Dacula avoids runoff as elections supervisor defends holding vote

Dacula City Hall Elections Superintendent Heather Coggins (right) hands Denis Haynes Jr. a ballot during early voting for a special election for city council at Dacula City Hall in Dacula, Wednesday, March, 18, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Just 21 people went to the polls in Dacula on Tuesday, but elections superintendent Heather Coggins said she didn't think the coronavirus pandemic affected turnout for the special election for city council.

There were 96 votes cast — 75 of them in early voting — and turnout in the Gwinnett County city of about 6,000 people is always low. In November, only 181 voters turned out.

Coggins came under fire from some residents for holding the election, even as the state postponed its Presidential Preference Primary, which was also scheduled for Tuesday.

She defended her decision Tuesday, saying she thought the city would be better-served by having a full council through the crisis. Coggins said she wanted to finish voting before the situation got worse.

“I just don’t foresee this getting better,” she said.

But Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University, said some residents might have thought the contest was postponed, like the state’s was.

“Do you really want to have an election in the midst of a lot of confusion?” Gillespie said last week. “The questions of optics and legitimacy are most important.”

Coggins said she was confident that people who wanted to vote had gotten the opportunity to. She’d tried to get some residents who came to City Hall for other reasons to cast their ballots for the city council race, too, but no one would.

“You can’t make people vote,” she said. “No one is rude about it, but when you ask them to vote, they just don’t.”

As the number of COVID-19 cases in the state soared, Coggins said she thought Tuesday’s election was safer than many other places people were still congregating in Gwinnett County. The city was taking precautions to keep people spaced out and to clean regularly.

“I promise we’ve got less people in this voting room than there are in the grocery stores,” she said. “We have masks, we have gloves, we have everything you can think of to protect ourselves.”

There was a chance, with three candidates, that Coggins would have to administer a runoff election in late April. But Sean Williams won 49 votes according to unofficial totals, negating the need for voters to go to the polls again.

“I was praying all the way, ‘Please, Lord God, I don’t care who wins, please just let somebody win,’ ” Coggins said Wednesday. “I can’t do this anymore.”

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