New voting machines face big test in coronavirus-struck Georgia primary

Voters wait in line at a precinct in Cobb County on May 18, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Georgia’s new voting machines will face their first major test in a June 9 primary election that has created far different logistical challenges for state officials than were anticipated before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

The new machines, purchased last summer for $104 million, were already under intense scrutiny as Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office pushed to have the 30,000 new devices rolled out by the March 24 presidential preference primary, all while legal challenges sought to have them blocked.

Then coronavirus hit, upending the game plan for the March 24 contest in which the voting machines were poised for their first statewide use. Since then, primary elections have been postponed twice to June 9, precincts in high-volume voting areas like Atlanta have shuttered over safety concerns and Raffensperger has pushed for Georgians to hand in absentee ballots rather than head to the polls.

“What voters have to understand is that it’s going to look a little bit different when they show up this time,” Raffensperger said at a recent news conference.

“The fewer people voting on the actual election day,” he added, “the safer it will be for the voters, poll workers and all Georgians.”

Purchased last July from Dominion Voting Systems, the new machines – called ballot-marking devices – involve touchscreens and scanners that record a paper print-out of a voter’s completed ballot. State officials hail the new machines as more secure than the old all-electronic machines, which have been scrapped over cybersecurity concerns after 18 years of use.

Critics of the new machines have continued pushing for Georgia to adopt an all-paper voting system, arguing the new devices still record votes electronically and do not provide enough of an audit trail. Lawsuits filed in federal court against Raffensperger’s office aim to halt the new machines in Georgia, though judges overseeing those cases so far have not issued any injunction orders to do so.

To date, Raffensperger said the new machines have not experienced any major technical issues since being installed in time for the March 24 presidential primary. They have been used by hundreds of thousands of Georgians in early voting this year and during a six-county test run last fall, in which county officials reported some minor glitches.

“They’ve worked amazing,” Raffensperger said, while acknowledging that “we haven’t gotten the full use of those [machines] that we would like because of COVID-19.”

Coronavirus, which had sickened more than 45,000 people and killed 1,974 in Georgia as of Friday afternoon, has prompted elections officials to shift attention from having the new machines go off without a hitch to making sure polling places are kept clean and both voters and poll workers have protective supplies to stay safe.

To curb risks of spreading the virus, voters are being spaced out six feet apart from each other in line at local precincts and poll workers will all wear masks and gloves, Raffensperger said. His office is also supplying counties with roughly 60,000 stylus pens for voters to use on the touchscreens rather than their fingers. Without the styluses, polling places would have to completely shut down the touchscreens to disinfect them after each use.

On top of distancing and sanitizing measures, officials expect voting to take longer than normal due to fewer precincts being open in areas like Atlanta, as some local churches and schools that usually serve as precincts back out over coronavirus concerns.

In Savannah, the Chatham County Board of Elections is pushing to open alternative polling places after 12 of the county’s 92 voting sites “were uncertain.” And Fulton County, the state’s most populous, has lost more than 30 voting sites in recent weeks from its nearly 200-site total and is “struggling with Election Day locations,” said the county’s election director, Rick Barron.

“This has been an unprecedented situation for not only Fulton County but also other counties around the state,” Barron said at a recent news conference.

To ease the pressure of in-person voting, state and county elections officials have spent weeks urging Georgians to cast ballots by mail after Raffensperger’s office sent absentee ballot applications to all of the state’s nearly 7 million registered voters starting in March. So far, roughly 600,000 people have sent in absentee ballots of the more than 1.5 million who requested them, according to Raffensperger.

Handling the avalanche of absentee ballot requests has been challenging for many county elections officials, including Barron. Like other counties, his Fulton County staff have been swamped with processing absentee ballot applications and returned ballots, with many voters still complaining they have not received mail-in ballots weeks after requesting them.

Officials have asked voters to be patient as they sift through absentee ballot requests submitted by mail and online in recent weeks.

“It’s almost as though we’ve added a different type of an election on top of the one that we’re already running,” Barron said. “It has split our resources.”

Meanwhile, time is running out for mail-in voting. Ballots must be cast or received by county offices no later than 7 p.m. on June 9 or they will not count, Raffensperger said. If voters wait until the final few days, their absentee ballots may not circulate quickly enough through the mail to make it.

