Absentee ballot delays lead to questions about the process

Fulton County Georgia elections workers process absentee ballots for the Senate runoff election...
Fulton County Georgia elections workers process absentee ballots for the Senate runoff election in Atlanta on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. Georgia's two Senate runoff elections on Tuesday will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. Republican Kelly Loeffler is going up against Democrat Raphael Warnock, while Republican David Perdue is challenging Democrat Jon Ossoff. Democrats must win both seats to take control of the Senate. (AP Photo/Ben Gray)(Ben Gray | AP)
Updated: Jan. 21, 2021 at 6:33 PM EST
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Voting by absentee ballot is an issue that will take center stage this legislative session in Georgia.

Critics say the call for election reform is an attempt by Republicans to rollback voter accessibility after an unprecedented absentee voter turnout this past election. A delay in counting absentee ballots changed the perception of the process.

Early voting for the U.S. Senate runoff races in Georgia drew a record number of voters. For a voter in Savannah, the option to vote by absentee ballot during a pandemic seemed like the logical choice.

It’s also a decision that left her with more questions about the process.

“I thought - I’ll deliver it - dropped it in the box. And had no reason to question because in the last time it had been marked pretty quickly on the My Voter page. So, I just didn’t check,” Kelly Wolfshiemer said.

Two weeks later, it was this political action mailer she received that led to doubts about the process,

Wolfshiemer said, “It’s come to our attention that you have not voted, and I thought that’s strange I have voted, and it’s been enough time. So, I went onto the My Voter page and the status was blank.”

And for another week, no one could tell her why her vote hadn’t been received. Just words of reassurance.

“It’s here. It’s locked up. You have nothing to worry about.”

On Dec. 31, just a few hours after she had left another message about her ballot, her ballot status finally changed to “accepted.”

WTOC reported the delay back then and asked what happened during a recent interview with Chatham County Board of Registrar Chairman Colin McRae.

“Our director spoke with people at the Secretary of State level who acknowledged there was a problem with the ballot status system. Soon after our director discussed it with the people up at the state those statuses were updated. Unfortunately, a number of them were not updated until the day before the election. But at least, those people got that information in time to decide whether to cancel their ballot and go vote in person,” McRae said.

The accepted status occurs once election workers conduct what’s called a signature verification match. But for Wolfshiemer, the experience has left her with a feeling that there needs to be more voter assurance in the process.

“When I drop that absentee ballot off, from that point onward there is no check for me as a voter to know if it was ever run through a machine,” Wolfshiemer said.

“Can the system be overhauled? Maybe. But people have unprecedented access to the status of their votes now, and there’s always going to be growing pains as there is an increase in the available services that people can increase,” McRae said.

And even though his office had an enormous task, he wants to see absentee ballots continue.

“It creates more work for our office. But I recognize that being an accommodation that we need to make to voters,” McRae said.

And he has a message to state lawmakers as election reform takes center stage.

“We can build trust back in the system by devoting more resources to the vote, not by taking them away,” McRae said.

The Georgia Secretary of State’s Office says it’s aware of the status delay with some absentee ballots in Chatham County. But that there were no issues on its end, and with the number of ballots processed by election workers, the winter holidays, and the machine and hand recounts from the general election – all coinciding during that time – it appears those may have just fallen behind.

Here’s a little more on absentee ballot laws in Georgia.

The right to vote by absentee ballot is a right granted by state lawmakers in 2005. It’s known as the No Excuses Act.

Speaker Ralston has formed a committee to discuss the act this session. And it’s a topic WTOC will continue to follow and report.

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