Counties work to keep in-person early voting safe despite coronavirus

Hartley Falbaum of Loganville casts his ballot during early voting for the presidential primary at the Gwinnett County Voter Registrations and Elections office building in Lawrenceville, Monday, March 2, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/AJC)

The coronavirus pandemic has forced elections officials to reexamine how to conduct voting while preventing the spread of disease.

Potentially long voter lines, touch-screen voting machines and a high likelihood of more than 10 voters and poll workers in an indoor polling place present a challenge for election directors: They must conduct in-person balloting while trying to minimize voters’ and poll workers’ exposure to disease.

Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb and Gwinnett are each still nailing down the details of how voting will go forward.

“These circumstances are unique — they are unprecedented, actually — and I think public health takes precedence,” said Rick Barron, Fulton County elections director.

Georgia's presidential primary was postponed to the May 19 general primary. Although early voting had begun throughout metro Atlanta, it was suspended on March 19 due to the coronavirus. More than 275,000 people had voted by then, twice the amount that had at the same point in 2016. Early voting is expected to resume April 27.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is encouraging residents to vote by mail, and the state is sending every registered voter an absentee ballot application. The secretary of state's office began mailing those applications Monday, March 30. However, each county is still required under state law to offer at least one early voting location in the three weeks before election day.

Gwinnett and Cobb counties are not yet ready to share plans for early voting, but Fulton and DeKalb are nearing potential solutions. All are working with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Georgia Department of Public Health and their own health departments to find ways to conduct voting with the least potential risk of contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The fluidity of the outbreak and shelter-in-place rules that are still changing makes strategizing more difficult. It’s hard to predict what the public health situation will be like three weeks from now, said Erica Hamilton, DeKalb County’s director of voter registration and elections.

“We hope to do early voting as it is, but all that could change in the matter of hours. I don’t want to forecast too far into the future,” Hamilton said. “Had this been a normal election, we’d have everything locked down and ready to go, but it’s not business as usual right now.”

Fulton County

The state’s most populous county typically has 21 early voting locations open up to 9½ hours a day. The Fulton County Board of Registrations and Elections hasn’t made its final call yet, but if they take elections director Rick Barron’s advice, the number of locations and length of operating hours will shrink.

“We are going to try and reduce the number of poll workers we have to put out in the field and the number of locations because we don’t want to put people at risk of this contagious virus,” Barron said.

The board will consider three options at a meeting next week. They can keep the original plan for 21 early voting sites, reduce it to one per county commission district or reduce it to three — the county elections office and two county annexes. Hours could also be reduced to 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Barron said.

There are concerns about how many poll workers will be willing to participate because of the pandemic, Barron said. The county has been regularly surveying election day poll workers, who are often different from those who work during early voting. The proportion of those who say they’re “100% committed” to working the polls has gone from 95% to 72% in the past week, according to Barron.

“I expect that we’ll continue to lose poll workers as time goes,” Barron said. “I think we will be able to fill in any gaps with people who work at the county.”

Senior citizens, who are at higher risk for developing complications if they contract coronavirus, make up a large portion of election day poll workers, while most early voting poll workers are “middle aged,” Barron said.

Additional health precautions will be taken at polling places to ensure workers and voters are safe. Before early voting for March’s primary was suspended, poll workers sanitized voting machines every hour. Once it starts again in late April, machines and pens will be sanitized after each use whenever possible, Barron said. There will likely be a restriction on how many people are allowed in the polling place at once — the CDC has recommended no gatherings larger than 10 people and many local executive orders have banned gatherings above that threshold — and precautions will have to be taken to keep people at least six feet apart if lines form, Barron said.

“We need to worry about how many people we put into one place. Every poll worker we put in place is the responsibility of the Fulton County Board of Registrations and Elections,” Barron said. “Reducing the exposure of our poll workers is one of our goals, and it’s the secretary of state’s goal to alleviate that issue through balloting by mail. We have to pay more attention to people’s safety than anything right now. There are a lot of people dying or getting really sick, people ending up in the ICU, and, frankly, I don’t want that on my conscience.”

DeKalb County

DeKalb typically has 11 early voting locations, with 10 open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and the South DeKalb Mall polling place open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Five early voting locations have select weekend hours. Elections director Erica Hamilton is currently in the process of finding out if all those locations are still willing to host in-person early voting.

Hamilton hopes to conduct early voting as planned, with the same hours and number of locations. Hours could even be extended to 8 p.m. at the DeKalb County Voter Registration and Elections Office and Dunwoody Library, and to 9 p.m. at the South DeKalb Mall, but that has not yet been decided.

The county has about 2,000 poll workers, most of whom work on election day; about 180 are required to operate 11 early voting sites. Fourteen poll workers have contacted the county with concerns for their safety regarding the virus, Hamilton said.

DeKalb County will be following CDC and state guidelines regarding gathering sizes and social distancing in early voting. They’ll also be sanitizing voting machines and pens on an “hourly basis,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton is hopeful the public health situation will improve by the time early voting starts. But as state and local government response to the virus evolves — including a stay-at-home order and curfew in DeKalb — Hamilton says plans may have to be continually evaluated to adapt.

“It depends on where we are at that time,” Hamilton said.

Cobb County

Cobb’s elections and voter registration department is meeting to discuss early voting plans Friday. This is a departmental meeting, not a public meeting of the elections board, elections director Janine Eveler said.

Gwinnett County

Gwinnett County’s Board of Voter Registration and Elections is expected to meet Monday to discuss in-person early voting. This would be a public meeting broadcast via live stream. Details of the meeting have not yet been finalized, county spokesman Joe Sorenson said.

If you already voted…

You can still vote in the May 19 primary for other offices on the ballot, including U.S. Senate and local seats. The presidential primary vote will be left off your ballot, whether you vote in person or by mail.

The order will take effect on Friday and will last through April 13.

In Other News