Running the race: Election administrators feel the impact of overhauled election laws

The Richmond County Board of Elections office prepares for Election Day. (Credit: Richmond County Board of Elections)

Jun 17, 2024
Key Points
  • New state election laws aim to restore trust after a contentious 2020 election
  • Switching to watermarked ballots costs tens of thousands of dollars
  • Banning private donations has strained some local budgets

State lawmakers have been overhauling and fine-tuning Georgia election laws for the last three years hoping to regain voter trust in the state’s election process after a contentious 2020 election.

But restoring that trust is placing burdens on administrators and staff who oversee local elections.

Cherokee County spent $30,000 on paper ballots this year but now must destroy that batch and purchase watermarked paper ballots. The change is due to a state law that will go into effect July 1. Fulfilling the new mandate will cost the county about $65,000, roughly 7% of its $975,000 elections budget, Election Director Anne Dover told State Affairs.

Douglas County has already used half of its $1.5 million budget allocated for elections this year. Tuesday’s primary runoff will be the county’s sixth election. Like Cherokee, Douglas also has to get rid of 100,000 paper ballots for the watermarked ones.

“It’s the bane of my existence,” Douglas Elections & Voter Registration Director Milton Kidd said of the paper ballots. Kidd misses the $3 million in election grants his office received four years ago. It helped pay for temporary poll workers, transportation equipment, beefed-up security, COVID-19 masks and other necessities. Going forward, Douglas County will likely have to absorb the cost of the facility where temporary election staff work and where election equipment is stored, Kidd said.

Georgia banned private donations as part of its 2021 overhaul of election laws after critics said many donations were coming from wealthy patrons looking to sway elections. In 2020, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan gave $400 million nationwide in election administration grants awarded through two nonpartisan nonprofits. Similarly, actor and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave millions to help local elections offices.

While some local elections offices didn’t take advantage of the private donations, those that did purchased a wide array of items, including vehicles to transport election equipment and bonuses for temporary poll workers.

“We have taken a lot of negative heat for taking those grant funds,” Dover said.

An official with the Secretary of State’s Office said he hasn’t heard any major outcry from election administrators about changes in election laws. 

“We haven’t had any concerns voiced specifically related to legislation,” Mike Hassinger, public information officer for elections at the Secretary of State’s Office, told State Affairs. “If it requires a change in procedure, they might have questions about how to implement the procedure. But nobody has really been particularly upset or put out or anything other than a detailed question: ‘How do I do this? How do I do that?’ That’s really all we’re getting.”

Asked about the ban on private donations, Hassinger replied, “You’d have to talk to the legislators.”

Some election officials told State Affairs that they’re managing well without private donations.

Bartow County Elections Supervisor Joseph Kirk said his $1.6 million budget is sufficient to handle this year’s slate of elections. 

“I have the good fortune of being in a county that funds my department very well,” said Kirk, the president-elect of the Georgia Association of Voter Registration and Election Officials

“Whenever we need something, the commissioners have always been happy to work with us and make sure we have the resources we need to conduct fair and transparent elections which is one of the reasons that I’m not as concerned about this issue.”

But Kidd said many election administrators are hesitant to talk about their struggles for fear of backlash from state lawmakers.

Travis Doss, president of the Georgia Association of Voter Registration and Election Officials, said he’s aware of counties struggling with elections now that private donations are no longer permitted. They’re primarily smaller counties whose election officials  have a hard time conveying their needs to county government officials.

“There are many boards of registrars or elections directors that struggle with their county commission to understand why elections cost so much,” said Doss. “They will ask for money just to open a polling place or staff it, and [election officials are] like, ‘Well, why do you need so many polling places?’ or ‘Why do you need so many workers?’ or ‘Why do you need so many voting machines?’ ”

The association held workshops on working with county officials during its convention in December. The organization has also reached out to the Georgia Municipal Association and other groups that work with municipal and county governments “to get a better understanding as to what all goes into elections,” Doss said.

Doss is also executive director for the Richmond County Board of Elections, where the election budget is $2.2 million, which he said is “proper funding” to handle the county’s elections this year. However, he conceded that the private donation his office received four years ago would come in handy now. 

Richmond County produced a voter information guide this year but doesn’t have the money to send copies to the county’s 160,000 registered voters. Instead, the guide has been placed in libraries, churches and other public places in the community. 

“If I had the additional funds, I would love to have the ability to mail a copy to every registered voter,” Doss said. 

In Heard County, Tonnie Adams is a one-man operation with 8,000 active voters, six polling locations and an election budget just short of $100,000. Adams is gearing up for Tuesday’s primary runoff, his third election this year. It’s a Republican runoff for Congress. The county’s three elections board members will pitch in and a group of about 20 temporary poll workers is ready to step in when needed.

“We’ll be fine,” he said. “We try to budget for the worst-case scenario and then work from there.”

Adams said he didn’t request any election grants four years ago because he had the money he needed. 

Running an elections office is akin to juggling a household budget.

Adams said he recently went to the finance clerk to see if he had enough money to purchase new bags to transport equipment. She told him he could move around a few dollars from the travel and printing budget. So that’s what he did.

“Yeah, we would love to have a lot of the fancy stuff the bigger counties have,” Adams said. “But we do what we have to do. We don’t need the Cadillac. We just settle for the Yugo — or more along the lines of a Ford Escort.”

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Have questions? Contact Tammy Joyner on X @lvjoyner or at [email protected].

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