Georgia’s election performance dinged as primary nears

By Kristina Torres - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia voters saw their registration options expand last week when the state launched a new online system and mobile voter information apps. Now the question is whether it will help boost the state’s flagging performance in how it conducts its elections.

Worsening return rates from overseas ballots, increases in the number of people not voting due to disability or illness, and one of the longest wait times in the nation all marred the Peach State’s performance in the 2012 presidential election compared with just four years earlier, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Georgia had the biggest ratings decline in the nation in the latest elections performance review that Pew released nationally Tuesday. It was one of only 10 states whose scores decreased, according to the nonpartisan analysis that overall lauded most states for improving their elections work. First launched in 2010, this is the first time Pew researchers have compared similar elections over time using the same measures.

The findings put a harsh glare on a state gearing up to run a midterm primary election May 20, including contested party races for governor and several seats in Congress that have drawn national attention to Georgia and are expected to increase turnout next month at the polls.

State officials themselves acknowledged some problems and have begun making a number of changes.

“Overall, I’m not concerned,” Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp said about the findings. “I think we’re doing a lot of good things to increase participation and prevent cheating.”

The state did not rank last — it clocked in at 32nd.

“Elections are moving in the right direction and citizens can know they are just getting better,” said Zachary Markovits, the elections initiatives manager for Pew, which describes itself as a nonpartisan global research and public policy organization. And Georgia? “There is room to improve,” he said.

Among changes already in play, state officials for the first time this year moved up the primary to the earliest in state history after a federal judge ordered a longer voting window for military members and residents living overseas. The state also mails ballots overseas to anyone who requested one the year before, a practice officials believe promotes access but could hurt the state’s overall score.

In the report, the number of those ballots unreturned in 2012 had jumped more than three points to 34.5 percent.

And while the state’s 18-minute voting wait time was among the 10 longest waits in the nation for 2012, it was a marked improvement from 2008’s 38-minute slog.

A big change that could affect Georgia’s performance next time is the online registration system that went live March 31. Thirteen states offered online registration in 2012, compared with just two in 2008, and the Presidential Commission on Election Administration recommends the practice.

Both local officials and experts said the process is a win-win for voters and municipalities because it can help states avoid issues with rejected registrations, use of provisional ballots and nonvoting due to registration problems — all past problems in Georgia. Anyone wanting to register needs a valid Georgia driver’s license or state-issued identification card, which automatically syncs a voter’s information with his or her local registrar.

“It really streamlines our process,” DeKalb County Elections Director Maxine Daniels said of the new system, noting that the county in 2012 processed tens of thousands of voter registration cards in August, September and October — a time-consuming task that risked misreading applicants’ handwriting.

“There seems to be only benefits to digitizing this as much as possible,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University. “If you have to fill out a paper application, it’s incredibly inconvenient. If you go to your county board of elections, that takes effort and time. It’s a lot easier for (local officials) to demonstrate compliance.”

Among the biggest knocks on the state in the report involved tracking specific data points that help experts track performance — a finding exacerbated by timing because Pew compiled its report as the state switched its elections management system. As a result, Kemp said his office could not give researchers all the information they requested.

Additionally, although researchers did not give specific examples, many here may remember the 2012 election chaos in Fulton County that included missed deadlines, registered residents told they couldn’t vote and the casting of 9,600 provisional ballots — more than half of such ballots used across the state.

Among those who had problems were newly naturalized U.S. citizens whose registration applications were delayed or whose votes were challenged despite proof of their legal status. Helen Kim Ho, executive director of the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center of Georgia, said elections officials need to be mindful that not every eligible voter is Internet-savvy.

“Anything that increases access to voter registration is an absolute positive, but I think there is kind of a deeper processing issue,” Ho said. “These people need to be able to access their right to vote, and the real problem has been at the polls.”

The report said Georgia was one of 10 states to report less data to the federal Election Assistance Commission in 2012 than in 2008. The rate of nonvoting due to registration and absentee-ballot problems also increased, and Georgia did not at the time add online voter registration or require post-election audits (and still doesn’t).

Kemp said the state is trying to establish better communication with local election officials and work with them to improve data collection and reporting procedures.

Pew uses 17 indicators to calculate a state’s overall performance. They include voter registration rates, provisional ballots cast and rejected, military and overseas ballots rejected or unreturned, turnout rates, wait times, and data completeness.

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