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

Absentee ballots can be opened a week earlier than usual ahead of elections in Georgia following emergency steps the State Election Board took Monday to help ease a vote-tally bottleneck amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming Nov. 3 general election.

The board also gave Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office the green light to create an online portal for voters to request absentee ballots via the internet rather than by mail or with a county elections office.

The rule changes come as state and local election officials hustle to improve the voting process in Georgia during the pandemic, which drove voters to cast ballots by mail in historic volumes and spurred hours-long lines at polling places during the primary elections in June.

Instead of two weeks before an election, local ballot-counting officials will be able to start tallying mail-in votes three weeks prior, according to an emergency rule change the state board approved Monday.

The online portal, which the state will run as a centralized system rather than counties running their own portals, is currently in a testing phase and should be ready to roll out before the fall election, Raffensperger’s office said.

To get a ballot, a voter’s name, birth date and state driver’s license or ID card number submitted via the online portal will have to match exactly with that same info as logged in the state voter registration system. A signature match would not be needed.

Combined, the two measures approved at a state board meeting Monday aim to curb problems seen during the June 9 primary in several counties including Fulton County, where local officials struggled to process mail-in ballot requests and handle long lines spurred by distancing due to the virus.

Some counties like Fulton were overwhelmed by the huge number of absentee ballot requests that poured in ahead of the primary, causing delays in the turnaround time for voters to receive ballots. Many Atlanta-area voters never received a mail-in ballot at all due to the processing logjam.

Shortly after, Raffensperger’s office announced it would not send out absentee ballot request forms to all of Georgia’s roughly 7 million registered voters, as was done for the primary. Several counties have elected to send out request forms on their own.

More than 1 million Georgia voters cast absentee ballots during the primary, marking a quantum leap in the number of votes submitted by mail rather than in-person at the polls. State and local officials are anticipating even more mail-in votes for the November election with a presidential contest and two U.S. Senate seats on the Georgia ballot.