Georgia’s 159-county election administrators are heading into the midterm elections with deepening concerns over more restrictive legislative mandates, increased legal risks, fewer workers–and scarce resources.

Their heightened anxiety follows two tumultuous years for poll workers and local election offices, who had to contend with a global COVID-19 outbreak, verbal and physical harassment, and a deluge of recounts, fueled by debunked vote-fraud claims over the 2020 presidential election. 

Death threats and an aging pool of election workers had led to a mass exodus of election workers nationwide, and Georgia has been particularly affected.

The aftereffects of the state’s heavily contested 2020 election season, along with subsequent restrictive changes to Georgia election laws have made it much harder for local election offices to recruit poll workers, especially managers for polling locations. 

The problem has reached  “a crisis point” for Douglas County election officials, the county’s election supervisor, Milton Kidd, told Atlanta Civic CIrcle. “We’ve had almost a complete turnover in our poll workers because of individuals not wanting to be involved in the electoral process,” he said. “So we’re going into a midterm [election] year with, basically, a brand new election staff.”

Kidd said about a third of his office’s permanent staff of seven have quit, and about 300 of the usual 300 to 400 seasonal poll workers used during the last two election cycles are not returning for the midterms. Half of the poll managers he’s relied on in previous elections are also gone.

What’s more, a bill fast-tracking through the state legislative session threatens to make his and other election officials’ jobs even harder, Kidd said. 

If passed, HB 1464 would deputize the Georgia Bureau of Investigation as the first-responder for any allegations of election-related crime, empower the public to inspect paper ballots after elections and allow only the state election board, instead of counties, to accept private donations earmarked for election administration to distribute as it sees fit.

“All that has an effect on our poll worker recruitment and retention,” Kidd said. 

County election officials are grappling with recruiting and training largely new staff at a time when Georgia, as a key swing state, will be in the national spotlight. The all-important midterm elections will be heavily scrutinized under new, more rigid state laws that the Republican-led legislature enacted last year with the aim of making elections more transparent while boosting public confidence in the electoral process. 

“The election process itself is a confusing process. It’s hard to interpret conflicting laws in cases. You have election law. You have attorney general decisions,” Kidd said.   

As a result, he said, it typically takes at least three or four election cycles for someone to become comfortable managing a polling location. “We have no one currently who has been with us three election cycles.”

Douglas County has set up mock precincts to familiarize new poll workers, who make about $270 a day, with the electoral process for the May midterms. Despite the training, Kidd concedes, there will likely be some “mistakes in paperwork” — and little regard from the public for the fact that these are temporary workers “walking onto the job for the very first time.”

“If people had a better understanding of what we actually did for a living, I think we’d all be in better shape,” Bartow County Election Supervisor Joseph Kirk told Atlanta Civic Circle

Kirk said he’s “blessed to have good poll worker retention” but it takes several training sessions to get them up to speed

Unintended consequences

On top of that, the recent and pending changes to election laws that cede control from the counties to Georgia’s State Election Board will have “unintended consequences,” he predicted. 

In his 20 years in election administration, Kirk said, “We’ve gone from a simple concept [where] if you’re eligible to vote, you register. You cast your ballot. We count them. We report the results. We’re done.”

Now, he added, the process is “a very complex set of laws that require a lot of interpretation and a lot of decisions, because elections in Georgia are administered at the county level, not the state.”

In Bartow County, for instance, the chamber of commerce ordinarily lets the election office use its facility for free on Election Day. 

But HB 1464 would prevent them from doing that, he said.”Now they have to charge me something. To me, it’s not even about the money. It’s about the partnerships those kinds of deals foster.”

The Georgia Election Integrity Law (SB 202), passed last year, bans private donations to local election offices. But a provision in HB 1464 would let the state election board receive and dole out private donations as it sees fit.

“This is new and unprecedented territory,” said Kidd, the Douglas election supervisor. “It’s an outright attack on the election process.”

The ban on private money and in-kind donations will have a major effect on the Douglas election office.

In the past two years, the office received about $3 million in donations and grants from outside donors, including former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit that received $350 million from Meta (formerly Facebook) CEO Mark Zuckerberg to aid local election offices nationally. 

The Douglas office used the money to rent moving trucks, pay incentives to poll workers and make capital improvements.

But donations to county elections offices are history – at least for now. In their effort to bolster public confidence in the election process, lawmakers have created “a “number of unfunded mandates,” said Kidd.

Going forward, figuring out how to handle and pay for endless requests from the public for ballots, paying for polling sites, equipment, and other administrative costs.

“You’re adding more and more requirements, restrictions, and duties onto the office without allocating any funding to perform any of these [new] functions,” Kidd said.

Veteran election directors offer solutions on how lawmakers can make the elections process more efficient.  Read about it here.

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