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Stacey Abrams' voting rights group to track absentee ballot problems in Georgia

The group founded by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is launching a new initiative to reach out to Georgia voters to track the stories of those who have had trouble getting their absentee ballots for the June 9th primary election. 

Fair Fight PAC, is launching its outreach efforts Thursday, over social media. It will be asking voters who have not received ballots to contact Fair Fight's voter protection team to talk about their experiences. In a statement to CBS News before the launch, Fair Fight voter protection director Liza Conrad said the primary "has been marred by postponed elections and absentee ballot request forms riddled with errors, causing voter confusion." 

The COVID-19 pandemic caused the primary to be delayed twice, and to help protect voters from the spread of the virus, the state decided to mail absentee ballot request forms to all of the state's 6.9 million active voters, a process that has suffered a few setbacks.

The secretary of state's office had to re-send 323,000 new absentee ballot request forms to voters who may not have received the forms because they were accidentally sent to incorrect addresses.  Some forms listed the wrong return address, and some of the instructions were wrong. 

Freelance writer Anjali Enjeti, a Fulton County voter and former Abrams campaign volunteer, told CBS News that she and her husband both submitted their absentee ballot request forms on April 16th to an email address listed on the top of her ballot request form, but over a month later, neither she nor her husband had received their ballots.

"I reached out to the Georgia Democratic Party voter protection team on Saturday, May 23rd." Enjeti said. "They told me to re-send my application to a different email address at Fulton County." After sending her  application to the different address, she was able to get her absentee ballot issued.

Enjeti is not alone. Other Fulton County voters are facing lengthy waits in receiving their ballots, and they're taking their concerns to social media. Kaleb McMichen, communications director for Georgia state House Speaker David Ralston, tweeted on May 25th, "Been waiting on my ballot to arrive since April 8. 47 days and counting…" McMichen told CBS News he, too, is a Fulton County voter. According to the state elections office, his ballot application was processed on Monday.

Fulton County is the most populous county in the state of Georgia, with over 1 million residents, over 44% of whom are black.

On Wednesday, Fulton County Registration and Elections Director Richard Barron said that the backlog of 25,000 applications had been cleared. He explained to reporters that in addition to the fact that the email servers were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of absentee ballot request forms, other delays occurred when the county elections offices had to close after a staff member died of COVID-19, and when another employee in the elections office was forced to take a leave after he was diagnosed with the virus.

In any election year, any Georgia resident may vote absentee and does not require an excuse. Voters are usually given the option of emailing or mailing their ballot applications to their county election offices, which are tasked with processing the applications. 

"In 2016, we received 947 absentee ballots for the general primary," Barron said, adding that by Wednesday, the Fulton County office had "already processed over 127,000 applications." 

Gabriel Sterling, the statewide voting implementation manager for the secretary of state's office, blamed a "boneheaded decision" on Fulton County's part for the delays: "They made a decision that they were going to process all the mail in paper applications first and then go back and do the email ones." Sterling said. "So, you're talking about tens of thousands of people who might have requested their ballots back at the beginning of April, who just got processed this weekend."

Sterling also told CBS News that as of Wednesday, over 1.5 million applications had been processed across the state, and 1.4 million absentee ballots had been mailed to voters.

A decision the state made about processing the absentee ballot applications has also drawn criticism. Because of the massive influx of mail ballots he was expecting, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger decided to use a third-party vendor in Arizona, Runbeck Elections Services, to mail the absentee ballots to voters.

Georgia state legislator David Dreyer, whose district includes Fulton County, blames the vendor for the delays and said the state hasn't done enough to help the county election offices.

"The secretary of state, pushing absentee voting, not providing additional resources to counties which will need it under any circumstance, much less with COVID, and then requiring that an out-of-state third party vendor mail the ballots, which has also resulted in a delay, has led to a lot of the delays we've seen so far now."

Barron disputed this and is grateful that the state "paid for applications and the ballots by mail."

It's not clear whether Runbeck bears any blame for the delays — its statement to CBS News points out what it accomplished, but the company does not say whether it made errors in mailing the ballots. Runbeck said, "In working with our elections partners across the state of Georgia, Runbeck Election Services has folded, inserted and mailed 1.5 million ballot packets across 159 Georgia counties with 4 different ballot sizes. Based on a random sample of data, the average turn-around time from Runbeck Election Services was 2.5 working days."

"It's probably quicker to have something mailed within the state," Barron said of the third-party vendor, but he added, "They're a vendor that can handle this sort of volume."

Professor Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, said though she's not surprised about the process and logistical issues that have resulted in delays, she does not yet view this in the prism of voter suppression.

Fair Fight Action has an active lawsuit against the state of Georgia that alleges widespread voting problems that resulted in the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters in the state, particularly those of color, in the 2018 elections. Conrad reiterated the group's commitment to making sure all Georgia voters "have their voices heard and their votes counted," ahead of the state's primary.

"These unnecessary stumbles contributed to massive backlogs at Georgia's county boards of elections, who now are struggling to process applications while trying to maintain strong in-person access and the health and safety of poll workers and voters." Fair Fight has led other voter outreach initiatives in the past.

"For states that are unaccustomed to handling most of their voter traffic by mail, they should anticipate that they would have these kinds of problems," Gillespie said. "The primary I would look at as a dress rehearsal for what could possibly happen in November. Assuming that there are still concerns about virus spread in November, this is an opportunity for local jurisdictions to work out their challenges with making sure that they can get as many people ballot access as possible."

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