When the COVID-19 pandemic hit two years ago, metro Atlanta’s county election offices were able to deploy tens of millions of dollars in outside donations to hire extra poll workers, pay hazard stipends, and buy extra voting equipment, such as machines to process the surge in mail-in ballots.
For Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett Counties, which administer elections for between 200,000 to 840,000 registered voters, that was on top of ongoing budgetary demands for voting machines, recruiting and training poll workers, and providing election materials in various languages.
Cobb, for instance, received $5.6 million from the Center for Tech and Civic Life for the 2020 election cycle–almost as much as its $5.8 million annual budget. The Center for Tech and Civic Life, fueled by $328 million from Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, disbursed similarly generous grants to counties nationally, including Cobb’s metro-Atlanta neighbors, to defray added costs from COVID-19.
But a new election-reform law, SB 202 now bans this kind of outside help. It’s a tough blow for the state’s 159 county election offices, as they grapple with new laws–along with leadership changes, worker defections, and the ongoing specter of harassment from people still angry about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
“The grants we received from the Center for Tech and Civic Life and the Southern Poverty Law Center were critical for us” to buy additional voting equipment,” Rick Barron, Fulton County’s Director of Registration & Elections, told Atlanta Civic Circle. Barron’s last day running Georgia’s largest elections operation is April 1.
County elections offices significantly outspend what the Georgia legislature has allocated in recent years for elections administration. Last year the legislature allocated $7.6 million for elections in all 159 counties, but local election offices spent nearly $45 million, according to the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget.
Despite additional demands from the pandemic and heightened elections scrutiny, it increased the elections budget for FY 2023 by only $200,000.
A recent Brennan Center poll found that one in six local election officials have been threatened because of their job, while two-thirds of the 600 election managers polled nationally said vitriol from social media misinformation has made their jobs more dangerous. In fact, one in five plans to leave their jobs before the 2024 presidential election.
“There’s no doubt that with the passage of Senate Bill 202 last year and House Bill 1464 [now before the state Senate], there are a lot of additional responsibilities placed on our local election officials,” Todd Edwards, deputy legislative director for Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) told Atlanta Civic Circle.
“These responsibilities bear a cost,” Edwards said. “There are some savings, but overall it’s costing more money.”
Some election offices are well-funded but others are not, depending on the county, said Edwards, who works closely with local election officials at ACCG, a training and advocacy group for local governments.
With a nearly $24 million budget, Gwinnett election officials said they have the funds needed to properly run all 2022 elections, but Fulton’s Barron said its $38 million budget is “big enough to run the elections this year, but it doesn’t provide enough for efficiency in terms of the amount of equipment.”
Clayton County’s election director, Shauna Dozier, declined to comment.
“The state’s our partner. We’re not lambasting them,” Edwards said, adding that the state helped cover some of the cost of new voting machines for local election offices.
But in Georgia, it falls on the counties and their taxpayers to ensure that elections are carried out with “integrity and accuracy,” Edwards said.
”The more responsibilities the state adds, the more difficult that’s going to be,” he added, noting that counties are administering sweeping changes from the 2021 election-reform law for the first time. We would just appreciate the state’s consideration in letting us work through the implementation of Senate Bill 202, rather than add additional responsibilities and costs in the middle of an election season.”
With the added responsibilities, do county election offices have enough resources to properly run the May 24 primary and the Nov. 8 general election?
Atlanta Civic Circle asked the election directors of metro Atlanta’s five core counties. Their roughly 2.72 million registered voters account for over a third of Georgia’s 7.2 million registered voters.
Here’s what they had to say:
Election director: Shauna Dozier
Annual budget: Not provided
Is it enough to run the 2022 midterm elections smoothly? No comment
Registered voters: Over 200,000
How many poll workers are you hiring for this year’s elections? No comment
Voting day pay for poll workers: $150 to $300
Any trouble recruiting workers? No comment
Any donations received over past two years, including the 2020 election? No comment
How was the money used? No comment
Election director: Janine Eveler
Annual budget: $5.8 million
Is it enough to run the 2022 midterm elections smoothly? The current budget, which runs through September 30, will be sufficient for the May primary and June runoff. The FY 2023 budget gets approved later this year.
