test of Georgia’s new, $104 million voting machine system, manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems, which would provide a paper ballot with a QR code to be fed into a scanner for counting.
Georgia made headlines June 9 for all the wrong reasons. A combination of factors, some human and others technical, plagued Election Day. At some venues, voters waited in line for several hours — well past the scheduled 7 p.m. closing time — to cast ballots.
Heading into the Nov. 3 general election, the state did not send absentee ballot applications to every registered voter, whose ranks had swelled to 7.58 million. Nonetheless, for reasons of convenience or concerns about COVID-19, more than 1.3 million Georgians voted by absentee ballot and another 2.7 million voted early in-person.
It was clear on election night that the count would continue the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.
Georgia election law required absentee ballots to be in the hands of county election officials by 7 p.m. Nov. 3. Raffensperger had hoped to ease the crunch by giving the counties permission to open, verify and sort — but not count — absentee ballots beginning two weeks before Election Day. That helped but also led to accusations later that the inner envelope holding ballots had not been matched with the outer return envelope — something the Secretary of State’s office denied.
Among the noteworthy results, Libertarian candidates drew enough votes to force the Democratic and Republican candidates for the two U.S. Senate seats into Jan. 5 runoffs. And Democrat Mike Wilensky won re-election to his seat in the Georgia House, meaning that he will be the only Jewish member among the 236 state legislators in the House and Senate combined.
As the count proceeded, Democratic former vice president Joe Biden pulled ahead of incumbent Republican President Donald Trump. Democrats hadn’t won Georgia’s presidential vote — and this year, 16 Electoral College votes — since 1992.
Georgia election law allowed Raffensperger to choose one race for audit, and he chose the presidential contest for a hand recount. When the hand recount audit was completed, Biden still led. Those results were certified, by Raffensperger and then by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.
Then, because the margin was within 0.5 percent, Trump exercised his option to request a machine recount. Again, Biden led, by nearly 12,000 votes, out of close to 5 million. Trump’s supporters subsequently held news conferences alleging wide-scale fraud, which the secretary of state’s office denied, and filed suits that, to date, have been denied or dismissed by federal courts.
Republicans, meanwhile, were at odds with themselves over accepting the certified results. On one side was Trump, backed by Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler and some members of the Georgia legislature. On the other side was Raffensperger, backed by Attorney General Chris Carr, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, and Kemp, though he said changes were needed in the absentee ballot laws moving forward.
Threats requiring police protection were made against Raffensperger and his wife, and elections supervisor Gabriel Sterling, a Republican from Sandy Springs. A young election worker in a suburban county was targeted online with images of a noose. The mild-mannered Sterling eventually blew his stack and, in a remarkable 4 minute and 41 seconds, excoriated those making threats and politicians tolerating threats, and warned that someone would get hurt or even killed if the rhetoric did not stop.
Meanwhile, the secretary of state’s office continued planning for the runoffs, which would include not only Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats, but also a seat on the state Public Service Commission.