Election monitors nervously practice for the ‘big dance in November’

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By Matt Vasilogambros, Stateline.org

MARIETTA, Ga. — Just after 3 p.m. on the third Tuesday of May, Lamont Hart began his shift outside a suburban precinct as a scorching Georgia sun reflected heat off the white-bricked Worship with Wonders Church.

Tall, thin, wearing a backward flat cap and holding a notebook, Hart introduced himself to exiting voters and asked whether they’d had any issues casting their ballots.

“Went smooth,” he heard. “All good.” “Easy-peasy.”

Not everything would go perfectly, though, during Hart’s four-hour stint volunteering with the New Georgia Project. His job was to circulate among a handful of precincts, some 20 miles outside Atlanta, to check on voter access. Did folks understand their ballots? Could they even get to the right place to vote?

Georgia is one of the battleground states that will determine who is elected president in November. Since losing the 2020 election, Republican former President Donald Trump has made false claims of widespread voter fraud, and he has been charged in Georgia with felony conspiracy for urging state leaders to “find” the nearly 12,000 votes he needed to overtake Democrat Joe Biden in the state.

New voting ID laws, mail disruptions that could delay absentee ballots, confusion about redistricting — any one of them could sway a close election. Voter access groups around the country are working to ensure that on Nov. 5, every person who wants to have a say will be able to.

If the upcoming presidential election is like the championship game, consider last month’s primary in Georgia the scrimmage.

‘Our trial run’

Early on Tuesday morning, May 21, on the first floor of an Atlanta office building surrounded by highway overpasses, activists with the New Georgia Project buzzed in and out of a conference room stocked with a breakfast platter of pastries, fruit and coffee, and a cooler full of enough Cokes and peach iced teas to caffeinate the civic engagement group for the next 10 hours.

Georgians were making choices in a general primary with few contested races, so not many people were expected to turn out. It was relatively calm out there, a perfect day to test the system.

At 9 a.m., two hours after polls opened, CEO Kendra Davenport Cotton rallied nine of her cohort in the conference room and 30 others across the state on a Zoom call displayed on a large screen.

Their mission, Cotton told everyone, was to monitor the election statewide.

Stephanie Jackson Ali, policy director for the New Georgia Project, handles one of several issues that arose while managing their voter protection operation. (Matt Vasilogambros/Stateline/TNS)

They would field calls from confused voters, arrange rides to get older folks to the polls and observe voting locations for any disruptions. Earlier that morning, Cotton had been to a polling place in Cobb County, just northwest of Atlanta, to see whether a gas leak near a church had been fixed.

“We consider the May primary to be our trial run for the big dance in November,” Cotton told her statewide squad, standing at the head of the conference table.

Along with other groups, the New Georgia Project has been trying to engage communities of color and LGBTQ+, rural and young voters through door-to-door and issue-based organizing. Since 2020, the group has registered more than 150,000 new voters, many of whom are Black and under the age of 25.

Stateline shadowed local political parties and activist organizations in the final days of the primary last month, watching them as they trained poll watchers, scoured precincts and eyed ballot counting.

“We’re training staff to go through the motions, so they’re ready for the next election,” said Cecilia Ugarte Baldwin, the voter protection director for the Georgia Democratic Party, three days before the primary.

On Friday, the final day of early voting, she and her team of volunteer election lawyers fielded hotline calls from voters and poll watchers. With every conversation, they updated an internal spreadsheet tracking the concerns, from confusion about polling place changes to questions on how the ballot scanners worked.

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“If it went through the scanner, it’s been counted,” one lawyer was saying into his phone. A poll monitor at Buckhead Library in Atlanta was on the other end, questioning the process for feeding a two-sided ballot into the machine.

The lawyer was reassuring. “It’s not unusual to have the ballot run through twice.”

By November, Democrats may have as many as 2,000 voter protection volunteers in the Peach State — potentially the largest voter protection operation in the country, they say.

“It’s a lot of collaboration,” Ugarte Baldwin said. “If there’s a sticky situation, we talk it through.”

The same goes for conservative groups such as Voters Organized for Trusted Election Results in Georgia, commonly called VoterGA. The group has questioned the legitimacy of Biden’s win in 2020 and over the past three years has challenged the registrations of thousands of voters.

Co-founder Garland Favorito, who regularly speaks about “election integrity” to conservative organizations, declined an interview with Stateline. But in an emailed statement he said his organization had conducted poll worker and poll watcher training ahead of May’s primary to “ensure safe, secure and honest elections.”

‘On Election Day, this is unacceptable’

Back at the New Georgia Project, the morning Primary Day pep talk had yet to wrap up before the team started troubleshooting the day’s first test: While arranging rides for two Atlanta-area voters, staff discovered that their voter registrations were being challenged.

Since Georgia Republicans enacted a 2021 law that allowed residents to make unlimited challenges to voter registrations, right-wing activists, often using limited evidence or outdated voter lists, have questioned the eligibility of thousands of Georgians.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp last month signed into law an update to the policy, making the challenge process even easier — to the chagrin both of voting rights groups and of many county officials who say they are bogged down by frivolous objections.

