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Opinion: Pandemic complicates an already complicated election season
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Poll workers set up Friday, May 15, 2020, at Gainesville Exploration Academy for early voting. The first three weeks of early voting will be held at the school instead of the Hall County Government Center. - photo by Scott Rogers

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the state’s election process is a victim of the coronavirus pandemic and is in critical condition.

Early voting for the June 9 primary starts Monday. It will mark the second early voting period for part of the primary, which has twice been rescheduled because of the state’s public health emergency.

But the process for holding elections in the state remains in flux, as confusion is rampant, mistakes reoccurring, and lawyers lining up to challenge various elements of the election cycle based on a host of different issues.

Remember a few months back when the biggest concern was whether voters could adapt to new electronic voting machines, and whether they provided a more secure system for casting ballots than the old machines? Those seem like the good old days.

The Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager
  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown
  • David George
  • Brent Hoffman
  • J.C. Smith
  • Tom Vivelo
  • Mandy Harris

Now we have thousands of potential voters requesting absentee ballots who have never done so before. Some of those who have filed an application for such a ballot have received them, others have not. There is no certainty of when they will.

For some, the concept of voting by mail threatens the sanctity of the electoral process and carries with it the potential for widespread voter fraud. For others, the idea of standing in line at a traditional polling place given the current health concerns is unfathomable, and voting by mail the only viable option.

There are already challenges to the process. One pending federal lawsuit says absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day should be counted, regardless of when they are received by voting officials. State law says they have to be in hand for counting by Election Day for the vote to count.

The state is already committed to notifying potential voters of problems with absentee ballots that result in their being rejected, that measure the result of a settlement in yet another lawsuit over handling procedures for absentee ballots. And more litigation may be in the wings.

A system facing legal challenges and revamped this year as a result has had to handle more absentee ballot requests than ever before, with an elections workforce constrained by all the same concerns about the coronavirus as any other group of employees. What could go wrong?

Already we have seen issues with mistakes in ballots, which vary from district to district, county to county. And data released by election officials has misstated dates or confused voters in various ways.

It’s a mess, and we haven’t even gotten to the point yet where people actually go to try and vote on a machine.

Across the state, concerns about health safety have resulted in some facilities normally used as polling places being closed, forcing new voting locations to be found in a short period of time. When precincts do open, it remains to be seen whether adequate safeguards to protect public health will be possible in all of them.

The known and potential problems are many, but it would be unfair and unwise to blame those working in local voting offices for their existence. Major elections typically happen once every two years, and local election officials gear up for the process by expanding their employee force, training volunteers and part-time staff, and generally preparing for peak times of the voting process.

This year has been different. Most government offices have been closed; what is normally a precise and methodical process thrown into turmoil. It was going to be bad enough with the introduction of the new voting machines, but what voting officials now face is many times worse than that learning process.

Looking ahead, it’s not hard to predict the chaos that is likely to ensue once the rescheduled primary date comes and the actual primary election is held. You know there are going to be challenges about whether mailed ballots are received and counted. You know there are going to be challenges about use of the new machines. You know there are going to be challenges about how voters are treated at the polls.

You know in advance that even when it’s over, it may not be over. And then there will be the runoff, and the general election.

It isn’t just the voting process itself that has been infected by the virus, but the campaigns as well. Candidates have not been able to speak to large crowds as they normally would, haven’t been able to go door-to-door, haven’t been able to “press the flesh.” Instead they’ve had to depend on virtual forums, digital and social media campaigns, print advertising and robocalls to get their names in the forefront of public thought.

News about the upcoming general primary has largely been buried behind a tidal wave of urgent and imperative public health information, so that political races of major importance at every level of government, from county commissions to the U.S. House and Senate, have not been given the scrutiny that would normally be the case.

That the pandemic has occurred in an election year isn’t just a problem for Hall County or the state of Georgia but for the nation as a whole, as the election cycle in every state has been disrupted, and even the campaign for the presidency has taken a back seat to the daily coronavirus status report.

At this point we don’t know what election chaos the rest of the year will bring, what lawsuits may be filed, what sort of problems candidates may encounter, or what to expect as we move on toward the general election and the selection of a president in November.

What we do know is that early voting for the primary opens Monday, and that those of us who are qualified to vote need to do so, whether it’s early on a machine, by mail or at a traditional voting booth on Election Day. Unless the voters are patient enough to participate, the odds of the electoral process surviving this particular health care crisis may be pretty slim.

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