DeKalb GOP demands election leaders allow poll watcher to forgo face masks

A voter makes ballot selections at Landmark Church in Peachtree Corners, Georgia, on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Casey Sykes/The Atlanta-Journal Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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A voter makes ballot selections at Landmark Church in Peachtree Corners, Georgia, on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Casey Sykes/The Atlanta-Journal Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

A letter from the DeKalb Republican Party’s attorneys called the requirement illegal

Early voting has begun in Georgia, but a battle is brewing over whether masks must be worn by volunteer poll watchers.

The DeKalb County Republican Party had its attorneys write a letter to the county’s elections board demanding that its poll watchers and other volunteers be allowed to take off their face masks. According to the letter, all poll watchers, monitors and vote review panelists are required to wear a face covering at the polls in DeKalb.

The county also requires its poll workers to wear masks, but the DeKalb GOP letter doesn’t reference them.

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The letter, dated Sunday, asked for a response within 24 hours or threatened the dispute could prompt legal action. Elections board Chair Dele Lowman Smith provided a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that said:

“The BRE is appreciative of the service of all volunteers who make it possible to conduct elections in a safe and secure manner, including individuals serving as poll watchers and vote review panelists, and will work to conduct the election in a fashion that allows all to safely and comfortably participate during the ongoing pandemic. To the extent any individual participating as a volunteer has concerns regarding the legal requirements related to masks, it may be helpful to carefully review the ordinance as there are a number of exemptions which may apply.”

»Read the full legal DeKalb GOP letter at the bottom of this story.

The letter was drafted by the Bernard & Johnson law firm in Dunwoody, and it cited Georgia code that would appear to ban face masks from being worn on government property.

The law states, “A person is guilty of a misdemeanor when he wears a mask, hood, or device by which any portion of the face is hidden, concealed, or covered as to conceal the identity of the wearer and is upon any public way or public property...” The letter added that the law was enacted to prevent racial and ethnic minorities from being intimidated by masked individuals while voting.

The letter acknowledged that Governor Brian Kemp’s 2020 emergency order suspended this clause from being enforced due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, that emergency order expired on July 1, 2021.

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“Therefore, there is no legal authority that would even debatably allow a county ordinance, or directive of the Board of Elections, to force volunteer citizens to violate a state law which, by its plain meaning, prohibits masking on public property (where voting will take place),” the letter continued.

The letter is in response to a directive given Friday by DeKalb elections Director Keisha Smith, who wrote DeKalb GOP Chair Marci McCarthy to say that face coverings will still be required. Smith cited the county’s face covering ordinance, which remains in effect — but includes a “conscientious objector” clause. Mask mandates have been dropped by most other local governments.

John Jackson, the chairman for DeKalb Democrats, told the AJC the threat of legal action is just to rile up conservative voters.

“We have real issues to address in DeKalb County and throughout Georgia,” he said. “It’s a shame that the DeKalb GOP is wasting everyone’s time with these theatrics to impress the Republican base.”