Georgia county wrongly told voters registration was closed

Nearly four days after a judge extended the voter registration deadline for next month’s congressional runoff in Georgia, none of the three counties involved had clearly told voters about the change. One county, Cobb, inaccurately indicated registration was closed.

That outright error was fixed Monday morning after inquiries from The Daily Democracy. But even now, Cobb says it isn’t planning proactive efforts to let voters know they can still register.

The lackadaisical approach from local election officials isn’t evidence of a deliberate voter suppression scheme, but rather a more systemic problem: that despite their best efforts, local election offices often aren’t equipped to ensure voting is accessible and voters know the rules.

On Thursday afternoon, a federal judge ordered that Georgia extend the voter registration deadline to May 21 for the closely watched June 20 race. Federal voting law bars a registration cutoff of more than 30 days before an election.

Georgia had argued that the runoff election was merely an extension of the first round of voting, which took place April 18, so the same March 20 cutoff date could apply to both contests — an argument U.S. Judge Timothy Batten rejected.

By Friday, the website for Georgia’s Secretary of State, the state’s top elections official, prominently informed voters of the change, as it still does. But two of the three local elections offices administering the Atlanta-area race didn’t appear nearly as on the ball. Local elections offices are where many voters seek information about how to register and vote.

As of 10am Monday, nearly four full days after the judge’s order, Cobb County’s website inaccurately listed the old registration deadline of March 20. After The Daily Democracy brought the issue to the attention of Janine Eveler, the county’s elections director, she responded via email:

“Thanks for pointing that out. We will get it changed.”

Minutes later, Cobb’s elections site was updated to give the correct deadline.

But that information isn’t visible to users of the site unless they scroll far down to a list of upcoming election and registration dates. Asked whether Cobb planned to do anything more prominent to tell voters about the extension, either on the site or perhaps via social media, Eveler responded:

“We have no plans for that at this time.”

Cobb County also came under fire for limiting early voting locations in the first round of the runoff.

A second county involved in the race, Fulton, on Monday morning made no mention at all of the change, or of any registration deadline.

Contacted by The Daily Democracy, a county spokesman said the lack of any mention of the extension was an oversight caused by staff absences.

Hours later, the county issued the following statement:

Fulton County Registration and Elections are aware of the court’s ruling and will coordinate with the Secretary of State’s office to disseminate information to the public to determine the necessary changes to the registration deadline for the 6th Congressional Special runoff election.

By Monday afternoon, Fulton County had updated its elections site, informing voters of the “new deadline” for voter registration of May 21.

The third county that’s playing host to the race, DeKalb, had updated its site by Friday, accurately informing voters near the top of its elections page about the new deadline. But the site didn’t explain that the deadline had been extended, which might help dispel confusion. And as of Monday, DeKalb hadn’t yet begun reaching out to voters to tell them about the change, though it says it plans to do so.

“We are planning to issue a news release, and do a social media campaign, in addition to promoting it on the county government’s homepage,” Andrew Cauthen, a spokesman for DeKalb, told The Daily Democracy.

Voter interest in the congressional race, the most expensive House race in U.S. history, appears to be high. A win for Democrat Jon Ossoff in the traditionally Republican-leaning district would deal a major blow to President Donald Trump. Conversely, should Republican Karen Handel prevail, it could be an indication of the limits of the burgeoning anti-Trump movement.

But Cobb’s outright lack of communication about the new deadline, and the delays in Fulton and DeKalb’s efforts, underscore how many county elections offices —even larger ones — struggle to carry out the vital role that they play in our system.

County elections offices are the on-the-ground administrator of elections and point of contact for voters. They’re where many people turn to figure out how to register, where their polling place is, or how to vote early or absentee — tasks that aren’t straightforward for everyone.

But these offices often are under-resourced, and are staffed by only a handful of people, who aren’t always trained in the most up-to-date election administration tools. Every election, significant numbers of voters are disenfranchised or deterred from the polls by administrative problems like malfunctioning voting machines, long lines, changes to polling locations, inadequate public communication, and more. (In Durham County, North Carolina, to take one example from many, problems with electronic poll books caused delays of more than an hour in some voting locations during last November’s election.) That’s leaving aside that many local election directors, like secretaries of state, are elected as Republicans or Democrats, inevitably complicating the mix of incentives involved in the conduct of their duties, regardless of their personal integrity.

Among the key recommendations of a 2014 bipartisan presidential report on election problems was that professional standards for election administrators be improved.

Perhaps only a small number of additional Georgians might register for the upcoming Congressional race were there a truly robust effort by the counties to publicize the new deadline. But it’s clear the episode is the latest example of a far deeper problem in the way America runs elections.

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