At the Bulloch County election headquarters, Tuesday night’s runoff election count was completed by 10:20 p.m., instead of stretching past 2 a.m., as happened with the June 9 primary.
This time, paper absentee ballots were the first thing counted, instead of one of the last parts of the count to be completed. Georgia’s State Election Board, both before June 9 and for this week’s Aug. 11 runoff, had issued permission for local election officials throughout the state to begin opening and processing ballots a week and a day before Election Night. In this case that would have been Aug. 3.
The Bulloch County Board of Elections and Registration took advantage of this, but did not start processing absentee ballots until Saturday, after in-person early voting closed the previous afternoon, Friday, Aug. 7. That way, there was no overlap in these processes, said Election Supervisor Patricia Lanier Jones.
The three local board members worked Saturday to start opening the absentee ballot envelopes and feeding the ballots into a scanner, Jones said. The scanner registers and holds the information from the ballot. That is what “processing” amounted to. The board chair then came in Monday to observe as staff members completed the processing.
But election officials were prohibited from printing out results or moving data on a card from the scanner to the separate system that counts all the votes until after the traditional, in-person polling places closed at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Then it was the first thing done.
“Yes,” Jones said when asked if this helped on Election Night. “Those were over 2,000 ballots that we didn’t have to be here all night opening. We had them up; we had them ready to go. I was able to pull ballots that had to be duplicated and do them.”
Fewer and simpler
In fact, the early processing of absentee ballots was also available before the June 9 primary, and Bulloch County’s election officials did take advantage of it, processing ballots the weekend before the election, Jones said.
But the volume then was much greater. Of the 14,962 Bulloch County voters who participated in the primary, more than 7,000 voted using paper absentee ballots. This followed a mass mailing by the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office of absentee ballot request forms to voters statewide. The mass mailing was not repeated for the runoff.
When the ballots were mailed to voters who requested them, many voters tore them open in a way that damaged the ballots so that they could not be scanned, Jones said. That, and other things voters did such as marking the oval by a candidate’s name, but then crossing it out and then marking another candidate, resulted in ballots that the county vote review panel had to evaluate before the creating a substitute ballot to scan.
This also happened with some ballots counted Tuesday. But the number that had to be evaluated and duplicated was much smaller, about 200, Jones said. Of course, it was also a much simpler ballot, with only two races with two candidates each throughout the county, plus a third race that repeated one of those Republican ballot races on the nonpartisan ballot and a fourth two-candidate contest in a single Board of Education district making up one-eighth of the county.
The count of votes from absentee ballots was completed by 8 p.m.
Of the 7,636 Bulloch County voters who participated, 2,364 did so by paper absent ballots, 1,750 during the three weeks of in-person early voting and the remaining 3,522 at the traditional precinct voting places Tuesday. Total turnout was 17.1%, down from 33.85% at the primary.
An added week
Last week, the State Elections Board approved a rule change giving local election officials an additional week – beginning two weeks and a day before the Nov. 3 general election – for processing absentee ballots.
But Jones said she probably wouldn’t start that early anyway, since she really doesn’t want to mix in-person early voting and processing ballots during the same work hours at election headquarters.
“It depends on how many we get as to when we’re going to do that,” she said. “I really don’t want to be mixing (the two) because we have to have somewhere to work.”