Atlanta, GA

Atlanta-area election directors face tight budgets with big election demands, donations ban

AtlantaCivicCircle

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The midterms are in less than two months.Photo by Elliott Stallion, Unsplash

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit two years ago, metro Atlanta’s county election offices were able to deploy tens of millions of dollars in outside donations to hire extra poll workers, pay hazard stipends, and buy extra voting equipment, such as machines to process the surge in mail-in ballots. 

For Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett Counties, which administer elections for between 200,000 to 840,000 registered voters, that was on top of ongoing budgetary demands for voting machines, recruiting and training poll workers, and providing election materials in various languages.

Cobb, for instance, received $5.6 million from the Center for Tech and Civic Life for the 2020 election cycle–almost as much as its $5.8 million annual budget. The Center for Tech and Civic Life, fueled by $328 million from Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, disbursed similarly generous grants to counties nationally, including Cobb’s metro-Atlanta neighbors, to defray added costs from COVID-19.

But a new election-reform law, SB 202 now bans this kind of outside help.  It’s a tough blow for the state’s 159 county election offices, as they grapple with new laws–along with leadership changes, worker defections, and the ongoing specter of harassment from people still angry about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

“The grants we received from the Center for Tech and Civic Life and the Southern Poverty Law Center were critical for us” to buy additional voting equipment,” Rick Barron, Fulton County’s Director of Registration & Elections, told Atlanta Civic Circle. Barron’s last day running Georgia’s largest elections operation is April 1.

County elections offices significantly outspend what the Georgia legislature has allocated in recent years for elections administration. Last year the legislature allocated $7.6 million for elections in all 159 counties, but local election offices spent nearly $45 million, according to the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget

Despite additional demands from the pandemic and heightened elections scrutiny, it increased the elections budget for FY 2023 by only $200,000.

A recent Brennan Center poll found that one in six local election officials have been threatened because of their job, while two-thirds of the 600 election managers polled nationally said vitriol from social media misinformation has made their jobs more dangerous. In fact, one in five plans to leave their jobs before the 2024 presidential election.

“There’s no doubt that with the passage of Senate Bill 202 last year and House Bill 1464 [now before the state Senate], there are a lot of additional responsibilities placed on our local election officials,” Todd Edwards, deputy legislative director for Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) told ACC

Atlanta Civic Circle.

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