June 20, 2020 – The Chatham County Board of Elections held a Special Called public meeting Friday evening, held virtually, to certify both the June 9 Presidential Primary and the June 9 General Election results. All members of the Board of Elections, chaired by Atty. Thomas J. Mahoney III, were in attendance.
The March 24, 2020 Georgia 2020 Presidential Primary was postponed to the May 19 General Election, and then both were moved to June 9 by the Georgia Secretary of State due to COVID-19 social distancing and health concerns. The combined and altered election dates added to confusion in reporting election results because there had initially been votes accepted in early voting for the March primary, according to Chatham County Elections Supervisor Russell Bridges. The county software was unable to merge the results.
In total, 61,384 votes were cast out of 197,571 active, registered voters, a 31.07% turnout, according to Bridges. In the March early voting, which he refers to as the “Version 1” election results, 9,591 people had already voted in the March 24 Presidential Primary. The balance of the votes cast were on a "Version 2" report. Those votes cast prior to the March 24 election - and it being postponed - were not duplicated on June 9, Russell assured the Board. If an individual showed up to vote, or voted using an absentee ballot mailed to them, the election system culled out any duplicates – all records were merged, he explained.
The Board of Elections vote to certify the election last night was 3 to 1, with member Debbie Rauers voting “No.” In an interview following the vote, Ms. Rauers, who is a Republican, stated that she had serious concerns about what she had observed in both the processes followed, and the lack of supervision during certain periods in counting the large quantify of absentee ballots over a three-week time period, going back to June 1. She also felt that a number of Black election workers, specifically absentee clerks, were “marginalized” by people put in charge of the counting and scanning process. She states that there were periods of time last weekend when Bridges was not in attendance during counting and scanning.
A group of absentee works held a small rally and spoke on the issues last night, prior to the 6 p.m. meeting of the Board of Elections. Ms. Rauers states that she attended that gathering, listened to what the speakers had to say, and was in agreement with their statements based on what she had observed.
August 11 Runoffs ... or a Recount?
There will be four local run-offs in Chatham County on August 11 due to no candidate receiving at least 50% of the votes cast in their races: in the District 163 Democratic Primary for that State House Seat, in the District 2 and District 5 Democratic Primaries for County Commission, and in the Democratic Primary for County Coroner.
In the District 163 State House race, Democrat Anne Allen Westbrook came in first with 2,943 votes of the 8,057 cast, for 36.58%. She will face Derek J. Mallow who received 2,139 votes for 26.54% of the total. Also in the race were Mac Sims who received 1,409; Marc Smith received 498 votes; and Matthew J. Swanson received 1069.
The District 2 Democratic Primary race for County Commission was very tight, with Clinton Edminster coming in first, but garnering only 36.68%, or 2099 votes. In a surprise finish, Tony B. Riley came in eight votes ahead of Michael J. Hamilton, Sr., making the run-off with Edminster. Riley had 1,186 votes to Hamilton's 1,808 votes, though he had led for the past 10 days in the numbers being posted by the County. Hamilton has the right to ask for a recount. Attempts to reach him to see if he intends to pursue that avenue were unsuccessful.
Overall, Riley received a large percentage of the total absentee ballots cast. In an interview Saturday, after the final results were released, he said that he had done a lot of door-to-door canvassing, and had asked those he talked with if they had received their mailed ballot, urging them to please consider voting for him. “I really focused on the absentees!” he laughed.
Regarding his opponent, Riley said, “Michael Hamilton is a good man, and a neighbor." He said he had not spoken to him yet to ask for his endorsement in the run-off.
In the District 5 race, Tanya Milton will face incumbent Tabitha Odell. Milton came in first in a five person race, with Yusef Shabazz coming in third. Candidate Angela Washington states that she will not be endorsing.
In the Democratic Coroner's race, David Campbell will face J. Vernard Flowers in the run-off. Campbell came in first with 12,895 votes out of 35,350 cast. Flowers had 10,295.
During the Friday night Board of Elections meeting, Chairman Tom Mahoney thanked the staff and election workers “for their hard work and grit, and their work to follow state laws," and stated that the turnout was twice the number that normally vote in a primary. However, he was comparing the June 9 vote levels which would normally have been held in May, to the May 2016 school board and judges race, versus comparing the vote to the March 2016 Presidential Primary election, which would be a more accurate comparison.
In the March 2016 Presidential Primary election in Chatham County, there were 58,217 votes cast from a total of 184,000 registered voters, for an approximate 31.64% rate of turnout. Therefore, the turnout was almost equal on June 9 this year.
It took the Board of Registrars and the Board of Elections ten days to complete the review of 31,284 absentee ballots that were cast, or 51% of the total votes, a far higher percentage than either department has ever faced handling in past elections. Both the Secretary of State and the Board of Elections had urged voters to vote by absentee ballot due to concerns that voters would not want to vote in person due to COVID-19. And, back on May 18, the SOS empowered county Boards of Elections to start counting absentees early. Normally, paper ballots can not be counted until the polls close on election night. Chatham County started processing and counting on June 1, but poll watchers state that very few ballots actually got processed prior to election day on June 9.
In all, 24,597 people voted on Election Day; 5,503 people voted early prior to June 9 in person; 9,591 voted early prior to the March 24 original date for the Presidential Primary; and 31,200 voted by absent ballot, overall.
The Board took a quick recess Friday night, during which the Board members have an opportunity to review the email sent by Elections Supervisor Russell Bridges just prior to the meeting with all of his numbers and calculations. It was the first time they had seem the information they were being asked to certify to the Secretary of State. Board members were given three documents - the June General Election Certification, the March Presidential Primary Election Certification and the June Summary.
Board of Registrars Reports
Of note, at the March 25, 2020 monthly meeting of the Chatham County Board of Registrars, the minutes show that German stated that there are presently 202,496 active, 12,507 inactive and 319 pending voters in Chatham County. The number of active voters declined to 197,571 by June 9. At the April 22, 2020 meeting, Ms. German presented the current voter totals of 203,232 active, 12,453 inactive and 286 pending voters. The minutes of the May meeting have not been posted.
Due to the Secretary of State’s issuance of absentee ballot request to all active voters, a much higher volume of absentee requests are expected, the minutes state. A proposal was developed and presented to the Chatham County Commissioners to approve extra funding for temporary staff to work at the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum to deal with the increased requests, which was approved, confirming that local election officials were well aware of the mass of absentee ballots that were expected.
Ms. Rauers states that she does not feel that the Board of Elections was as prepared for its role in election planning and training, and she remains concerned about the planning underway for the November election. The record of the Board of Elections meetings this past Spring show that she expressed her concerns a number of times.