Advance voting draws more than 1,000 in-person voters, as mail-in ballots received tops 7,000

Absentee ballot processing begins this week in Bartow

Posted 12/31/69

Bartow County Elections Supervisor Joseph Kirk confirmed that mail-in ballots received by his office will begin being counted this week. “Normally, we wait until Election Day to start …

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Advance voting draws more than 1,000 in-person voters, as mail-in ballots received tops 7,000

Absentee ballot processing begins this week in Bartow

Bartow County Elections Supervisor Joseph Kirk confirmed that mail-in ballots received by his office will begin being counted this week. 

“Normally, we wait until Election Day to start processing those ballots,” he said at Friday’s Bartow County Board of Elections and Voter Registration meeting. “The State election board passed a rule that will allow us to start counting those ballots starting next Tuesday.”

Kirk said two full days of ballot counting are scheduled for at least Tuesday and Wednesday at the Bartow County Annex Building off West Cherokee Avenue. He said the ballot counting process will take place under heavy video surveillance.

“I have access to those cameras now so I can keep an eye on what’s going on, and we’ll put our own security system in there as well, so we’re notified if anything goes wrong,” he said. “And we’ll keep the area locked down while we’re using it.”

Although elections officials will be opening and processing the absentee ballots, they are still prohibited from actually reporting any results until Election Night on June 9. 

“Any employees participating with that, any people likely to observe, will take an oath that says that they will not disclose anything they see in that room publicly,” he said. 

Kirk noted that employees will be sequestered during the ballot processing. 

“The only issue with this is keeping track of all of our numbers and making sure everything reconciles,” he said. “Because when you’re opening up absentee ballots and counting them, you’ve got to keep your numbers straight to make sure that nothing is going wrong — it’s a very meticulous process.”

While the ballots will be scanned, Kirk said the County’s scanning equipment is separate from the equipment that reports results.

“So even we can’t see what they are,” he said. “The actual vote tally will be done by the software.” 

Other changes to mail-in voting also occurred last week. Kirk said Thursday was the last day the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office sent out absentee ballots on the County’s behalf; all subsequent mail-in ballots will now be sent directly from the County’s elections office.

“That will put more work on us, but it will allow them to receive their ballots a lot faster,” he said.

How the local elections office handles signature issues also changed Saturday. Instead of notifying individuals of potential “mismatches” within three days, such notification is now required to take place within one business day. 

“That’s already common practice for us, we get to those phone calls and emails as fast as we can,” Kirk said.

So far, Kirk said his office has received a little over 7,600 mail-in ballots back. 

“We have issued around 14,500 ballots through the mail, so we’ll probably top 15,000 before going into next week,” he said. 

As of Friday, he said about 289 ballots had been placed on provisional status due to signature issues. 

“A lot has already been cured,” he said. “To only have just shy of 300 of those issues after issuing over 14,000 ballots, I think is pretty good — and most of those issues were from a family member signing for the person or them just forgetting to sign altogether.”

As for the five mail-in ballot drop boxes stationed throughout the County recently, Kirk said the early numbers aren’t exactly as high as he hoped. 

“But we’re getting there,” he said. “Folks are starting to take advantage of them, and I think it’s a great service for us to offer the community.”

Board member Janet Queen said she’s also pleased with the drop boxes.

“Granted, I wish we had more people using them, but this week, the numbers have really started to pick up,” she said. 

Kirk said that, by the end of Friday, more than 1,000 people had visited the elections headquarters building at 1300 Joe Frank Harris Parkway to vote in-person. The facility is the only advance voting place open in Bartow County due to COVID-19 concerns. 

“They’re coming steadily throughout the day, actually, rather than in big rushes,” he said. “So far, I’ve heard of the longest wait being about 45 minutes to get all the way through the process.”

He said he expects that waiting time to increase heading into the final week of advance voting.

“We’re still encouraging folks to vote through the mail,” he said. “We’re seeing about just over 100 people coming to the office each day to vote in-person right now.”

As of April, Kirk said the office had used up about a quarter of its annual budget. 

“Which is right where we need to be right now,” he said. “We’re trying to hold spending the best we can, and of course, there’s been a lot of unexpected expenses lately, but we should be getting reimbursed for a lot of those from some grants from the Secretary of State’s Office.”

He said he anticipates the local office receiving about $15,000 back from the State for miscellaneous expenses, including expenditures on personal protective equipment.

In terms of Election Day staffing, Kirk said he’s down more employees than he hoped for. 

“We’re about 40 people away from our ideal staffing numbers,” he said. “But that’s not as bad as it sounds.”

That shortage isn’t just due to coronavirus concerns. Keeping in mind that Georgia's primary elections were originally slated for March, Kirk said many poll workers are on vacation, taking summer classes or have even accepted new jobs. 

Some new hires, he said, were recently brought onboard, with virtual training programs helping expedite the process.

“So we still have time to make this work,” he said. “But frankly, there’s some polls that have plenty of people, and we can probably get one or two up to somebody else who’s down one or two.”

He said the office does have additional plans to address the employee shortage.

“The other thing we’re looking at, too, is approaching other agencies and other departments — maybe those students who applied to work with us earlier — to hire them as a poll worker, but not a full poll worker,” he said. “The people who are going to be there sanitizing things and enforcing social distancing and instructing people — they’re not going to touch the equipment and work with that.”

As of Friday, Kirk said that every polling place in Bartow County is scheduled to be open on Election Day. That includes the Cartersville Civic Center, which just a few weeks ago, seemed like it was going to be a holdout.

“Without speaking for them, I would assume if we can use it for June and the runoff, then as long as things don’t get worse again, we’re good to go for November,” he said. “But we’ll be reaching out to them after this election to confirm it.”

Just days away from Election Day, Kirk said he’s still not quite sure what to expect in terms of June 9’s in-person voting volumes.

“I’m really, really hoping that our turnout on Election Day is fairly light,” he said, “to allow us to do the social distancing, to allow us to do what we’ve got to do without too much of a delay.”