More than half of the absentee ballots received in Oconee County in the Nov. 3, 2020, election were deposited in the drop box in front of the Elections and Registration Office opposite the Courthouse in downtown Watkinsville.
Of the ballots received after early voting ended, 60.1 percent were via the secure drop box in the front of the elections office.
Of the ballots received before early voting started, half came in via the drop box.
In the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoff, the drop box played an even larger role, in terms of percent of absentee ballots deposited, percent before early voting started, and percent after early voting ended.
The secure drop box outside the Elections and Registration Office has been eliminated, as required by the new voting law passed by the General Assembly earlier this year that went into effect on July 1.
In its place, the county has purchased a new drop box that will be inside the Election and Registration Office and operational only when that office is open.
These percentages come from an analysis of the Drop Box Ballot Transfer Forms for the two elections and indicate that the new voting law likely will have the intended effect of decreasing prominence of absentee ballots in future county elections.
Drop Box Ballot Transfer Form
The local Office of Elections and Registration kept detailed records of the transfer of absentee ballots and of absentee ballot applications to the elections office from the dark brown drop box that was under 24-hour video surveillance in front of the office itself.
|Sample Drop Box Transfer Form|
The transfers were recorded on a form, required by the Secretary of State Office, that indicated the time and date of the transfer and the number of ballots and absentee ballot applications removed from the drop box.
The form was signed by two members of a collection team. The county registrar or designee then signed off on the receipt of those ballots and applications.
The first form for the Nov. 3, 2020, election was for a transfer of one voting application at 8:02 a.m. on Sept. 16. On Sept. 17, three absentee ballot applications were transferred, at 10:48 a.m.
The first ballot was cleared at 4:20 p.m. on Sept. 18.
The drop box was cleared at least twice, and usually three times, on each weekday, from Sept. 18 until election day. The office was not open on weekends, though the drop box remained open for deposits and under surveillance on those days.
On Nov. 2 and on election day itself, Nov. 3, the drop box was cleared four times, the last on Nov. 3 at 7 p.m., the end of voting.
This same pattern was repeated for the U.S. Senate runoff on Jan. 5, with the first ballots–65 in all–logged at 2:34 p.m. on Dec. 4, and the last cleared at 7 p.m. on Jan. 5.
On Aug. 12, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution uploaded a story based on analysis it had done on the Drop Box Ballot Transfer Forms in metro Atlanta and in selected rural counties in the state.
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About 56 percent of absentee voters in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett counties returned their ballots in drop boxes before November’s election, the paper reported.
The paper did not report on the Jan. 5 runoff.
I asked Rebecca Anglin, director of Elections and Registration in Oconee County, in an email message at 3:40 p.m. on Aug. 12 if I could see the drop box transfer forms for Oconee County for the Nov. 3 election and the Jan. 3 runoff.
At 3:46 p.m. Anglin sent me electronic copies of the forms.
I entered the data from the forms for both elections into a spreadsheet and then rechecked each of the entries.
I also used data that Jennifer Stone, assistant director of Elections and Registration, and Fran Leathers, Anglin’s predecessor, had provided me during early voting and after the Nov. 3 and Jan. 5 elections.
In the Nov. 3 election, Oconee County voters cast 5,857 absentee ballots, representing 23.1 percent of 25,399 votes cast.
Advanced In Person ballots were 62.9 percent of the total, and election day voting was 14.0 percent of the vote.
According to the Drop Box Ballot Transfer Forms, 3,014 of those absentee ballots cast in the Nov. 3 election were deposited in the drop box at the Office of Elections and Registration, or 51.5 percent of the total.
In the days after early voting ended on Oct. 30, election officials removed 206 ballots from that drop box.
A total of 341 absentee ballots were received after the end of the day on Oct. 30, so the drop box totals were 60.4 percent of those.
By the end of the third day of early voting on Oct. 14, the county had received 2,770 absentee ballots, and 1,428 of those were from the drop box, or 51.6 percent.
Stone first provided me figures for the number of absentee ballots on hand on Oct. 14, or two days after early voting began on Oct. 12.
Across the time the drop box was in operation, 38 absentee ballot applications were deposited in the drop box, according to the transfer forms.
Jan. 5 Runoff
In the Jan. 5, 2021, runoff, Oconee County voters cast 4,388 absentee ballots, representing 18.6 percent of the 23,565 votes cast.
