Georgia primary will be a preview of November election, say Emory experts

May 20, 2020

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Election 2020

As Georgia’s twice-postponed primary approaches June 9, Emory’s political experts are predicting that new election realities in the state will serve as precursors of what may unfold in November’s presidential contest. 

“For this particular race, the primary will be a dress rehearsal for what could possibly happen in November,” says Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference. 

The reason, say Gillespie and colleagues, is that nervousness around voting in person may linger into the fall.

“There are going to be a lot of people who are uncomfortable with voting in person, because of the risk and difficulty in being able to socially distance,” says Gillespie. 

“We’ve seen what Georgia’s been doing so far,” says polling expert Alan Abramowitz, professor of political science. “There are heavy requests for absentee ballots. We could see a pretty good turnout.” 

Gillespie concurs, but adds that according to the website Georgia Votes, African Americans are underrepresented in the number of requested absentee ballots. “And the question I would ask is whether or not we’re going to have problems with people’s absentee ballots getting rejected because of allegations of signature non-matches.”

A recent federal court settlement stipulated that Georgia voters must be quickly notified when election officials reject their absentee ballots, giving them time to correct any problem and have their votes counted.  

"It is important for voters to feel secure in the process whether they vote via an absentee ballot or at a polling location,” says Pearl K. Dowe, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Political Science and African American Studies. “This is extremely important going into November when we can only speculate about what impact COVID-19 might have on the election process.”

Whatever the public health situation is in November, “vote by mail looks like something we’re going to have to plan,” says Gillespie, adding that election officials need ask the right questions now. In addition to whether the process works well, she says, local election officials need to determine “whether they’re ready and have the staff to handle a large number of absentee ballots that must be counted quickly.” 

And although the state has provided the option of absentee ballots, “many voters may still decide to visit a polling location,” says Dowe. “Which locations will be open? Will voters need to anticipate long lines due to a limited number of available workers? Turnout will impact the down ticket races such as senate and judicial positions.” 

“For Democrats, the bigger challenge is reminding voters that the presidential primary is not the only thing that’s on this [June] ballot,” says Gillespie. Democrats may procrastinate, asking themselves why they need to vote because Joe Biden is already the presumptive nominee. “The big takeaway is that there are plenty of other important races you need to vote for.” 

Not surprisingly, the efficacy and security of Georgia’s new voting machines, predicted to be a central issue in the primary, has taken a back seat.

“We came into 2020 thinking about problems we would encounter shifting to these new voting machines,” says Gillespie. “Now it looks like they aren’t going to get used as much. But it doesn’t mean that whatever problems that could possibly be in the new voting machines aren’t still relevant. It just means that we have deferred that discussion and evaluation into another election cycle.”

Still ahead in the countdown to November is the question of whether campaigns will be able to embrace tactics that don’t include door-to-door canvassing. “Can campaigns pivot to live phone calling, to text messaging, to other types of things you need to do to make sure people remember to exercise their right to vote and turn their ballots in on time?” asks Gillespie. “Those are the tactics that are going to be required.”  

Also required will be patience. If absentee ballots are going to be counted as long as they are postmarked by election day, most states will see delays in providing final vote counts, says Abramowitz. “This is what’s been happening in California for a long time now,” he says. 

Whatever the turnout or tactics, results of the Georgia primary be of high interest for the November general election, says Abramowitz.

“Georgia Is not a state the Democrats are likely to target during the presidential campaign, because they don’t need the state [to win]. But polling suggests that Georgia could be very competitive in the presidential and in the senate elections. If Democrats could pick up a senate seat in Georgia (there are two up for grabs) that increases the chances for Democratic control of the senate, which is obviously a very big deal.”