Dacula holds elections, even as state calls them off mid-outbreak

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)

When polls across metro Atlanta closed for early voting on Saturday, the state made the unprecedented decision to delay until May the Presidential Preference Primary scheduled for next Tuesday. There would be no more voting in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.

But in Dacula, a Gwinnett County city of about 6,000 people, the voting has gone on.

There, elections superintendent Heather Coggins decided it was better to get a special city council election over early. The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 are low, she said. If the election was delayed until May, that might change.

“I felt if we waited longer, there would be more risk,” she said. “I didn’t want to put the elderly population at risk. I thought it was in the best interest of the city to move forward.”

Dacula uses paper ballots, and didn’t need the Secretary of State’s permission to hold its tally. The office declined to comment on the wisdom of Dacula’s decision, but delayed its own statewide primary due to health concerns. A spokesperson for the department didn’t know how many other local elections might still be ongoing.

Adrienne Johnson, one of the three candidates running for office, said she had a hard time deciding whether to encourage people to go vote for her, or to stay home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that people stay more than six feet away from each other and gather in groups of 10 people or fewer to limit the spread of the virus. She said she had a “health and safety concern” about whether people should go to the polls.

“To try to get people out in less than a week in the midst of coronavirus is not necessarily the best decision,” Johnson said. “I’m concerned about it.”

If one of the candidates does not win the contest outright, the city will have to hold an April 21 runoff election.

Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University, said that election could be the real concern. By April, she said, there could be more severe restrictions on mobility that hamper people’s ability to vote.

For the Tuesday election, Gillespie said her main worry is that residents might think the contest was postponed, like the state’s is. Through Thursday, 67 people had voted early in the city, Coggins said. That’s more early voters than the city’s November election, when 181 total votes were cast.

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

Coggins said she didn’t want to make a decision to stop the election once voting had begun — even though the state did just that. The best solution for Dacula, she said, was to finish voting before the situation got worse.

Terrance R. Brand, the city’s poll manager, said there were masks and hand sanitizer available to make sure people could stay safe. Brand, 78, is considered vulnerable to the virus, but said he didn’t feel threatened at all by his job at the polls. He said the city made the right call.

“I’m in good health,” he said. “I can weather the storm.”

Dave Slotter, another candidate, said he thought the city would be doing residents a disservice if it delayed the election. Right now, there’s no one representing those voters. Still, he said he expects the virus and the recommended distancing measures to impede turnout for the race. The third candidate, Sean Williams, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Turnout is usually low for off-year local races, but Denis Haynes said he was still surprised to learn that he was the only person who voted in a day and a half. Haynes, who qualified for the seat before dropping out of the race due to a family issue, said he thought it was his responsibility to participate.

“It’s important to try to push forward as normal, with precautions,” he said. “I felt safe and I felt comfortable. A delay may be a permanent cancellation, if it got worse.”

Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this story.

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