Advanced ballots were 57.2 percent of the total, and election day voting was 24.2 percent of the vote.
According to the Drop Box Ballot Transfer Forms, 2,332 of those absentee ballots were deposited in the drop box at the Office of Elections and Registration, or 53.1 percent of the total.
In the days after early voting ended on Dec. 31, election officials removed 216 ballots from that drop box.
A total of 348 absentee ballots were received after the end of the day on Dec. 31, so the drop box totals were 62.1 percent of those.
By the end of the first day of early voting on Dec. 14, the county had received 1,286 absentee ballots, and 768 of those were from the drop box, or 59.7 percent.
I do not have figures for the number of absentee ballots on hand before the first day of early voting on Dec. 13.
The forms indicate that 12 absentee ballot applications were deposited in the drop box before the Jan. 5 election as well.
Senate Bill 202
Senate Bill 202, called the Election Integrity Act of 2021, targets absentee balloting in addressing what it says are citizen concerns about “rampant voter fraud.”
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Under the new law, absentee ballot applications have to be received at least 11 days prior to the date of the election. Previously, absentee ballots could be requested up to the election.
In the application, the voter now must provide a driver’s license number, or state identification card number, or a photo copy of some other identification document, such as a passport.
Previously, the applicant did not have to provide any identification other than the name and address on the voter file.
The new law says that third parties that send out forms to persons to be used in requesting an absentee ballot cannot send them to anyone who already requested a ballot, received a ballot, or already voted.
In the past, absentee ballots could be sent out 49 days in advance of the election. The new law restricts that mailing to 29 days before an election.
Election officers can “establish” a drop box to receive absentee ballots, but the number of boxes is restricted based on population and on number of advanced voting locations. For Oconee County that means only one box.
The drop box will have to be inside the elections office or inside the building used for advanced voting. If it is at the location of advanced voting, it would be accessible only during the times of advanced voting.
History Of Support For Absentee Ballots
Senate Bill 202 was written by the Republican majority in the General Assembly and did not receive a single Democrat vote in either the House or the Senate.
It reversed House Bill 244, passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in 2005.
That 2005 bill said for the first time that persons requesting an absentee ballot will “not be required to provide a reason” for requesting the ballot.
The request could be made “not more than 180 days prior to the date of the primary or election, or runoff of either, in which the elector desires to vote.”
The bill stated that “The application shall be in writing” and provide “sufficient information for proper identification of the elector” as well as an address.
The bill also said that the returned ballot should be signed with an oath stating the validity of the vote and that the registrar should compare the “identifying information on the oath with the information on file in his or her office.”
The registration also should “compare the signature or mark on the oath with the signature or mark on the absentee elector´s application for absentee ballot or a facsimile of said signature or mark taken from said application.”
In 2005, Oconee County was represented in the Georgia House of Representatives by Republican Bob Smith and in the Senate by Republican Brian Kemp, now governor. Both voted in favor of House Bill 244.
Democrat Keith Heard, representing Clarke County in the House, voted against it.
Republican Use Of Absentee Ballots
House Bill 244 and its promotion of absentee voting was unchallenged until Donald Trump lost the Nov. 3 election.
The final impact of the restrictions on absentee balloting in Senate Bill 202 is not knowable at this point.
In heavily Republican Oconee County, Republican voters used absentee ballots both on Nov. 3 and on Jan. 5, so the impact is likely to be felt by both parties.
On Nov. 3, 46.7 percent of the absentee ballots were for President Donald Trump.
On Jan. 5, 45.5 percent of the absentee ballots were for Republican Kelly Loeffler and 46.4 percent were for Republican David Perdue.
It is not possible to know what percentage of those Republican votes via absentee ballots were on ballots that were deposited in the drop box.
Trump, Loeffler, and Perdue all did better in early in-person voting and in voting on election day.
In the presidential election on Nov. 8, 2016, only 4.5 percent of the votes cast were absentee, compared with the 23.1 percent on Nov. 3, 2020.
The analysis of the Drop Box Transfer Forms suggests the figure in 2024 is likely to move in the direction of the 2016 election because of the elimination of the external drop box.
Voters wanting to return absentee ballots will have to depend on the U.S. Postal Service or drop off the ballot during the business hours of the Office of Elections and Registration.