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Elections employee dies of COVID-19 ahead of Georgia primary

Voters line up on Tuesday, June 20, 2017, at the Hammond Park Gymnasium in Sandy Springs. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM.
Voters line up on Tuesday, June 20, 2017, at the Hammond Park Gymnasium in Sandy Springs. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM.

A Fulton County elections employee has died from COVID-19 and a voter registration manager was hospitalized, slowing the county's ability to handle a flood of absentee ballot requests for Georgia's June 9 primary.

Beverly Walker, a registration officer, died April 15 at age 62, said Fulton Elections Director Richard Barron.

Registration Chief Ralph Jones also suffered coughing and shortness of breath, symptoms associated with COVID-19. Jones was treated at a hospital for low oxygen levels and was released after less than a day.

The Fulton elections office closed for two days last week for deep cleaning and decontamination, Barron said.

About 113,000 Fulton voters have submitted absentee ballot request forms so they can vote by mail, Barron said, but just 10,738 of them had been processed through Wednesday.

“With this mortality rate, this is really nothing to play around with,” Barron said. “What are we going to do if a voter is in line that’s exhibiting symptoms? Are we allowed to use non-contact thermometers to take people’s temperature? Are we allowed to send someone home if they’re in line with a fever?”

Barron said further guidance is needed to ensure the safety of voters and poll workers.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is encouraging voters to cast ballots remotely and avoid human contact at precincts. His office mailed absentee ballot request forms to the state's 6.9 million active voters, and more than 701,000 of them have already been returned and processed through Wednesday, according to state data.

But in-person voting locations must remain open on election day and during three weeks of early voting beginning May 18, according to state law. Polling places will be equipped with cleaning supplies and protective gear for poll workers.

Barron wants to avoid the kind of situation seen in Wisconsin’s April 7 primary, when crowds of voters waited in long lines and many precincts were closed.

As of Tuesday, 19 people in Wisconsin who tested positive for COVID-19 reported they had voted in person or worked at the polls, but it's unclear whether they contracted the illness at precincts or somewhere else.

To catch up on the backlog of absentee ballot requests, 30 employees are on loan to the elections office from county’s tax commissioner and tax assessor. They’ve spread out across the atrium of the Fulton government center in downtown Atlanta.

Walker and Jones last worked in the office March 23. Jones wasn't tested for the coronavirus early this month when tests were in short supply, but his doctors told him it was likely he contracted the illness. Jones is now working from home.

Walker worked in the elections office since 1997 and was a registration supervisor when she retired in 2012. She continued to work part-time since then.

Beverly A. Walker, a Fulton County elections employee, died from illness related to COVID19 on April 15, 2020.
Beverly A. Walker, a Fulton County elections employee, died from illness related to COVID19 on April 15, 2020.

Walker knew everything about running elections, including registration, absentee voting and petitions, Jones said. She was a mild-mannered and giving person who liked to cook for the elections staff.

It’s unknown whether Walker and Jones caught the coronavirus from each other or separately.

“We’re trying to adhere to the policies of making sure that everybody is six feet away, and we’re trying not to overtax the workers,” Jones said. “We are actually functioning. The numbers should be really coming on board soon.”

The county expects to catch up on processing absentee ballot requests by Wednesday, Barron said. Ballots will be mailed to voters a day or two after they're processed.