“It does put you at the mercy of the United States Postal Service,” Raffensperger said.

That time crunch prompted one member of the Georgia House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Donna McCleod, to conclude voters should ditch the mail-in method if they have not received an absentee ballot by Friday, May 29. If that’s the case, voters can still fall back on the new machines to cast their ballot.

“Please, please, please stay safe,” said McCleod, D-Lawrenceville. “This is not worth your life, but it is important for us to participate in our democracy.”

Kemp to let bars, summer school open in Georgia amid COVID-19

Coronavirus has sickened thousands of people and killed hundreds in Georgia. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Gov. Brian Kemp moved Thursday to relax broad social restrictions in Georgia on bars, nightclubs, summer school classes and overnight summer camps in the coming weeks amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Kemp also announced he will extend the public health emergency in Georgia through July 12, granting him powers to continue issuing executive orders.

The latest pulling back of business restrictions comes amid a bump in positive coronavirus cases in recent days prompting caution from local health experts concerned about people returning too quickly to normal behavior.

At a news conference, the governor said “encouraging data” trends in the number of positive coronavirus cases and hospitalizations convinced him it was time to start slowly reopening more businesses.

“We remain encouraged by the numbers that we are seeing in testing, hospitalizations and a wide variety of other data points across the state,” Kemp said.

In an executive order the governor signed Thursday, bars and nightclubs will be allowed to reopen starting June 1 after nearly two months of closures, so long as establishments meet strict rules. Restrictions include limiting occupancy to 25 patrons or 35% of a building’s occupancy and only serving drinks to seated patrons or in designated areas.

Summer school classes will be allowed starting next month if schools can keep students separated in classrooms and routinely sanitize facilities. Overnight summer camps will be permitted starting May 31 under similar sanitizing and social distancing requirements.

Live performance venues will remain closed for the foreseeable future, though Kemp said he is working with businesses owners on a reopening plan.

Kemp also announced businesses like restaurants and other gathering spots will be allowed to have larger groups of up to 25 people if they keep six feet of space between them starting in June. The six-foot rule has applied for several weeks to groups of up to 10 people.

Additionally, the governor is allowing amusement parks, water parks, carnivals and circuses to reopen under several restrictions starting June 12. Sports leagues will also be permitted to hold practices starting June 1 and must abide by guidelines that the leagues themselves have drafted, Kemp said.

As of 1 p.m. Thursday, more than 45,000 people had tested positive in Georgia for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. The virus had killed 1,962 Georgians.

Kemp and health officials attributed a bump in positive COVID-19 cases seen on the state Department of Public Health’s website in recent days to a large backlog of old test results the agency received from private labs over the weekend.

The state’s public health commissioner, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, backed Kemp’s decision to ease business restrictions, citing the state’s bolstered testing capacity and the hiring of 800 contact tracers tasked with charting an infected person’s web of physical interactions.

“I felt very comfortable … particularly because the data trends have been staying very, very favorable,” Toomey said Thursday.

Ahead of Kemp’s news conference, leading health experts at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta urged people to continue keeping their distance from each other even as social restrictions begin to relax.

“This pandemic is not over just because a politician is saying it’s safe to get out,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, who chairs the Hubert Department of Global Health at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health. “I think there are important economic decisions that need to be made, but what I would tell people is … take care of yourselves, practice social distancing, be careful.”

“The data tells me that I should probably continue sheltering in place,” he added. “I’m not ready to go to a restaurant yet.”

Del Rio, who previously criticized Kemp for waiting too long before ordering Georgians to shelter-in-place, said he expects to see positive COVID-19 cases rise as people interact with each other more and testing increases.

He and a colleague at Emory, Dr. Colleen Kraft, said people need to weigh how comfortable they are exposing themselves or family members to the virus. Kraft, an associate chief medical officer at Emory, said the state should start gaining a better picture of whether cases are on the rise “within the next month.”

In the meantime, Kraft said Georgians should consider viewing their social habits within a “coronavirus circle,” by which she meant the number of other people someone could potentially expose by ignoring social-distancing practices.

“The bottom line is you need to be aware of keeping yourself safe and other people safe,” Kraft said Thursday. “We’re in a country of personal choices, but you need to be sure that you’re being respectful to other people and their medical fragility.”

