Opinion: The Fulton election worker who died making sure thousands could vote

A poll worker wearing protective gloves waits to assist voters during special election voting at city hall to fill an empty city council seat on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Dacula. The voting happens to on a day that was supposed to be the test run for the state's new election system before coronavirus COVID-19 caused it to be called off.

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

A poll worker wearing protective gloves waits to assist voters during special election voting at city hall to fill an empty city council seat on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Dacula. The voting happens to on a day that was supposed to be the test run for the state's new election system before coronavirus COVID-19 caused it to be called off.

Beverly Walker died making sure that hundreds of thousands of Fulton County voters could cast their ballots in the postponed June 9 primary. The virus got her on April 10, the day before Good Friday. She was 62.

At the same time, her boss and good friend, voter registration chief Ralph Jones, was briefly hospitalized during his bout with COVID-19. He has since recovered.

It was as if the coronavirus had pinpointed the single spot where it could cause the most logistical chaos to Georgia’s electoral infrastructure. Fulton has more registered voters than any other county in Georgia – more than 750,000 in the days before November 2018.

On the day that Walker died, an unprecedented 80,000 requests for absentee ballots inundated the county’s elections office. Because of the pandemic, you see.

It takes this kind of event to sort the essential from the non-essential members of society. We find that the grocery store worker who makes minimum wage is indispensable. The hedge fund manager becomes the afterthought.

Because the ballot is so central to who we are, a mere plague can’t be allowed to stop voting. And so, in our calculations, we quickly identified as worthy of protection the armies of elderly poll workers who normally shepherd us through those election days. We’ve given less thought to the professional stage managers behind the balloting.

According to the secretary of state’s office, Walker is the only election worker in Georgia – so far – known to have succumbed to the coronavirus. The thing is, the Riverdale grandmother didn’t have to be there.

Walker was a 25-year Fulton County veteran who had retired eight years ago. Even so, she had worked every election cycle since.

Benjamine Grant is the oldest of Walker’s three sons, a retired Army sergeant living in Harkins Heights, Texas. “She was a hard-working, real sweet person,” Grant told me Tuesday. “She could not stay away from the place.”

The feeling was mutual. “She knew everything. She had been not only a registration officer, but a registration supervisor,” said Fulton County Elections Director Richard Barron. “When she retired in 2012 and was able to come back time and time again, Ralph just described her as ‘plug and play.’ He could ask her to do anything in the office.”

The coronavirus nexus connecting Walker and Jones occurred about a month ago. “They were both in the office on March 23, a week after the county shut down,” Barron said. “They were both in there that day. We don’t know if one of them had it and gave it to the other, or if they already had it independently.”

Two days later, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced he was sending absentee ballot requests to 6.9 million Georgia voters for the May 19 primaries. Which he subsequently would move to June 9.

Jones was recovering as Easter weekend approached, but Walker’s condition became more and more desperate. She was placed on a ventilator. Her kidneys shut down. Both are conditions associated with COVID-19. She died at a Fayetteville hospital, her son said.

The deluge of absentee ballot requests struck a paralyzed elections office with 34 full-time staffers. A contractor was brought in to disinfect the downtown Fulton office. A warehouse holding more workers – and ballots – has been disinfected twice since. Masks, gloves and hand sanitizer are now part of the routine.

Ryan Anderson is a data geek who operates Georgiavotes.com, a number-crunching website that analyses voter data publicly available through the secretary of state's website. As of Tuesday, 893,192 voters had requested absentee ballots for the June 9 primaries, according to his website.

That’s more than the roughly 887,000 total votes cast in the 2016 primaries. This year, he reports, absentee ballot requests have increased by 3,253%.

Information on who has requested what kind of ballot – voters may choose Republican, Democrat or non-partisan – gives political campaigns across the state essential information. This is especially the case when human-to-human contact is all but forbidden, and elections will be won and lost via mail and robocall.

As of Tuesday, elections officials in Cobb had processed 79,812 absentee ballot requests. DeKalb had processed 75,939, and Gwinnett had received 35,092.

Even though it has the highest number of registered voters, Fulton had reported only 15,546 absentee ballot requests. After all the delays, Barron said his office should catch up on processing all absentee ballots by Thursday.

Beverly Walker’s death has made the safety of other election workers an indelible part of the debate over how the June 9 vote will proceed. Early in-person voting begins May 18. Fulton County will have four locations, maybe five. Operating hours will be shortened.

Twenty dropboxes will be stationed around the county to collect absentee ballots from voters who want to avoid mailing them.

“We’re going to have fewer machines out there, we’re going to have fewer poll workers and fewer voters will be able to go in at a time to vote. Ballot by mail is really the way to go for this election and probably the remainder of the year,” Barron said.

The aftermath of the April 9, in-person vote in Wisconsin has only hardened Barron’s opinion. At least 40 who voted or worked the polls in that state have tested positive for coronavirus.

Come June 9, poll workers in Fulton County – and probably many others -- will stand behind the same transparent sneeze guards that you see at CVS. Face shields, gloves, and masks will be part of the uniform.

Barron is in talks with the county attorney about one particular situation that might arise. To reduce the chances of contamination through the use of new touchscreen voting machines, Fulton County will probably distribute styluses that can be sanitized after each use.

And more than likely, before entering the closed confines of the voting station, every voter will have his or her temperature checked. Here’s the rub: A fever doesn’t disqualify a registered voter from casting a ballot. Even if it endangers poll workers and other voters.

“We’re going to remove them from line and have another place to process them – just set up some lonely voting booth off in the distance,” Barron said.

Beverly Walker will be the reminder that the risk election workers face is very real. Her memorial service was last Friday. Only immediate family members were in attendance, as has become the new custom. As of Tuesday, nearly 400 had watched the service on YouTube.