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Election Officials In Georgia Are Still Unclear On What The New Voting Law Might Do

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It's been a few weeks since Georgia's new election law was signed, and the people tasked with implementing it are still trying to understand what it will do. Many Georgia election officials say the law will make things more difficult and that their input was disregarded. Parts of the law also directly target them. From member station WABE in Atlanta, Emma Hurt reports.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: The pandemic made 2020 a tough year for election administrators. But for Carlos Nelson in Ware County, Ga., it was even more complicated.

CARLOS NELSON: I'm going to remember that as being the year of - we-couldn't-do-anything-right year.

HURT: In November, his office made a mistake, accidentally counting some absentee ballots twice. The county updated its initial vote totals, giving former President Trump 37 more votes.

NELSON: So then the conservative media got hold of that and saying it was vote-flipping, you know, from Biden to Trump.

HURT: Nelson caught the mistake the day after the election. An audit and recount came out perfectly. Trump won 70% of the county.

NELSON: But still, that wasn't good enough. It was like, cat's out of the bag now. Y'all got machines that were flipping votes.

HURT: He says voters were already skeptical about whether the election would be fair, but this made it worse. Some people accused off-duty poll workers in the grocery store of flipping votes.

NELSON: And if that happened in Ware County, you know, there are probably 13,000 other votes out there that was flipped, you know? I'm like, come on, people.

HURT: The authors of Georgia's election law say it will boost faltering voter confidence, but Nelson says none of it would have prevented the error from happening again. He and other election officials say there are parts of the new law they like, but their input often wasn't taken. Tonnie Adams runs elections in rural Heard County. He testified multiple times about the bill on behalf of the Georgia elections officials association.

TONNIE ADAMS: It seemed like everything that we told the legislators - you know, this is something that we think needs to be changed; here's some parts of the code that don't make sense that you wrote - fell on deaf ears.

HURT: Republicans who wrote this bill point out they heard hours of testimony from election officials, experts and constituents. But Adams points to new drop box regulations that don't make sense to him. For bigger counties, the law will mean fewer drop boxes. But Heard County, with under 8,000 voters, is now required to get one. The box must be inside an early voting site, which, in Heard County, is its elections office.

ADAMS: When someone brings a ballot in their hand, rather than dropping in a box, we're just going to have them give it directly to us because we're sitting here doing early voting. So there's really no need for a drop box here.

HURT: And there's another provision which worries him. The new law empowers the state election board to appoint someone to take over a county's election management if there are problems.

ADAMS: The legislature now has three seats that they appoint on the state election board, and we thought that that was a gross overreach of power from one branch of government.

HURT: Adams says there was already a way for the state to intervene through the courts. In the new law, a takeover can occur if an election superintendent in at least two elections demonstrated, quote, "nonfeasance, malfeasance or gross negligence."

MILTON KIDD: What is malfeasance?

HURT: Milton Kidd is the election supervisor in Douglas County in suburban Atlanta.

KIDD: I want them to quantify and codify some of these terms that are used. If you are going to be implementing a takeover, at least give us the mechanism by which we're going to be graded.

HURT: Tom Mahoney, chair of the Chatham County Board of Elections in Savannah, supports this provision of the new law.

TOM MAHONEY: I have to say that I welcome that scrutiny because that's part of that transparency, that - for people to have confidence in their elections, they have to be able to see it, and they have to be able to complain about it.

HURT: Georgia is not the only state contemplating laws targeting election administrators in the name of strengthening confidence. Iowa added criminal penalties for election workers who disobey guidance. Texas, Missouri and Arizona are considering other measures to curtail local officials. Here's Milton Kidd again.

KIDD: Elections is one of the few jobs in which we expect perfection without recognizing the humanity of people.

HURT: He also points to the provision that prohibits counties from taking any breaks when counting ballots on Election Day. But for now, Kidd and his counterparts, like Carlos Nelson in Ware County, are just trying to figure out how to implement the law.

So as to whether you think this law expands access or restricts access...

NELSON: I'll leave that up to the pundits, you know (laughter)? You know, our job is to make access available, come on in, you know, and just get people to vote, you know?

HURT: And let's give all election officials a pat on the back, he says.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Hurt in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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