Raffensperger presses Georgians to turn in absentee ballots

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger discusses absentee voting in Georgia amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 28, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger renewed calls Thursday for voters who have requested absentee ballots to send them in the mail or put them in a local drop-off box ahead of the June 9 primary election.

More than 600,000 Georgia voters have returned absentee ballots so far, marking roughly 40% of the 1.5 million voters who requested them since March when the coronavirus pandemic escalated in the state, Raffensperger said.

At a news conference Thursday, Raffensperger urged voters whose mail-in ballots are “sitting on your kitchen table” to make sure they are returned by 7 p.m. on June 9, after which ballots will not be counted.

Raffensperger called for as many people as possible to vote by mail rather than in person to lower the risk for spreading the virus among voters and poll workers, many of whom are older individuals more vulnerable to the virus’ health impacts. State election officials are also allowing counties to install drop-off boxes where voters can place their absentee ballots instead of mailing them.

“We need as many of you as possible to use this safe and easy voting tool,” Raffensperger. “The [coronavirus] threat is still a potential threat to orderly elections and in-person voting.”

As of Wednesday, Raffensperger said more than 100,000 Georgians have voted in person during the early-voting period, which began May 18. Many precincts have already seen long lines with people forced to keep their distance from each other while queued up to vote and spend time canceling absentee ballots they requested since they are voting in person.

A handful of elections officials and a voter contracted the virus recently in McDuffie and Appling counties, highlighting the high risk brought by ramped-up voting numbers on June 9. The virus has also complicated efforts by county elections officials to process an influx of absentee ballot applications and ballots that have arrived in recent weeks.

Fulton County’s elections director, Rick Barron, noted Wednesday his office was slow to turn around ballots after a staff member died from coronavirus in early April. Barron said his office has since caught up with the application backlog amid complaints from many voters who still had not received a ballot weeks after requesting one.

“It has not gone as quickly as we had hoped,” Barron said in a virtual news conference Wednesday. “But we finally did get caught up, and we can look forward to the future and having this process go smoother.”

Speaking Thursday, Raffensperger attributed the slow processing time in Fulton to “missteps” and asked voters who have not yet received their absentee ballots to “just be patient.”

“You’ll get your ballot shortly,” he said.

To speed up ballot processing, Raffensperger said his office has sent high-speed scanners to counties to help them reduce their absentee ballot turnaround times. The scanners are part of the state’s new $104 million voting machines that will see their first large-scale statewide test on the June 9 primary.

Amid the push for mail-in voting, Raffensperger also touted Georgia’s push to keep polling places open during the early-voting period. On Thursday, he claimed the state has “maintained more in-person voting options during this pandemic than any other state in the country combined.”

“We have cut through the political rhetoric, ignored the talking heads and put you the voter first,” Raffensperger said. “We have maintained your right to choose in this election.”

Deal-led group urges federal prison reform, releases report

Former Gov. Nathan Deal speaks at a dedication ceremony for the Nathan Deal Judicial Center in Atlanta on Feb. 11, 2020. (State of Georgia)

A criminal justice group led by former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal released several recommendations Wednesday on sentencing and quality-of-life reforms for federal prison inmates.

Outlined in a report from the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Council on Criminal Justice, the recommendations call for broad changes to the U.S. judicial and penitentiary system. They range from eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes and creating a federal waiver for states with legal cannabis to increasing grant funds for prisoner education and expanding Medicaid coverage for substance-abuse treatment.

The report was drafted by a group of criminal justice experts chaired by Deal, who served two terms as governor starting in 2011. They include a former Philadelphia mayor, former Washington, D.C., police chief, former Massachusetts U.S. attorney, a former prisoner and Sally Yates, the Atlanta-based attorney who served as U.S. deputy attorney general in the Obama administration.

In the report, Deal wrote the group’s work started soon after President Donald Trump signed prison-reform legislation in 2018. It consisted of members from different political stripes who “did not see eye to eye on everything” but settled on “bold recommendations that are also pragmatic and hold potential to have the most substantial impact on Americans,” Deal wrote.

“The harsh political rhetoric of the past has softened, replaced by possibilities for progress on an issue that once was so divisive,” Deal said. “Reform won’t be easy, but we can and must use this pivotal moment in time to work for a more fair and effective federal system that provides safety and justice for all.”

