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Georgia Has Much To Do By Election Day After Urging Voting By Mail

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The state of Georgia, like so many other parts of the country, is urging its residents to vote by mail this election year, with regular voting upended by the coronavirus. But during the last presidential election, only about 5% of the state's votes were cast by absentee ballot. So there's a lot to do to prepare for Election Day. Emil Moffatt from member station WABE has more.

EMIL MOFFATT, BYLINE: Voting by mail isn't anything new in Georgia. But that doesn't mean it's been a popular choice until this year, when the coronavirus outbreak led to social distancing guidelines and two delays in the state's presidential primary, which is now set for June 9.

PAM COMAN: I've been in the department for 18 years. And I've never seen anything like this before.

MOFFATT: That's Pam Coman, registration manager with Fulton, the state's largest county.

COMAN: We have an overwhelming amount of applications coming in.

MOFFATT: That's due, in part, to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who made the decision to mail absentee ballot applications to anyone who's voted in a recent election.

BRAD RAFFENSPERGER: Obviously we're taking this unprecedented step with the absentee ballot situation and that outreach to voters. But we know that, typically, over 95% of all Georgian voters like to vote in person.

MOFFATT: While the state sent out applications to millions of voters, it won't cover the cost of postage to return those applications or completed ballots. And this sudden shift to mail-in voting has put a squeeze on county elections officials. So far, more than a million applications for absentee ballots have been submitted across the state. Fulton County elections director Richard Barron says he had to enlist employees from the county's tax office to handle the surge.

RICHARD BARRON: We have about 30 individuals. And everyone's spread out through the atrium at the government center.

MOFFATT: Once those applications are approved by the county, a list is uploaded to the state. Georgia recently signed a contract with a company to print and mail those absentee ballots. But lots of other states are seeing a surge in absentee ballot requests, too. Amber McReynolds is with the advocacy group Vote At Home. She says this demand could strain companies that print ballots.

AMBER MCREYNOLDS: The biggest issue really is timing. They have a lot of capacity. But they need to be able to plan, order paper, order envelopes and make sure those things happen sufficiently.

MOFFATT: Georgia elections officials maintain this push toward vote by mail is temporary. But McReynolds asks, what happens come November if things haven't changed?

MCREYNOLDS: They spent millions of dollars sending a mail-in that won't actually be good for voters for the general election, which is kind of silly.

MOFFATT: By law, in Georgia, only seniors, those with disabilities and members of the military can be put on a permanent list to automatically get an absentee ballot for every election. A bill that would change that to apply to all Georgia voters was introduced earlier this year. But that was before the state legislative session was suspended because of the coronavirus.

For NPR News, I'm Emil Moffatt in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF LANTERNA'S "HALF-LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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