Early-voting social distancing hints at tight spaces, long lines Tuesday

The State Election board Thursday called for Georgia's attorney general to investigate why hundreds of Fulton County residents did not get to vote in June's primary when they didn't get absentee ballots in time. State election officials said the county's problems handling the ballots likely contributed to the long waits at Fulton precincts like the one at the College Park library in the June primary. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Voters at College Park’s library precinct waited more than six hours to cast ballots on a sometimes rainy Friday as in-person early voting came to a close, an indication that Georgia’s new ballot-marking equipment will be put to the test Tuesday under COVID-19 safety precautions that were not part of the plan.

The line stretched out longer than it might have before the pandemic, with many voters observing six-foot social distancing guidelines. But social distancing was difficult in the small library space where the voting equipment was wiped between each use and masks sometimes muffled communications.

Andrea Turner-Gray said as she exited the library Friday afternoon after more than six hours in line she worries about what the scene will look like in College Park and across Georgia when turnout spikes run into social distancing requirements on primary Election Day and possibly beyond.

“What is it going to be like on Tuesday and to be when we really get to the final elections?” she wondered. “We’re actually spaced out in the line, but it’s a small voting center. They have people spaced out, but it’s small.”

Long lines and long waits Friday didn’t deter determined primary election voters at the College Park library precinct. Six-hour waits were common at the library as early voting ended last week. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, even with the complications of holding an election during the spread of the novel coronavirus. Georgia’s Secretary of State started urging voters weeks ago to request mail-in ballots for a primary that’s been delayed twice. About 1.6 million absentee ballots were requested and about half haven’t been returned yet. Georgia voters cast about 1 million ballots as of late last week, so the shift to mail is working for many.

Some Georgia voters say they just trust their votes are more certain to be counted with an in-person voting machine instead of arriving at their county elections office via envelope. But many voters say their ballot requests weren’t answered in time by their county elections office. 

Macon’s Lynne Bryan planned to mail in her absentee ballot for Tuesday’s election after an all-out vote-by-mail campaign from state election officials.

Yet, the 77-year-old Bryan reluctantly voted in person Friday, still waiting on her absentee ballot to arrive in her mailbox.  

Bryan’s age qualifies her as among the people most vulnerable to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has claimed the lives of more than 110,000 Americans.

So when Bryan arrived at the Bibb County elections office Friday, she kept a watchful eye to make sure poll workers followed social distancing and sanitizing guidelines to keep themselves and voters as safe as possible from infection.

As a rule, people maintained a six-foot buffer between one another, with people wearing masks and otherwise following safety precautions.

“I think we have a really important election right now, and I think everyone’s voice needs to be heard, so I wanted to get my vote in,” Bryan said. “If I had felt threatened by the way things were set up, I might not have voted.”

Tuesday, many Georgia voters will get their first up-close look at the state’s new $104 million voting system, featuring large touchscreen tablets, scanners and printers that take up significantly more space than the old equipment used since 2002. Some early voting precincts configured voting kiosks in a way that made social distancing difficult without underusing the available machines.

‘Results in disenfranchising voters’

Meanwhile, 10% of polling locations are relocated or closed for this election, the result of fewer poll workers who tend to be older and vulnerable to COVID-19. Also, churches and schools that typically serve as neighborhood precincts remain closed as Georgia’s COVID-19 spread is slowed but still continues. Fulton County elections officials, who operate the College Park library precinct, over the weekend called for 250 more people to work at the polls Tuesday.

The library also offers an absentee ballot drop-box to voters who have their form in hand and want to avoid the long lines, something other county elections offices are also allowed after the State Election Board voted in April to allow that option.

The Democratic Party of Georgia says a lack of adequate voting equipment and the need for privacy at precincts and social distancing due to the pandemic are combining to put Georgia’s in-person primary voters in a squeeze.

“Between the extra space required to maintain privacy for voters, and the distance between polling booths required to maintain social distancing, counties are only setting up a small number of voting machines in polling stations,” party spokeswoman Maggie Chambers said in an email. “This is simply unacceptable, and results in disenfranchising voters.”

In Fulton County, announcements about relocated precincts came in the form of notices and signs telling regular voters they will be assigned to a different polling place Tuesday than they’re used to.

“We can get equipment into all those locations, but there will be more people assigned to some of those Election Day sites than we normally have,” Elections Director Richard Barron said on May 27, nine days after early voting started and before last week’s lines to vote grew dramatically. “It is going to be a challenge with the restrictions on physical distance to allow for all of those people to go to all those places.”

Several of Lowndes County’s 11 polling locations in south Georgia will not be open on Tuesday.

“All of those (voters) will be redirected into our office to vote,” Election Supervisor Deb Cox said. “This will become their polling place and this one is well-staffed so we should be pretty good.”

Lowndes election staff and poll workers are following the cleaning and safety standards to keep voters safe and the required number of voting machines will be in place, but with the caveat that some will be turned off to start with.

“What we’re telling the poll managers to do is turn off or don’t turn on every other machine so it enforces that six-foot rule, but the equipment is there if we need extra,” Cox said.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger mailed out 6.9 million absentee ballot applications this spring. By Friday, a record 847,000 Georgians turned in absentee ballots while a few hundred thousand people took part in early voting. In the presidential election cycle this time four years ago, about 250,000 Georgia voters cast ballots early.

County elections officials are struggling to consolidate polling locations and meet social distancing guidelines since the early in-person voting started May 18, Raffensperer said. In Cobb County, for example, the number of ballot marking devices decreased by more than half at one early voting site because of social distancing, he said.

“I think we’re the only state in the union that has maintained all three voting options: no-excuse absentee voting, three weeks of early voting and Election Day,” Raffensperger said.

Atlantans Diane Latham (L) and Holly Frew handed out bottled water and snacks Friday afternoon to voters at Fulton County’s College Park library precinct. Six-hour waits to cast a ballot at the precinct were common all day. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

So with those other options available, why did Turner-Gray slog through a six-hour wait in line to vote in College Park Friday?

“I’m frankly concerned that if I put it in by mail that it’s going to disappear,” she said. “So I wanted to show up in person.”

And it wasn’t lost on Erick Malveaux as he finally reached the library’s precinct entrance that the long lines at the College Park precinct are coming at a time when the cause of racial justice is on a lot of minds as Friday marked a week since protests against police brutality against black people in general and George Floyd in particular spread across Georgia and the country.

“It’s kind of perplexing to see that they chose to have such limited resources, especially at a location like here with so many different people, especially a lot of minorities in line in times like this with this political climate,” Malveaux said. “It’s very, very interesting that this was done this way.”

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.
John McCosh
John McCosh, Editor-in-Chief, is a seasoned writer and editor with decades of experience in journalism and government public affairs. His skills were forged in Georgia newsrooms, where he was a business and investigative reporter, editor and bureau chief, and expanded his experience during years in nonprofit and corporate communications roles. For more than a decade at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, McCosh investigated state and local government officials and operations. He also tracked regional growth and development with a focus on metro Atlanta’s population-related problems, including traffic congestion, air pollution and water quality. He first learned the power of public records to unlock information when he was a commercial real estate reporter at the Atlanta Business Chronicle. McCosh is a board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and active in the Georgia State Signal Alumni Group, which advises student journalists.