Deal’s tenure as governor saw passage of several initiatives aimed at deterring crime rather than punishing it, including creation of Georgia’s accountability courts. In an effort to curb recidivism, those courts provide alternative sentences outside prison to help employ thousands of Georgia inmates with mental illness or substance-abuse issues.

Like other state-funded programs, accountability courts are facing deep budget cuts spurred by the economic slowdown of the coronavirus pandemic. The extent of those cuts and others will be decided next month when the General Assembly reconvenes to pass the 2021 fiscal year budget.

COVID-19 budget cuts deep for alternative sentencing programs in Georgia

Sen. Butch Miller (left) and Sen. John Alberts (right) talk budget cuts at a meeting of the Senate Appropriations Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee on May 27, 2020. (Georgia Senate video)

Nearly 2,000 Georgia criminal offenders enrolled in programs that let them work jobs and finish their sentences outside prison could be headed back behind bars due to budget cuts prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, state lawmakers learned Wednesday.

Roughly $4.3 million would be cut from the state Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s budget for local grants to accountability courts, a popular program created by then-Gov. Nathan Deal in 2013 offering alternative sentences to curb recidivism for thousands of Georgia inmates with mental illness or substance-abuse issues.

If implemented, the cuts would likely cause around 1,900 current participants in accountability courts across the state to return to local jails or prisons to complete their sentences, said Hall County Superior Court Chief Judge Kathlene Gosselin, who chairs the state Council of Accountability Court Judges.

Many of those participants are employed in restaurants, poultry plants and elsewhere and have continued working throughout the coronavirus pandemic, kept track of by program supervisors who are routinely informed of their progress via Zoom video meetings, Gosselin told state lawmakers Wednesday.

“Those people will likely end up either in local jails or prisons if they do not have an opportunity to do this,” Gosselin said at a meeting of the Senate Appropriations Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee.

In all, Gosselin said between eight and 12 of the alternative-sentencing programs would likely need to be shelved over lack of funding from the budget cuts. Local judicial circuits that receive grant funding for the programs would have to decide whether they can still maintain them with less money, she said.

Gosselin’s assessment came amid two weeks of General Assembly hearings on 14% spending cuts agencies across state government are being asked to make to offset the loss of tax revenues brought on by the pandemic-induced business lockdown.

Dozens of state agencies submitted proposals last week for budget reductions totaling about $3.5 billion for the 2021 fiscal year, which starts July 1. The proposals were requested by top budget-writing lawmakers in the General Assembly, who are poised to make passing the budget the top priority once the legislature reconvenes next month.

If passed as is, the 14% cuts would translate to furloughs and layoffs for teachers, social workers, prosecutors and more, according to a review of agency proposals released last week. That would help close Georgia’s expected $3 billion to $4 billion tax revenue shortfall, though critics have called for raising revenues rather than spending cuts.

A hallmark of state criminal justice reforms, the alternative-sentence accountability courts saw roughly 12,400 participants enrolled in 163 courts statewide last year, of which 9,440 were still enrolled at the start of 2020, according to the council.

The state pocketed roughly $38.2 million in fiscal 2017 from more than 1,700 graduates of the program who both saved the state money in reduced prison costs and paid state income taxes, according to a study from the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said Wednesday “painful cuts” to programs like accountability courts that aim to reduce overall prison costs are counterproductive.

“We all understand the concept that it costs us more tomorrow when we don’t spend it today,” Miller said. “The pot’s only so big and we’ve got to cut the slices.”

Lawmakers also got an overview Wednesday of proposed cuts for public-safety agencies overseeing prisons, state troopers, state investigators, parolees and juvenile offenders.

Several agencies like the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Community Supervision and the Department of Public Safety are facing furlough days for staff. Others like the Department of Corrections have proposed closing certain facilities, including Autry State Prison in Pelham. Shutting down the South Georgia prison would save nearly $18 million, officials say.

Sen. John Albers, who chairs the subcommittee, said he wants lawmakers to focus next month on finding ways to help agencies reduce the need for furloughs. That would involve looking at whether some of the state’s lucrative tax credits and incentives could be reined in to free up more revenue for agency spending, Albers said.

“I hope that we can work very diligently in order to get folks back to full-time work,” said Albers, R-Roswell. “I think we have several ways to do that.”