Coronavirus Challenges Georgia Counties During First Week Of Early Voting

May 22, 2020

While about 61,000 voters cast their ballots on the state's new $104 million voting system so far this week, at least two county elections offices were stricken by the virus and another had to add more hours and machines to mitigate long lines.

Only a fraction of the state's than 570,000 votes cast in the June 9 primary so far have been in person, but the new reality of elections in the time of coronavirus means that even a relatively small number of voters at the polls comes with the potential for problems.

At the Walker County Courthouse in Lafayette, all who are interested in voting must leave their cell phones outside, remember to bring a form of identification and submit to new health precautions. 

“Those coming in will have to be screened, have their temperature taken and wear a mask,” Elections Director Danielle Montgomery said. “That is not the elections rules. Those are the orders sent down by the superior court judge.”

Over the first few hours of Wednesday morning voting, only a handful of people arrived at the polls. 

Montgomery said her staff is wearing masks and gloves, disinfecting voting equipment and working behind shields to protect everyone from the coronavirus.

She’s also not sure how the new efforts will affect turnout during early voting.

“The first day we had 86 come in, [Tuesday was] 110 so it ramped up each day a little bit more,” she said.

As of Thursday evening, about 350 people cast their ballots in person in Walker County.

RELATED: Georgia Counties Can Process Absentee Ballots Early For June 9 Election

Across the state, more people returned an absentee ballot this week than voted in person, which is no surprise since election officials are urging people to vote by mail.

Fulton County only had about 600 show up for the first day of early voting across five polling places.

But even then, there were reports of long lines at two of them, according to election director Rick Barron.

“It just seemed like it was a rotating between two checking in and two voting, and they never really were able to get four on the machines at a time,” he said.

So at an emergency board meeting Tuesday, Fulton officials extended early voting hours, moved the location on Atlanta’s west side into a larger room and promised to make things better.

“We assumed that we would have some lines,” he said. “I think the length of them was a little bit of a surprise to all of us.”

MORE: Coronavirus Brings Changes, Closures, Extra Precautions To Georgia’s Early Voting Process

Speaking of surprises, McDuffie County supervisor Phyllis Wheeler did not anticipate having to send most of her staff home after Tuesday.

Two of her office workers tested positive for COVID-19 and are out for at least two weeks.

“One is my absentee ballot clerk and the other was my front desk person assisting in processing the applications,” she said.

Everyone else is awaiting results of the coronavirus test.

Even with a full staff, McDuffie County was inundated with absentee ballots and requests to vote by mail.

That's made worse by the reality that Wheeler and her assistant will be the only ones ­– for now – to tackle the mountain of paperwork.

“We’re a small county, but we've just been overwhelmed by the number of ballots coming back,” she said. “We processed already over 3,500!”

More than 1,700 of those absentee ballots have been returned.

But Wheeler has been working the polls for nearly 30 years and said, with patience from voters, things will turn out just fine.

“I’ve been doing this since ‘91 here in McDuffie County, and I've never let them down,” she said. “And I think they know that I'm going to do what I can do as best I can do it, and I'm going to keep this office rolling.”

On Thursday, officials in Appling County notified the secretary of state’s office that a voter who visited the election office Wednesday, also the only early voting location, tested positive for the coronavirus.

That office is closed until Tuesday for cleaning over the long holiday weekend.

“The continued risk from the COVID-19 virus is exactly why Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger sent every active voter an absentee ballot request form," Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said in a statement. "We are getting reports from counties that many voters who have requested and received an absentee ballot are instead choosing to vote in person. That decision increases your risk. We call on all voters who can to vote by absentee ballot for this primary election."

In Walker County, Danielle Montgomery said even with a few days of early voting underway, it’s still hard for election supervisors to predict what turnout will look like the next few weeks and on Election Day.

“Expect the unexpected, because that that's what this election is bringing,” she said. “We just don't know.”

Early voting runs through June 5. Election Day is June 9.