Contrary to popular misconception, inmates do indeed have a constitutional right to vote — that is, as long as they have no prior felony convictions and are either being held in pretrial detention or jailed for a misdemeanor offense.
But as Bartow County Elections Supervisor Joseph Kirk noted at Monday’s Active Bartow County Democrats’ meeting at the Cartersville Civic Center, getting that information out to the public isn’t easy — especially when it comes to reaching eligible voters inside the Bartow County Detention Center.
“I’m not sure how to get in there and tell them,” he said. “But in the past, when folks vote in the jail … somebody was there to help them through that process.”
Dr. Randy Ford, the chairman of Bartow County’s Democratic Party, said he has some questions as to whether officials “on the inside” are relaying that message to inmates.
“I’ve already received information back that there had been mixed messages sent to the inmates and to the family members,” he said.
But one of the lesser publicized provisions of House Bill 316 — the sweeping piece of legislation, signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp last month, which would upgrade Georgia’s voting equipment statewide — is designed to make it easier for eligible, detained voters to cast their ballots.
“We can now mail ballots directly to county jails,” said Bartow County Assistant Elections Supervisor Cheryl Billard. “Previously, we had a system worked out with the sheriff’s office that was imperfect and kind of a pain … it’s important that the people who have not been convicted or are there for misdemeanors don’t have their rights taken away.”
As Billard noted, however, HB 316 doesn’t exactly put additional legal pressure on agencies that operate detention centers to inform inmates of those rights.
“The law itself," she said, "doesn’t make any requirement for that knowledge to be disseminated in any specific way."
Kirk said the local elections board plans on reaching out to as many community groups and organizations as possible to spread the word about a multitude of voting and registration changes put into effect by HB 316.
“There were several federal injunctions last year as part of the gubernatorial election, and for the most part, most of those injunctions were rolled into HB 316 to become a part of standing election code,” Billard said.
One such change regards the ability of individuals younger than 18 to request absentee ballots.
“We do allow for registration at 17.5,” she said. “They can request an absentee ballot at any point in that process, because it will be counted on Election Day when they will be 18. Kids who went off to college, they’ll be able to request their absentee ballot even if their birthday falls in the middle of the advanced voting period.”
HB 316 also changes rules regarding family members and roommates turning in absentee ballots on behalf of voters. Previously, that was an accommodation reserved only for disabled Georgians. Now it’s one afforded to all voters in the state.
“There will be an affidavit they will swear and sign and say ‘I’m this person’s mother, so I’m turning in their ballot,’ that will be taken care of,” Billard said. “That extension has also been given to caregivers who do not live with a disabled voter, if they have someone who comes and offers in-home care who is not a permanent, in-house resident.”
She also noted that HB 316 makes voter assistance rules previously applicable to just federal elections now applicable to both state- and local-level elections. Employers and union representatives are still barred from “assisting” voters at the polls, but under Georgia’s new law practically everybody else has the ability to assist others vote.
“Anybody can help anybody else,” she said. “If you’ve got a friend who needs assistance, you can now do that and you don’t have to have [familial] relations.”
Then there’s the policy on “signature mismatches” on absentee ballots.
“If there is a question about the signature on an absentee ballot application or the absentee ballot itself, we’ll just request an affidavit to make sure that voter really did request that ballot,” she said. “There’s no rejection, nothing like that, and they will have until Election Day in the case of an application and they will have until the certification period, two weeks after the election, to get that into us if there’s a question about the ballot.”
The way Billard sees it, if a voter simply provides proof of an identification card, that’s good enough for her.
“If somebody mails in an ID and there’s a mismatch at Social Security or Driver Services for some reason, I would always make that person active, anyway,” she said. “My thought is 'if I exist as a person, then you’re going to vote' … if I’m going to get in trouble for fiddling things in the law, I’m always going to side with counting the vote than not counting the vote.”
About 90% of the signature mismatches local election officials encounter, she said, are indeed legitimate mismatches — “because parents were trying to be real helpful and help out their kids.”
Under HB 316, Georgia joined the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, a consortium which compares voting registration data across state lines.
The intent of the program, Billard said, is to prevent individuals from registering to vote in multiple states — which, unlike actually voting in multiple states, isn’t technically illegal.
“It doesn’t automatically delete them or anything like that, it just gives us the notice to stop that person from potentially being registered in two places, both for their legal protection as well as the legal protection of the elections,” she said.
Another big change under HB 316, she said, was an extension of the State’s “inactivity cycle” for voters. That’s been extended from three years to five years, which means Georgia voters wouldn’t be removed from rolls until at least nine years of inactivity.
“And they will be sent a final notice between 30-90 days from when they will be removed from the rolls, so that they will have a final chance to respond,” Billard said.
Of course, there were questions about the new voting machines, which Bartow County will receive as part of a pilot program this fall.
“When you get your piece of paper, just like you got your old card, you put it in the machine,” Kirk said. “As you go through, you can change your mind as many times as you want to without telling anybody that you did, right up until the point you touch ‘print ballot.’”
From there, local voters will have one more opportunity to review their selections in hard copy before placing their paper ballot into a scanner to be officially tabulated.
Whether that paper ballot will have barcodes or some other scannable mechanism, Kirk said, hinges on which voting system the State ultimately opts for. Regardless, the paper copies will be maintained as official election records in the case of a recount.
“If it was just a barcode and nothing else was on there, that’s a problem,” he said. “But as long as you see what you want to vote for and you can say ‘Hey, this isn’t what I wanted,’ I think that’s OK.”
He also noted that the deadline for certifying elections has been expanded by one week. Kirk said that gives election officials more time to “audit the results in a statically significant way to be determined by the State, to make sure what the machines counted is what people verified.”
Another major component of HB 316, he said, regards protocols for the changing of polling places.
“Those cannot be made now within 60 days of an election, for a regularly scheduled election, or within 30 days of a special election,” he said. “We try to avoid those changes anyway, except in the case of an emergency. If the building burns down, obviously we can’t have an election there … but now that should back up that process statewide, to give public input, to let people have a say in what’s going on and make that as transparent as possible."
Kirk said he’s expecting record numbers for 2020’s presidential election — so much so that there’s already contemplation of keeping the Cartersville Civic Center open for three weeks ahead of Election Day in order to meet anticipated turnout numbers.
Billard said the county has no doubt experienced a massive spike in voter registration over the last three years. She credits that substantial increase to an August 2016 policy shift at the Department of Driver Services, which changed from asking eligible voters to opt-in to register to vote to whether or not they wanted to opt-out of registering to vote.
“Now we have 50 to 60 more applications a day,” she said. “We actually have people who call and think that some kind of identity theft happened because they got a precinct card in the mail and they’re panicking because they don’t remember registering to vote.”