Gwinnett County will not send out applications for absentee-by-mail ballots to the county’s nearly 600,000 registered voters.
The Gwinnett Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 against sending out the applications. The two Democrats on the board, Commissioners Ben Ku and Marlene Fosque voted in favor of sending out the applications. The three Republicans on the commission, Chairwoman Charlotte Nash and Commissioners Jace Brooks and Tommy Hunter voted against it.
“I was a little disappointed (but) not too surprised,” Gwinnett County Board of Elections and Registration Chairman John Mangano said. “It was going to be expensive for them to do that and it wasn’t part of our original budget request for the year.”
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the elections board had made the request for absentee-by-mail ballots to be mailed out to all of Gwinnett’s registered voters, with paid postage envelopes included so the applications could be sent back.
Mangano confirmed the cost was expected to be in the neighborhood of $2 million, which is an issue Nash raised concerns about.
“Really, what a lot of people don’t understand is the logistics of it all,” Mangano said. “So, it’s not just printing an application and putting it in the mail. It’s also how much will it cost to process them all, store them all and all of those things. So, it’s kind of a collection of costs for the whole process.”
But, Commissioner Ben Ku compared the cost of sending out the application to the $70 million in bonds commissioners recently agreed to issue to fund the sprawling Rowen research park and “knowledge community” development in eastern Gwinnett.
“A critical, primary function of government is to manage and run elections in an efficient, safe and expedient way,” he said. “We just approved this Rowen development and that definitely was not cheap either, just to put this in perspective.”
Gwinnett had 576,678 active registered voters as of Aug. 1, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office. The state provides monthly updates on the number of active registers live in each county as of the first day of the month, but the Sept. 1 registered voters numbers have not yet been released.
Gwinnett Elections Supervisor Kristi Royston told commissioners on Tuesday, that her staff is currently processing 20,000 new voter registration applications.
The general election is shaping up to see a high demand for absentee-by-mail ballots. Royston told commissioners that her office had received 75,573 applications for absentee-by-mail ballots as of the end of Monday.
That include 3,200 received through the new online application portal that Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office launched Aug. 28.
“A lot of people like that convenience (of absentee-by-mail voting) so it’s become very popular,” Mangano said.
The complicating factor for Gwinnett, however, is that it is the only county in Georgia where a federal rule mandates that all elections materials be provided in multiple languages. The county and all of its cities must provide all elections materials in both English and Spanish to be compliance with the federal rule.
The online application provided on the secretary of state’s website is in English.
Some officials noted the party-line divide on the commission’s decision regarding the applications, although they stopped short of publicly accusing commissioners of playing party politics.
“The vote fell along partisan lines,” Gwinnett County Democratic Party chairwoman Bianca Keaton said. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the rationale is necessarily partisan, but what has been extremely frustrating is that all of the science has made it clear that the threat of Coronavirus, the threat of COVID-19, is very real and that people should not be leaving their homes unless they absolutely have to.”
Keaton called the commission’s decision “unfortunate,” because not all Gwinnettians have internet access and paper applications serve as a viable alternative.
Nash, who is retiring from public office at the end of this year, denied any partisanship on her part in an interview with the Daily Post after the meeting. Brooks and Hunter also chose not to seek re-election this year.
The chairwoman said her decision was based in large part on research she did about staffing in the elections division and on mandates elections staff have to follow, such as ensuring elections materials and assistance are available in Spanish for voters who need it.
“Some people are going to play it that way (treating it as a partisan decision), but my decision is based on what I think the staff has the ability to do,” Nash said. “We’ve heard them talk multiple times about (how) we know this is going to be a huge election. We’ve heard them talk multiple times about the difficulty of hiring those temporary staff and poll workers. There’s just so many things.
“We watched happened with the primary and the struggles that staff went through with that. This is going to be much more volume for November and again there are specific responsibilities that are mandated. There’s not a question of that so it felt to me like we needed focus on those mandated responsibilities.”