Cobb county ballot error reveals problem in election system

Eric Zuniga, Campus Carrier staff writer

Cobb County Historic Sign. Courtesy of jimmywayne

Following a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of about 1,036 Cobb County voters who did not receive absentee ballots due to a clerical error, Cobb County Superior Court Judge Kellie Hill extended the deadline for the receipt of affected absentee ballots to November 14. Cobb County elections officials said that the county would overnight ballots to affected voters. Although errors on such a large scale are unusual, according to Eric Sands, associate professor of political science, election administration problems are actually fairly common.

            “I think based on the evidence, it was just a screw-up, and yes, this kind of thing does happen in other places,” Sands said. “A thousand people is a lot, obviously, so I don’t know if it’s happened on that scale in other places, but it certainly has happened.”

            The Cobb County incident comes after major changes were made to Georgia’s election law with the passage of the Election Integrity Act by the Georgia General Assembly in 2021. According to Sands, the law’s shortened window for voters to request an absentee ballot may have been a factor in the Cobb County error. 

            “In the case of this Cobb County thing, the election law may well have exacerbated the problem,” Sands said. “I think it cut in half the amount of time that people used to have for absentee ballots. When you compress a time frame like that, that’s a lot more that needs to get done in a shorter amount of time.”

            While the law introduced many limitations on voting such as new voter ID requirements, Abigail Vegter, assistant professor of political science, said that the law’s effect on voter participation has been complicated.  

            “It’s easy to spin it in either way that fits with the narrative you hope to put,” Vegter said. “The Democratic Party would say this is an anti-voter law that makes it more difficult for people to vote. There are pieces of it that do make it harder to vote. There are other pieces that in some ways make it easier. We could vote early for longer this year, and what the Kemp administration would point to is that voter turnout in this 2022 election was record-breaking.”

            College students, many of whom are voting for the first time or are living away from their permanent address, face particular challenges participating in elections. According to Vegter, the convoluted voter registration process makes it especially difficult for college students to vote. 

            “I definitely think it’s extremely difficult for college students to be able to participate,” Vegter said. “For a lot of college students especially, even people who are now or recently 18 who are voting in their first election, but yet are starting college, there’s a lot going on and there’s a lot to keep track of, let alone registration deadlines.”

            Freshman Amanda Milner encountered significant difficulties attempting to register to vote before this election. As an out-of-state student, she researched Georgia election laws to make sure that she could register in the state upon her arrival at Berry. While the law allows a college student to register if they have proof of residence and employment in the state, Milner said that a local election official told her otherwise.

            “I was all good to go, except, as I was leaving, this lady comes around the corner and says, ‘wait—you going to college doesn’t give you residence,’” Milner said. “I was like, there’s certain parts of the voter law that says going to college doesn’t give you residence and there’s certain parts that say, if you do have a job and a bank account and an address, then you are here and you get to vote. That was the understanding I had; she had a different understanding.”

            Milner confirmed her interpretation of the law by calling election officials in surrounding counties, all of whom said that they would allow a student in her situation to register. She then appealed her registration denial at the Floyd County Board of Elections and Registration meeting on October 18. After board members questioned her, Milner said the members voted unanimously to allow her registration.

            “The county elections board had a meeting a few weeks after all this. They asked for me to come and explain all that happened, my understanding of arguing why I believe I should be able to register,” Milner said. “Finally at the end, they’re like, we get what you’re saying, and then they decided unanimously apparently, which was not what myself and others expected, that I should get to register now.”

            Milner added that she thinks voting laws could be made clearer and more consistent while also preserving the security and integrity of elections. 

            “I think we definitely need some form of ID and verifying, making things valid. I hope maybe it becomes a national, collective understanding of these are the steps to vote, making it simple and clear,” Milner said. “Easy to understand and still having direction and structure to it.”

            According to Vegter, same-day voter registration, already in place in 20 states, is one specific reform that make voting easier for college students. 

            “Same-day voter registration could be huge for college students and huge for young people generally,” Vegter said. “We do have some data that show when we see those states with same-day voter registration, we also see a bump in youth turnout compared to states who don’t.”

            Milner eventually did cast her vote on election day in person. In spite of the barriers to registration she faced, she said that she has a newfound appreciation for the American democratic process. 

            “I’m just thankful that we have the opportunity to respond to issues like this and the freedom to do that. I’m so thankful that we’re in a place, a country, where we can do that,” Milner said. “We had this opportunity to respond, and it was accomplished and I’m thankful for that.”

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