With the Georgia General Assembly’s passage of the Election Integrity Act of 2021, otherwise known as SB202, the application of absentee ballot drop boxes looks significantly different in the first statewide elections since the January 5, 2021 federal runoff and special election for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats.
The use of drop boxes in the November 2020 presidential and January 2021 elections were enabled by an emergency rule promulgated by the State Election Board in June of 2020. During the November 2020 election, more than 300 absentee ballot drop boxes were deployed throughout the state, funded with $45 million in “Zuckerbucks” that flowed through the Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL) into Georgia, according to analysis conducted by Capital Research Center.
The General Assembly made a number of changes to Georgia’s code relative to the state’s election system to address a significant lack of confidence in Georgia election systems, with many electors being concerned about allegations of rampant voter fraud. A declaration in SB202 states that the changes reflect the General Assembly’s considered judgment to make it “easy to vote and hard to cheat,” by applying lessons learned from the 2020 election.
A completely new section was added to Georgia code 21-2-382 to address absentee ballot drop boxes, such that the Secretary of State only links to the code in the Rules and Regulations and offers no additional guidance under Rule 183-1-14-.08 regarding Additional Sites as Additional Registrar’s Offices or Places of Registration for Absentee Ballots.
Georgia code now stipulates limits on the number of absentee ballot drop boxes that can be deployed in a county.
In addition to the one drop box that must be established by the county board of registrars or absentee ballot clerk, counties are limited to the lesser of one additional drop box per 100,000 active registered voters in the county or the number of advance early voting locations in the county. (emphasis added)
Seventeen of Georgia’s 159 counties have more than 100,000 registered voters, according to the Secretary of State’s website, but only four have more than 200,000 voters, qualifying them for more than a total of 2 absentee ballot drop boxes.
For the May 2-20 advance voting period leading up to the May 24 statewide primary, Fulton County, with its 751,192 registered voters, has 7 drop boxes; Gwinnett County (with 569,336 registered voters), DeKalb County (509,896 registered voters), and Cobb County (510,490 registered voters) have 6 drop boxes each. In total, Georgia’s four largest counties by population and number of registered voters have a total of 25 absentee ballot drop boxes for the May 2022 election.
In comparison, Fulton County alone had 37 drop boxes in the November 2020 election, while Gwinnett had 24, DeKalb had 18, and Cobb had 16 drop box locations.
In accordance with the new provisions in state law, drop boxes must be located at the registrar’s office or inside advance voting locations, be open only during the hours of advance voting and be under constant surveillance by an election official, law enforcement official, or licensed security guard.
These requirements are a stark contrast to the lax conditions allowed by the State Election Board emergency rule, including 24-hour drop box accessibility right up to and including all of Election Day. Installed at exterior locations on publicly owned properties, drop boxes were required under the emergency rule to have 24-hour video surveillance. Some Georgia counties, however, including Fulton, may not have the video recordings required by federal law to be retained for 22 months, The Georgia Star News reported.
The collection of absentee ballots from drop boxes is now required at the conclusion of every day that advance voting takes place, which is a maximum of 19 days during the election that is currently underway. Under the emergency rule, drop boxes could be deployed as early as 49 days before an election, with absentee ballot collection required only once every 72 hours until the second Monday before Election Day, when the collection requirement increased to the current standard of daily.
The collection of absentee ballots, like the emergency rule, must be documented on a transfer form by a two-person collection team who have sworn the same oath as poll workers. Details to be included on the absentee ballot drop box transfer form include the date, time, location, number of ballots, confirmation that the drop box was locked after the removal of the ballots, and the identity of each person collecting the ballots.
While the law requires that the collection team must then “immediately transfer” the ballots to the registrar or designee, like the emergency rule, the requirement is not further defined. In November 2020, the lack of defining “immediately transfer” resulted in thousands of absentee ballots being turned over from the collection team to the registrar hours and sometimes days after being retrieved from the drop boxes, breaking the chain of custody of the ballots, as reported on extensively by The Star News.
Pierce County, Washington, was recognized by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) with the “Clearie” Award in 2021 for best practices related to the chain of custody of election ballots deposited in drop boxes. Pierce County uses satellite antennas and a global network so that an elections supervisor can see the movements of the collection team displayed on a computer screen.
With the location of the drop boxes being limited to inside the registrar’s office or advanced voting locations, the security in the chain of custody of absentee ballots placed by Georgia voters into drop boxes should be greatly enhanced.
Additionally, the interior locations under the constant watch of an election or law enforcement official should eliminate the organized ballot trafficking evidenced in the recently released documentary 2000 Mules by Dinesh D’Souza about the November 2020 election. Using data compiled by election integrity group True the Vote, the film focused heavily on movements of 242 traffickers who made 5,662 trips to Georgia drop boxes between the early morning hours of 12 a.m. and 5 a.m.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Star News Network.