SAVANNAH — Georgia's top elections official said Wednesday that turnout at the polls in 2020 could top the previous presidential election by more than 1 million voters.
"We're all going to be busy in November," Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told more than 700 local election officials attending a conference in Savannah. "But I think we're going to be busy well before that getting ready. This will be a historic turnout."
Raffensperger's prediction comes as Georgia rushes to meet a court-ordered deadline to retire its outdated, paperless voting system before any ballots are cast in 2020.
The state is working to distribute more than 33,000 new machines, which combine touchscreen voting with printed ballots, among Georgia's 159 counties. County election supervisors, meanwhile, are still training their staffs on the new system.
Georgia has fewer than three months to switch to the new voting machines. The state's presidential primaries are scheduled for March 24. But advance voting will begin three weeks earlier on March 2.
"Someone said yesterday it's OK to be nervous, just don't let your nerves turn into fear," said Ginger Nickerson, elections supervisor for Dougherty County in southwest Georgia. "We're all going to be nervous. But we're excited."
Nickerson said so far she's only got a couple of the new voting machines for educational demonstrations, compared to the 260 she'll need for the March primaries. Before the election, she will need to train more than 200 workers, most of them part-time, how to use the new system. She's confident there's still enough time.
"We're going to be fine," Nickerson said.
Georgia will be closely watched in 2020 after election officials faced a torrent of criticism in 2018. Problems included hours-long waits at some polling sites, security breaches that left voters' registration information exposed and accusations that strict ID matching requirements and registration errors suppressed turnout.
That led to lawsuits and changes in state law that included switching to a new election system at a cost of $106 million.
Raffensperger, a Republican, urged county officials Wednesday to consider opening extra polling sites and enlisting extra poll workers ahead of the Nov. 3 election. He predicted turnout could top 5.3 million statewide, up roughly 30% from nearly 4.1 million votes cast in 2016.
"We just feel that voters are really engaged on both sides of the aisle and we expect a huge turnout," Raffensperger said in an interview after addressing the conference.
Raffensperger and his staff say they're ahead of schedule getting new machines to local election officials. Six counties used the new equipment for a test run during elections for mayors, city councils and school boards last month. A few dozen more are scheduling deliveries.
Gabriel Sterling, project manager for the secretary of state's office, said all 159 counties should have their voting machines by early February — roughly a month before advance voting starts.
County election officials this week are attending sessions on the new voting equipment, how to train poll workers, how to conduct recounts and audits as well as recent changes to state election laws. More training will be offered on a regional basis before the March primaries.
The electronic voting machines Georgia has used since 2002 produced no paper records of the votes cast. That made it impossible to audit elections by comparing computer tabulated election results to a paper trail of individual ballots.
The new machines work similarly to the old ones, with voters making choices on touchscreens.
But the new machines also print a paper ballot listing each vote cast and a computer code matching those choices. The printout is inserted into a scanner that reads the code and stores the votes electronically for tabulation. Printouts are retained in case an election must be audited later.
Some election officials insist there are advantages to debuting the new machines statewide during the high-profile presidential primaries. There's only one election on both the Democratic and Republican primary ballots. Many voters will know which candidate they're supporting before they arrive at the polls.
And the Georgia Republican Party has announced that only President Donald Trump will appear on the state's GOP primary ballot.
"I think it's an ideal time," said Deb Cox, elections supervisor for Lowndes County. "You get maximum voters out to use the equipment."
"With a minimal ballot," chimed in her colleague Joseph Kirk, elections supervisor for Bartow County.