Coronavirus Brings Changes, Closures, Extra Precautions To Georgia’s Early Voting Process
When Georgians head to the polls Monday for the first statewide election on Georgia’s new $104 million touchscreen voting system in the postponed presidential and general primary, things will look different.
The coronavirus has sent local officials scrambling to procure protective equipment for staff and considering decreasing the number of machines available to comply with health and safety recommendations.
Thirty counties have relocated or cut back on voting locations since the presidential primary was first postponed in March.When early voting starts on Monday, things are going to look different because of the coronavirus. GPB's Stephen Fowler reports.
While the secretary of state’s office has mounted a massive push for mail-in absentee voting, state law still requires three weeks of in-person early voting.
One major difference in this year’s election is the emphasis on personal protective equipment, or PPE, to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19 at the polls.
Richmond County Elections Director Lynn Bailey says each poll worker in her county will be equipped with a mask, gloves, protective eyewear and a container of hand sanitizer for personal use.
Bailey and the rest of the state’s 159 elections supervisors face a daunting task: ensuring the June 9 primary goes smoothly even in the middle of a global health pandemic.
“These supplies are something that we've been planning for going way back to the March election,” Bailey said. “That's when we began actively procuring.”
COMPLETE COVERAGE: How Georgia's primary election is changing because of the coronavirus
GPB News and the Georgia News Lab asked more than a dozen elections supervisors about their process for securing resources to keep staff safe. Their answers varied widely.
Some counties were able to procure masks, gloves and other equipment through their existing procurement processes. Others used Amazon, or relied on donations and support from the community.
Cobb County Elections Director Janine Eveler said that PPE deliveries will continue to arrive up until Election Day, but masks are a particular need.
“We have been asking for public donations of cloth masks,” she said. “We have several groups that are sewing for us, and we believe we will have those in plenty of time for the election.”
Brooks County Elections Director Charles Dave waited for the state to send supplies but eventually ended up buying masks from a local drug store.
“Since early voting is coming up close, I had to go get some,” Dave said.
The secretary of state’s office is offering reimbursement grants of up to $3,000 to counties for supplies and another $3,000 for the purchase of secure drop boxes for voters to return absentee ballots.
In some cases, that will not cover the total extra cost of preparing for this election.
Holden estimates Paulding County has already spent between $15,000 and $20,000 on PPE.
“We are going to be cutting it very close with our budget,” Holden said. “We are making do and cutting corners everywhere we can.”
Dozens of counties have either reduced the number of early voting locations or had to change the venue because of the coronavirus.
Fulton County will only open five polling places on Monday, down from the more than 20 it originally planned. In northwest Georgia, Walker County voters will have only one poll for in-person early voting instead of five.
Fayette County has also closed two of its three early voting polls, Jones said.
One factor contributing to the closures is a shortage of poll workers, many of whom are over 60 and especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
In Richmond County, Bailey plans to supplement her staffing with high school students trained to serve as poll workers for the March election. She is also reaching out to the local board of education to explore the possibility of recruiting teachers to work the polls on June 9.
Several counties, like Paulding, have a number of poll workers who have been trained but never before worked an election.
Those who do come to the polls should expect things to take longer, no matter where you live.
As a precaution, poll workers plan to clean the touchscreen ballot-marking devices anywhere from once every half hour to after every use, and some will offer voters a stylus to help make their selections.
“The process is going to take a lot longer due to sanitizing procedures,” Eveler said. “Because we are social distancing, we aren’t going to be able to fit as many people through in the same amount of time.”
While limiting the number of voters allowed into the polling place, most locations will also have fewer voting machines than normal.
“We can’t do social distancing if we put two [ballot marking devices] on a six-foot table,” Holden said. “Obviously, we are limited in space, so we will just have to focus on voter safety this time.”
This election will feature primary elections for the presidential race, every state House and Senate race, and a high-profile Democratic U.S. Senate race. Elections officials say if you can vote by mail, you probably should.
So far, many voters are. More than 1.4 million Georgians have returned an absentee application and over 250,000 mail-in ballots have been cast.
Counties have been steadily working through a backlog of absentee applications, but not everyone can or will vote by mail, Rockdale County Elections Supervisor Cynthia Willingham said.
“We have heard from voters that they do not trust the mail ballots — that the ballot will get to its destination or that the ballot will be counted — and that they prefer to vote in person,” Willingham said.
And the influx of interest in absentee voting is not an indication of how many people could show up to vote in person.
“We are in uncharted territory here, I don’t know what quite to make of it,” Bailey said. “Logic tells you not as many people will show up at the polling place but we really don’t know until the day gets here.”
A GPB News/Georgia News Lab analysis of absentee data finds that most of the state’s counties have mailed out more absentee ballots than the number of votes cast in those counties in the 2018 primary.
Cherokee County Elections Director Kim Stancil said so far her office has mailed out more than 40,000 ballots — about four times the typical amount.
“So it's hard to tell how many people plan to come out in person,” she said. “You know, we just have no way of knowing... It'll be a total surprise.”
This story is part of an ongoing investigation by GPB News and the Georgia News Lab. The News Lab is an investigative reporting partnership between Georgia universities, Georgia Public Broadcasting, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV. Ada Wood is a reporter with the News Lab. Laura Corley is the deputy editor. News Lab reporter Eric Fan provided data analysis for this story. This reporting is funded in part by the Democracy Fund.