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Battle for U.S. senate: worries over equitable voting access in Georgia runoffs Updated for 2021

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Updated: February 25, 2021

State and local election officials in Georgia should take immediate steps to ensure that every voter in the state has easy and equitable access to absentee ballot drop boxes in the lead up to the January 5, 2021, Senate runoff elections, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday as it released a new data analysis of the issue.

Human Rights Watch said it determined that there are significant inequities between voters’ access to drop boxes, by looking at the number of drop boxes per eligible voter in each of Georgia’s 159 counties, the number of drop boxes per square mile in each county, and the 14-day new Covid-19 case rate in each county.

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The analysis is based on a list of locations for ballot drop boxes compiled by the nongovernmental organization All Voting is Local and other groups. Human Rights Watch supports these groups’ request to state and county officials, to install more absentee ballot drop boxes, specifically one box per 15,000 eligible voters, ahead of the January 5 election.

A voter drops their ballot off during early voting, October 19, 2020, in Athens, Georgia. © AP Photo/John Bazemore
A voter drops their ballot off during early voting, Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, in Athens, Ga. With record turnout expected for this year’s presidential election and fears about exposure to the coronavirus, election officials and advocacy groups have been encouraging people to vote early, either in person or by absentee ballot. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

“The right to safely cast a ballot should not be determined by what county you live in,” said Alison Leal Parker, US managing director at Human Rights Watch. “Georgia’s election officials should set up more drop boxes in counties that need them so that people can cast their votes safely and efficiently in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

A record number of Georgians, 940,000, are reported to have requested absentee ballots to participate in the runoff, which will decide two US Senate races and may affect the balance of power in Congress. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger encouraged voters to use drop boxes during the November 3 general election, due to the Covid-19 pandemic; a rationale that has become even more pressing given rising new case rates in the state since early November, Human Rights Watch said.

On November 23, Georgia’s bipartisan election board decided to extend the use of ballot drop boxes through election day. Their use had been scheduled to end in late December.

Human Rights Watch’s data analysis shows that counties in Georgia with high rates of confirmed new Covid-19 cases have very few ballot drop boxes per eligible voter. Out of the 30 counties in Georgia with the highest rates, the vast majority (22 counties) have only one ballot drop box. Two counties out of the 30 do not have a single drop box.

While voting absentee by mail is also an option for Georgia voters, many voters prefer drop boxes due to conflicting information on the reliability of the US Postal Service. And due to historical disenfranchisement, especially among Black and brown voters, many prefer to have visual confirmation that their votes were delivered by placing their ballots in a drop box, Human Rights Watch said.

Covid-19 aside, Georgia’s counties show a vast range in accessibility of ballot drop boxes per eligible voter. There are no ballot drop boxes available in 15 counties that are home to about 150,000 (2 percent) of the state’s eligible voters. Of counties with drop boxes, Henry, Forsyth, Columbia, and Coweta counties are the four least accessible, with just one ballot drop box for 100,000 – 150,000 eligible voters. Quitman, Webster, Clay, and Baker counties are the four most accessible, with one for every 2,000 eligible voters.

One-third of eligible voters in Georgia live in a county with just one drop box, Human Rights Watch said. Of the 30 geographically largest counties in the state, about three-quarters, or 22, had only one drop box. An extreme example is Burke County, with one drop box per 827 square miles. One large county, Meriwether, does not have a single drop box. In Georgia, according to 2017 data, 7 percent of all households and 12 percent of Black households did not have access to a vehicle, making these distances especially problematic for absentee voters, given the lack of public transport, especially in rural areas.

“Rural or urban, Black or white, rich or poor, every US citizen has the human right to vote,” Parker said. “With its Senate run-off election, Georgia has a landmark opportunity to hold a second credible election in the space of just a few months. It should install more ballot drop boxes to make sure that happens.”

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