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Georgia election officials breathe a sigh of relief after uneventful voting

On Wednesday in Atlanta, Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer for the Georgia secretary of state, rolls a 10-sided die as part of process to determine which batches of ballots to audit for a statewide risk limiting audit of the 2022 general election.
Ben Gray
On Wednesday in Atlanta, Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer for the Georgia secretary of state, rolls a 10-sided die as part of process to determine which batches of ballots to audit for a statewide risk limiting audit of the 2022 general election.

In the aftermath of the 2020 presidential race, elections press conferences in the Georgia State Capitol were nationally televised events, as officials defended their work and pushed back on baseless fraud claims.

But last week, only a smattering of reporters and members of the public were present to watch the beginning of a risk-limiting audit of a midterm election contest.

The audit used 10-sided Dungeons & Dragons-style dice to create a random number to kick off an algorithm instructing counties which random batches of ballots to hand-count to verify the outcome.

Besides that, it's the voting equivalent of watching paint dry.

But a mundane election process garnering little attention from voters or media is part of state officials' attempts to "make elections boring again," said Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer for the Georgia secretary of state's office.

It's been a tumultuous time to be an election worker in Georgia. Over the last few years, the state has been on the frontlines of election conspiracies and sweeping voting law changes, and a U.S. Senate runoff makes it once again a national political battleground with outsized attention. After an uneventful primary and smoothly run general election, Georgia elections officials have breathed a sigh of relief for an election cycle that lived up to the boring anti-hype.

Unlike the 2020 presidential race, no losing candidate claimed they lost due to fraud. In-person early voting records were shattered with few reported issues, Election Day turnout was light and elections officials were able to do their jobs without harassment or concerns about safety.

In a convention hall next to Atlanta's airport Thursday, dozens of election workers quickly worked through stacks of ballots pulled for Fulton County's portion of the audit, hand-counting the secretary of state's race in pairs while interim Elections Director Nadine Williams looked on with a sense of calm.

"We're getting close to the light at the end of the tunnel," she said. "We have a very strong staff and are very proud of our department, we did an awesome job. But we still know that the [December] runoff is upon us."

Fulton County is Georgia's most populous county and its most targeted, with threats and conspiracies following the 2020 election, as allies of former President Donald Trump zeroed in on several debunked claims about vote counting and election workers as purported evidence that Trump's defeat was actually a victory. Even before the chaos of the presidential election, Fulton was a frequent target of complaints about long lines, equipment issues and delayed election results. Under a sweeping 2021 voting law, the county was placed under a performance review panel and has been subject to extra monitoring in recent elections.

But Williams says workers and voters alike now have several elections under their belt with new rules and equipment, and that there is more confidence in Georgia's elections system with several issue-free cycles in a row.

"At this point now, I believe everybody is stronger because of certain things they had to learn from the processes, and I think we'll be OK for the runoff," she said. "And we're very confident that we'll have a very successful runoff and be able to finally take a breather at the end of this year."

A difficult path to 2022

Local elections officials across the country have faced many challenges in the last two years, and Georgia in particular has seen its share of struggles. In early 2020, the state implemented the largest-ever rollout of a new voting system while preparing for a high-profile presidential primary, which was ultimately twice delayed. The coronavirus pandemic led to a sharp decrease in polling places and people willing to staff them, while election offices were overwhelmed with mail-in ballots.

That year's presidential race in Georgia was counted three separate times in as many weeks, and lies about the outcome and voting process led to threats, harassment and a sweeping election law change that altered many aspects of how officials do their jobs.

But this election saw none of that, offering some signs of hope for those who run elections.

Under the new state law SB 202, counties were allowed to process absentee ballots earlier and required to count them quicker.

Heavily Democratic Fulton County was one of the earliest counties to upload early voting results, so the "red mirage" of early Republican advantage that has led some to claim fraud was not present this election, and when wide margins emerged in statewide races, losing candidates conceded.

People wait in line to vote on Election Day in Atlanta.
Brynn Anderson / AP
People wait in line to vote on Election Day in Atlanta.

Ameika Pitts, elections director in suburban Henry County, said after finishing her audit on Thursday it was a "calm between the storms" before diving into preparations for the Dec. 6 runoff, but that this year felt different in a good way.

"It's like a breath of fresh air, it's like an exhale," she said. "Me being in elections as long as I have, the last two years did feel kind of uncomfortable — and now it's kind of feeling like I used to come in from the general going into the runoff, so actually feeling like how it used to be."

And it used to be very uneventful, Pitts said, but in a good way: where voters approached her with questions about registration issues and candidates on the ballot instead of mistrust and accusations of fraud; where candidates who lose move on, instead of attacking the system; and where she felt safe doing her job.

"And not always feel like you're watching your back, or having to always be on the defense when you know what you know," Pitts said.

While poll workers are less on edge, it's not over yet. Once the state certifies the Nov. 8 election as early as Monday, counties move full speed ahead with preparing for the Dec. 6 runoff, mailing out absentee ballots, conducting pre-election equipment testing and gearing up for an abridged in-person early voting period.

A return to pre-2020 election normalcy in Georgia also means lawsuits, though their focus once again returns to ballot access issues instead of conspiracies and nebulous claims of fraud.

Ahead of the contest that will decide Georgia's U.S. senator for the next six years, a judge on Friday said Georgia law allows counties to offer in-person early voting on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, contradicting guidance from the secretary of state.

Overall, election workers in Georgia are feeling good — for now — about how things are going with voting, and look forward to wrapping up a long election season.

Williams, the Fulton County elections director, said she was going to "hibernate" once the runoff is complete, while Pitts in Henry County is looking forward to a few weeks' respite before moving her staff into a new building in early January, showing that even after the final votes have been counted in the runoff, there's always more work to do and the next election to prepare for.

Copyright 2022 Georgia Public Broadcasting

Stephen Fowler
Stephen Fowler is a political reporter with NPR's Washington Desk and will be covering the 2024 election based in the South. Before joining NPR, he spent more than seven years at Georgia Public Broadcasting as its political reporter and host of the Battleground: Ballot Box podcast, which covered voting rights and legal fallout from the 2020 presidential election, the evolution of the Republican Party and other changes driving Georgia's growing prominence in American politics. His reporting has appeared everywhere from the Center for Public Integrity and the Columbia Journalism Review to the PBS NewsHour and ProPublica.