In the end, the two people were able to vote without issue. Under state law, the challenges had come too recently to stick. Volunteers called election board members in each voter’s county — DeKalb and Fulton — to alert them to the cases.

“This is going to be a really good example for us to use,” said Stephanie Jackson Ali, the New Georgia Project’s policy director and conductor of the day’s operation. “They’re good test cases to see what happens.”

Three rooms down, Miko Dougherty held her cellphone in one hand and typed with the other, talking to voters who needed to schedule free Lyft rides to the polls.

Miko Dougherty, center top, examines the registration status of a voter that requested a ride to the polls during last month’s primary. (Matt Vasilogambros/Stateline/TNS)

Some needed Lyft because their absentee ballots had arrived too late for them to mail back, and they didn’t have a way to get to their polling place. Nationwide, restructuring at the U.S. Postal Service has led to massive mail delays in recent months. In Georgia, ballots must arrive by 7 p.m. on the night of the election to be counted.

It was 1:15 p.m., and Dougherty was talking with a voter when Georgia’s My Voter Page website crashed, showing only an error page. Dougherty suddenly couldn’t match the voter to their polling place.

She hustled over to Ali.

“On Election Day, this is unacceptable,” Ali responded, rubbing her forehead. She dialed another voting rights group to see whether someone could find the location on their downloaded voter registration list.

“We can’t leave these folks hanging while they get this fixed,” Ali said.

After nearly an hour, the site was back up. Gabriel Sterling, the chief operating officer for the Georgia secretary of state, held a news conference and told reporters that the downed site was “a hiccup.”

More people were using it than the state anticipated, Sterling said. “It’s a good lesson learned for the future when we have a big election in November.”

Ali agreed.

“You need to set aside $250 to buy the voter file for November,” she said to a staffer, watching Sterling’s press conference on her laptop and opening her second can of lime-flavored CBD soda of the day. “Let’s put it on the list.”

Watching the vote

As Hart, the polling place volunteer, arrived at Trinity Fellowship Church for his next precinct visit of the day, he recognized two voters who had been at a previous voting place. The couple had gone to their normal polling place, they told him, but found out it was no longer their precinct.

Georgia has shuffled its districts twice in the past four years. Last-minute court challenges changed congressional, county and state district boundaries and the polling places for some voters, too.

Hart went inside to the church’s gymnasium and asked poll manager LeDeadra Long whether there had been any other issues. A voter whose native language was Mandarin and who had limited English comprehension had a difficult time understanding the ballot, Long said. The voter had left without casting her ballot.

“We may need to print our ballots out to have an extra option for those who don’t speak English,” Long told Hart.

He ducked out of the church gym, sat on carpeted steps outside the sanctuary and typed a note on his phone for the voter protection team in Atlanta.

Later, driving past strip malls and woods on the way to the Cobb County Senior Wellness Center, his third precinct of the day, Hart described this work as “a duty.”

In his last conversation with his mother before she passed away in 2020, she gave him her absentee ballot and asked him to return it for her. She died 15 minutes after he left the hospital.

“I think this is what she would have wanted me to do,” Hart said, his voice shaking. “Her and my grandparents, they’d kill me if I didn’t vote. And I pass that onto my children too.”

As the air cooled in the waning day, Hart stood near the senior center’s exit and asked voter Paula Evwaraye whether she’d had any issues. She was concerned about the lack of signage outside the polling place, covered by trees along a busy thoroughfare.

“Driving by you wouldn’t know it’s a voting location,” she told him. “They definitely need to fix that before November.”

Hart took pictures on his phone of the “Vote Here” signs that were obscured by trees. They would go into his report.

“It’s going pretty good,” he said. “I expected a lot more issues. November is the one you really have to be ready for. This is just the warm-up act.”

Four miles down the road at the Cobb County elections office in Marietta, workers prepared to count the ballots as polls closed at 7 p.m. Three Republican Party poll monitors stood outside the counting room. One GOP watcher snagged a chair and brought a book, ready for a long night.

A Republican monitor overlooks the opening of absentee ballot envelopes at the Cobb County elections office in Marietta, Georgia, on the Monday before the May primary. (Matt Vasilogambros/Stateline/TNS)

Andy Kingery, another watcher, from Kennesaw, is one of the 100,000 poll watchers Trump wants to recruit ahead of November. They can’t be in the tabulation room, but they can look at it through glass and watch the vote count on a TV that mirrors the staff’s computer screen.

“I feel a burning need for election integrity,” Kingery said. “Sitting on my couch in 2020, I said, ‘What can I do?’ It was important for me to do something.”

He said there were too many questions that he couldn’t answer during the last presidential election; he figured that if he wanted to see whether there were shenanigans, he should go watch for himself.

Along with watching the count, Kingery also had been a county-certified Republican poll watcher at three voting locations. He didn’t have to report any issues, he said. It was a smooth day.

Before heading home that evening, Kingery added that it was good to get an election under his belt, getting familiar with the processes before he comes back in November. But, he said, “Boy, we could use more people to volunteer with us.”

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization focused on state policy.

©2024 States Newsroom. Visit at stateline.org. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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