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Early voting costs increase

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

LEESBURG, Ga. -- With the July 20 primary election less than 10 days away, elections officials throughout the Albany Metro area are saying that the 45-day early voting period is having a negative impact on their budgets.

In Lee County, where several high-profile elections are scheduled, Elections Superintendent Veronica Johnson said the turnout has been dismal, but because state law requires at least three people to man the precinct for the early voting period, taxpayers are having to foot the bill for services that aren't always required.

Since the early voting period started June 7, only 157 votes have been cast in Lee County. That number includes mail-in absentee ballots and early voters who have cast ballots using voting machines, Johnson said.

Doing the math, if you divide 157 votes by the 24 days since June 7 when votes could have been cast, it shows that an average of 6.5 votes have been cast each day for Lee County races.

And while those 6.5 voters per day were trickling in, Johnson said that by the time the early voting period ends -- including advanced voting the week before July 20 -- she will have spent $7,578 in payroll alone to staff the precinct and meet minimum state standards.

That's almost $49 per vote that taxpayers are having to pay to vote early in Lee County.

"It's killing us," Johnson said. "The turnout is bad enough, but when you think about how tight everyone's budget is, now we have to pay for this extended period. It's just too long."

A survey of the counties in the Albany MSA show that voter turnout has generally been slow even by off-election-year standards.

In Dougherty County, which has the most registered voters in the MSA, 536 people had cast their ballots as of Friday morning.

In Worth County, 240 ballots had been cast, with 364 in Terrell County and 34 in Baker County.

In terms of additional cost, Dougherty Elections Superintendent Ginger Nickerson said that she too is expecting to fork out an additional $6,000 to $7,000 to cover staffing for the early voting period.

But in Terrell and Baker County, where each county has 5,000 registered voters or less, elections officials say that since the voter turnout has been manageable and they already had enough people in their offices to meet the state minimum, they aren't anticipating much additional costs.

"Everything has gone really smooth," Carolyn Williams, elections supervisor in Terrell County, said. "We'll be calling in three more people next week to open up our larger conference room for advanced voting, but that shouldn't be too much."

And if the additional payroll isn't challenging enough, elections officials are also having to comply with a change in Georgia law that requires each precinct to have its own ballot style. In previous years, if several precincts were in the same district and had the same races, elections officials had to use only one ballot style.

But now county governments will have to pay more for the additional ballot styles.

In Lee and Dougherty counties, where there are a good number of precincts, it's anticipated to be particularly painful to the coffers.

In Dougherty County alone, 78 total ballot styles are now required for 28 precincts.

In Lee County, Johnson said the number of ballot styles the county has to use for the election jumped from 16 in July 2008 to 28 in 2010, despite fewer candidates.

"It has increased the ballot cost because before we were able to use a single ballot style at most of the precincts," Johnson. "Also, if there was some type of catastrophe at one precinct, we could pull ballots that weren't used at another precinct. Now, if we're out, we're out."

Matt Carrothers, a spokesperson at the Georgia Secretary of State's office -- the government department responsible for overseeing state elections -- said the early voting period was initially established in 1989 so that military and overseas voters could have time to get a ballot, vote and mail it back to have it counted for the election.

"For a variety of reasons, it was determined a few years back that there no longer needed to be a reason to vote early so everyone now has the opportunity to vote during that 45-day period for any reason," Carrothers said. "And you can point to history to see that during the 2008 presidential election year, 53 percent of all votes were cast during the early voting period, so it took tremendous pressure off of the precincts on election day."

But it appears that 2008 may have been the high-water mark in terms of early voting participation, especially when compared to 2010 numbers.

According to the secretary of state's office, only 50,307 ballots have been cast state wide as of Tuesday. The number of active registered voters statewide as of July 1 is more than 4.9 million, which means a 1.01 percent turnout so far during the early voting period for the primary elections.