Registered voters: 500,000
How many poll workers are you hiring for this year’s elections? 1,200
Voting day pay for poll workers: $250 for poll managers; $195 for assistant poll managers; and $150 for clerks. Poll workers also are paid $25 to help set up their assigned poll on Election Day.
Any trouble recruiting workers? “It is always a struggle,” Eveler said.
Any donations received over past 2 years, including the 2020 election? $5.6 million from the Center for Tech and Civic Life and several small grants disbursed by the Georgia Secretary of State from federal Help America Vote Act funds. Also, personal protective equipment (PPE) donations.
How was the money used? Poll worker recruitment and training, voting equipment, supplies, polling place rental and cleaning expenses, voting materials in languages other than English, voter education.
Election director: Keisha Smith
Annual budget: roughly $7 million
Is it enough to run the 2022 midterm elections smoothly? “DeKalb County Voter Registration and Elections is committed to ensuring the voters have a smooth and seamless voting experience. We continue to work with our chief executive officer, board of commissioners and Board of Registration and Elections to ensure our office is both properly funded and strategically managed to ensure balanced resource allocation and adequate staffing,” Smith said.
Registered voters: 571,172
How many poll workers are you hiring for this year’s elections? 2,200 election workers and 60 additional support staff.
Voting day pay for poll workers: Manager, $360; assistant manager, $300; check-in clerk, $240; monitor clerk, $145; administrative clerk, $125; command center clerk, $115; and provisional clerk, $135.
Any trouble recruiting workers? Smith said DeKalb, in past years, has had “an ample pool of interested candidates for various poll worker positions.” The county election office accepts applications year-round and encourages any interested DeKalb resident to apply at www.dekalbvotes.com.
Any donations received over the past two years, including the 2020 election? Three grants totaling $9.6 million from the Center for Tech and Civic Life.
How was the money used? Public safety enhancement, expanded signage and QR codes, translating election material into Spanish and Korean, advanced voting and election day staffing, PPE for over 2,000 staffers, voting education campaign, and election activities.
Election director (until April 1): Rick Barron
Annual budget: $38 million
Is it enough to run the 2022 midterm elections smoothly? “It is big enough to run the elections this year,” Barron said, but it didn’t provide enough to buy the additional voting machines that Fulton needed to reduce congestion.
Registered voters: roughly 840,000
How many poll workers are you hiring for this year’s elections? 2,200.
Voting day pay for poll workers: Between $175 and $305, depending on the job.
Any trouble recruiting workers: “No, we have a large database upon which to draw.”
Any donations received over the past 2 years, including the 2020 election? In 2020, two grants totaling $10.7 million from the Center for Tech and Civic Life and $80,000 from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
How was the money used? To buy voting equipment and PPE for poll workers. Fulton also paid workers a stipend in 2020, Barron said, “to attract and keep workers as the pandemic was at its height before the vaccines.”
Elections supervisor: Zach Manifold
Annual budget: $23.95 million
Is it enough to run the 2022 midterm elections smoothly? “We feel it’s enough to run all elections in the 2022 cycle.”
Registered voters: 619,640
How many poll workers are you hiring for this year’s elections? Between 1,462 and 1,618 per election
Voting day pay for poll workers: Poll manager, $290; assistant manager, $190; issuing clerks, $165; non-issuing clerks, $135.
Any trouble recruiting workers? “Yes, we can always use more poll workers. We urge interested people to apply online at gwinnettcountyjobs.com.”
Any donations received over the past 2 years, including the 2020 election? $4.1 million
How was the money used? For absentee ballot printing, mailing and processing; office and operating supplies; fees; equipment; signs; temporary staff; and hazard pay.