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How Hall County is handling influx of absentee voting, effects of ransomware attack on elections office
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Hall County's elections board and staff are processing absentee ballots Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020, in preparation for tabulating the large numbers on Election Day. - photo by Scott Rogers

With less than two weeks remaining before the Nov. 3 election, the Hall County elections office has already begun processing absentee ballots, although the process for verifying some ballots has been slowed down due to the effects of a ransomware attack on county networks.  

One of the databases the county uses to verify voter signatures on absentee ballots is not working after some county network outages due to a ransomware attack on Oct. 7. Registration Coordinator Kay Wimpye with the county elections office said employees can still verify voter signatures by manually pulling hard copies of voter registration cards, which is more time-consuming. Most voter signatures can be verified using a state database that has been unaffected by the outages, she said.  

Many of the signatures that must be checked using a registration card are from older registrations or registrations that were done manually rather than online, Wimpye said.  

“As long as the ballot is here, it’s time-stamped, it’s secured in the office, the ballot will be accepted. It’s just taking us a little longer to verify those signatures,” Wimpye said. 

County spokeswoman Katie Crumley, however, said the network outage has not affected Hall residents’ ability to vote nor delayed resident voting. 

“There are no reports of delays at any of the precincts currently,” she said. 

An update on the county website Thursday also stated that “the voting process for citizens has not been impacted by the attack.” 

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Hall County's elections board and staff process absentee ballots Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. The process involves verifying signatures and placing ballots in batches for counting. Votes won't actually be tabulated until Election Day. - photo by Scott Rogers

The county’s online precinct map has also been unavailable due to the ransomware attack, as the county’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) network is down. Voters can find their polling place for Election Day by visiting the My Voter Page section of the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office website or calling Hall’s elections office at 770-531-6945. 

Staff, some of whom have been hired as temporary seasonal workers, have been staying busy, as many voters are opting to vote by mail due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. Hall had sent out 27,573 absentee ballots as of Wednesday, Oct. 21, and 11,351 of those had been returned. The county has about 129,000 registered voters, according to Wimpye. 

Workers have been starting at 10 a.m. each day since Monday and going until 4 p.m. or whenever they run out of ballots, whichever comes first. While they are opening the ballots in a separate room to keep the process private, the public can observe through a window in the elections office at the Hall County Government Center. 

Statewide, 891,358 absentee ballots had been cast as of noon Friday, Oct. 23, compared to 116,764 absentee ballots as of Oct. 27, 2016, for the last presidential election, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office.  

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A man and woman monitor Hall County's elections board and staff Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020, as they process absentee ballots. The process involves verifying signatures and placing ballots in batches for counting. Votes won't actually be tabulated until Election Day. - photo by Scott Rogers

In the November 2016 election, 4,138 people in Hall voted by mail, and in November 2018, 4,293 voted by mail, so absentee voting in this election has already surpassed both those elections.  

Workers were set up at a few tables in the room Wednesday afternoon, handling the ballots in stages to prepare them for counting. Wimpye said first, the outer envelope is opened and the security envelope is removed. The outer envelope, which includes the voter’s name, is separated from the security envelope containing the ballot to keep anonymity as the ballot is opened, Wimpye said. 

Then, the ballot is removed from the security envelope and placed in a pile to be counted. The ballots are collected in batches of 50 to be tabulated on election night. 

Elections Director Lori Wurtz said it is important voters return their ballots with the outer envelope provided that includes their name and signature. Without that outer envelope, it is not possible to verify the voter’s signature. 

“We don’t have the oath, we can’t verify the signature and so we don’t know who put that ballot there. It’s a dead ballot at that point,” Wurtz said. 

Voters can mail their absentee ballots to the elections office using the provided envelope or drop it in one of two boxes, located outside the Hall County Government Center at 2875 Browns Bridge Road in Gainesville or the Spout Springs Library, located at 6488 Spout Springs Road in Flowery Branch. They also have the option of turning in their absentee ballot at an early voting location during voting hours. Eight locations are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays through Oct. 30, plus 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24. Under Georgia state law, the boxes must be well-lit and under video surveillance, and Wimpye said the drop boxes are emptied at least three times a day with at least two people on each trip.  

And if voters who have already requested an absentee ballot decide they want to vote in person instead, they can have their absentee ballot canceled at the polling place, although the process is quicker if they bring the absentee ballot with them.  

All registered Georgia voters are eligible to vote by mail. To request an absentee ballot, voters can go to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office online portal at securevotega.com, call the county elections office at 770-531-6945 or email elections@hallcounty.org. The last day to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 30, and absentee ballots must be received by the elections office by 7 p.m. Nov. 3. 

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