October 28, 2021

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What Columbus GA voters need to know about absentee ballots

Columbus could be headed for a historic November General Election, as more voters than ever request mail-in absentee ballots amid a global pandemic.

Muscogee County this week mailed out more than 25,560 ballots, eclipsing a record set in Georgia’s June 9 primaries, when the total topped out at about 25,000.

Usually Columbus voters request 6,000 to 8,000 mail-in ballots for a presidential election, said Nancy Boren, executive director of the Muscogee County Board of Elections and Registration.

“We typically gauge turnout based on the number of absentees we issued,” said Boren.

So far around 2,250 voters have filled out and sent back their absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 election, she said.

Here are Columbus’ presidential election turnouts since the last record was set in 2008:

  • In 2016, the turnout was 69,463 of 131,025 active, registered voters, or 53%
  • In 2012, it was 70,962 out of 120,879, or 59%
  • In 2008, it was 74,428 out of 118,302, or 63%

Columbus currently has about 128,860 registered voters.

Statewide, 1.6 million Georgians requested mail-in absentee ballots this past June, “inundating county elections officials,” reported the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, which for that election mailed absentee ballot applications to all of the state’s 6.9 million voters.

For the Nov. 3 General Election, the Secretary of State has opened an online portal for absentee ballot requests, and more than 200,000 people have used it.

The trend toward using mail-in ballots during the COVID-19 epidemic is raising questions with voters concerned about whether their votes are secure, whether their ballots will arrive in time to be counted, and what options they have.

The Ledger-Enquirer in an in-person interview and via email addressed those inquiries with Boren for this question and answer report:

How can voters request a mail-in absentee ballot?

They can go online to ballotrequest.sos.ga.gov; call the local elections office at 706-653-4392; fax a request to the office at 706-225-4394; or email [email protected] They also may mail an absentee ballot application to Elections, P.O. Box 1340, Columbus, Ga., 31902. Application forms can be found online under “Voter Information” at the county elections office website, www.columbusga.gov/elections

What is the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot?

The last day to request an absentee ballot either in person or by mail will be Friday, Oct. 30.

What should voters know about filling out and sealing their mail-in ballot?

What voters get in the mail is an absentee ballot package, Boren said: “In that package they’ll have a yellow oath envelope and a white inner envelope. After you have voted your ballot and you are ready to send it, put it in the white envelope. The white envelope goes in the yellow envelope. If you turn that yellow oath envelop over, there’s an oath. Make sure you sign that oath, because that is how we verify that you the voter have case that ballot.”

Neglecting to sign the oath will void the ballot, she said.

How soon should a mail-in ballot be returned?

It is recommended voters mail or drop a ballot off as soon as they have completed it and are satisfied with their selections, Boren said. The U.S. Postal Service has recommended voters mail them at least a week in advance of the Nov. 3 election.

Voters worried about whether the postal service will deliver their ballots in time to be counted may deposit them in one of Columbus’ ballot drop boxes, where adding postage is unnecessary, though some residents have put stamps to ballots they dropped off.

Where are the ballot drop boxes in Muscogee County?

The four drop boxes, two placed where residents can drive up to them, are at these sites:

  • The rear entrance to the City Service Center, off Macon Road at 3111 Citizens Way (walk up).
  • The exit to the City Service Center parking garage (drive up).
  • The Frank Chester Recreation Center, 1441 Benning Drive (drive up).
  • The Columbus Health Department, 5601 Veterans Parkway (walk up).

How are the drop boxes secured, and how often are they emptied?

Each metal box is locked, bolted to concrete, and monitored by surveillance cameras that will bank footage for 30 days after the election. Each will be emptied every 72 hours until the last week before the election, and then emptied every 24 hours.

How can voters track their ballots once they have been mailed or dropped off?

They can track them online through the Georgia Secretary of State’s “My Voter Page” at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov/MVP, or through a new online ballot-tracking tool that automatically will send voters updates. It’s at georgia.ballottrax.net/voter.

Can you vote in person if you decide not to file the mail-in absentee ballot you requested, or you believe your mail-in ballot was lost or damaged?

You can vote in person if you have not received your absentee ballot, but if you received your ballot and decided instead to vote in person, bring the ballot with you, Boren said: “You can mark ‘canceled’ or ‘spoiled’ on it, if you would like to do that.” If you don’t bring the ballot with you, a poll worker will have to verify that your absentee ballot has not been received. If the poll worker can’t reach the elections office to verify that, you may have to vote a provisional ballot, which will be counted only after it’s examined and approved by the county elections board while certifying the election results.

What prevents people from voting twice, by mail and in person?

A statewide voter registration system tracks requests for absentee ballots, and it will alert voting precinct workers to an absentee ballot request, to prevent voters from voting both absentee and in person.

When will the mail-in absentee ballots be counted?

Early tabulation of absentee ballots will begin at 10 a.m. Monday, Oct. 19, and will continue until all ballots have been counted.

More information on mail-in absentee ballots can be found at the Georgia Secretary of State’s website, sos.ga.gov.

Tim Chitwood is from Seale, Ala., and started as a police beat reporter with the Ledger-Enquirer in 1982. He since has covered Columbus’ serial killings and other homicides, following some from the scene of the crime to trial verdicts and ensuing appeals. He also has been a Ledger-Enquirer humor columnist since 1987. He’s a graduate of Auburn University, and started out working for the weekly Phenix Citizen in Phenix City, Ala.

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