Death, illness and a pandemic: COVID-19 pushing election officials to brink ahead of primary

Death, illness and a pandemic: COVID-19 pushing election officials to brink ahead of primary

ATLANTA — The death of a Fulton County election worker and the hospitalization of another due to COVID-19 has slowed down the county's ability to process absentee ballot applications as they continue to flood in.

County election leaders told Channel 2 Action News that the situation puts into focus the incredible difficulties they are having trying to put on an election during the coronavirus crisis.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Justin Gray has learned that June’s primary election is going to be unlike any election day we’ve ever seen.

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Elections officials confirmed with Gray that in Fulton County, only five voters will be allowed into a polling place at any given time.

There are also going to be fewer polling locations.

Gray learned a lot of polling places are backing out because of safety concerns.

One thing election officials said can't happen is even if they believe someone is showing active COVID-19 symptoms, they won't be able to prevent them from entering a polling place.

“We hope that as few people as possible go to the polls on Election Day,” said Richard Barron, elections director for Fulton County.

“Something you never thought you’d say I’m assuming?” Gray asked Barron.

“No,” Barron said. “It is a risk, to go to vote right now.”

The Fulton County elections office has experienced firsthand the dangers of coronavirus.

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Voter registration chief Ralph Jones told Gray that he and longtime employee Beverly Walker were working together to deal with the massive influx of absentee ballot applications when both started getting sick.

“You know, I would call her up and say, ‘How you feeling?’ and she would say, ‘Mr. Jones, it’s kind a hard to breathe and I’d say, ‘I’ve got the same thing,’” Jones said.

Beverly Walker, 62, died on April 15 from COVID-19.

“If you ever come into my office, you would know that I always introduced her as my favorite employee to anybody,” Jones said about Walker. “She had a great smile, a great disposition, even during the hard times.”

Jones himself would end up in the emergency room.

“It was hard to breathe. It was hard to take a deep breath, like, ‘Oh that hurts,’” Jones told Gray.

The tragedy shows just how big the challenge will be to put on an election in the middle of a pandemic.

“I don’t think that it’s going to go away. So, we’re going to have to do business differently with the threats of the virus in our world,” said Janine Eveler, Cobb County elections director.

Georgia already pushed back the primary election until June. It was originally scheduled for March 24.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said it's given counties critical time to come up with a plan.

“Obviously for the June election, for June 9, having those three additional weeks, we think will be very good for all the counties,” Raffensperger said.

The biggest change is the push by Raffensperger to get Georgians to vote by mail or absentee.

His office mailed absentee ballot applications to every active voter in the state.

“It’s a big switch obviously. Ninety-five percent of all Georgians always showed up either the three weeks of early voting or the day of election,” Raffensperger said.

Channel 2 Action News obtained photos showing elections staff taking over the atrium of the closed Fulton County Government Building to open absentee ballot applications.

“We were able to spread everybody out all around the building and protect them with the facial masks and gloves,” Barron said.

Those ballot applications are coming in numbers counties have never seen before, up by more than 1,000% statewide.

Cobb County said they've received 150,000 absentee ballot applications so far. Fulton County, nearly 135,000. Clayton County, more than 24,000.

Gwinnett, about 88,000 and DeKalb County, nearly 95,000.

Each one of those applications is one less person hopefully showing up at the polls.

“We are losing polling locations almost by the day for Election Day,” Barron said.

Fulton County told Gray that locations like assisted living facilities are understandably backing out as polling places.

For early voting, the county is going from 24 locations to just four.

One thing elections officials say they legally can't do is turn someone away who is sick.

“If somebody’s going into a hospital or going into a business you can screen them and if they have symptoms not let them in,” Barron said.

“You don’t have that luxury?” Gray asked Barron.

“No, because we’re disenfranchising the voter at that point,” Barron said.

“We can’t turn anyone away and I don’t even think legally we’re going to be able to use those non-contact thermometers to see if somebody has a fever,” Eveler said.

Raffensperger told Gray that it’s an incredibly difficult balance.

“It’s really a very delicate situation. We never want people to feel like they’re being turned away. We also don’t want unhealthy people there,” Raffensperger said.

That's why they are continuing to push people to send in absentee ballot applications.

But absentee ballots bring an issue of their own: They are much more time consuming to count.

Raffensperger said his office is purchasing high speed counting machines to help, but Georgia law currently states that counties can't even open absentee ballots until the morning of Election Day.

“To open 200,000 envelopes on Election Day is going to take a long time especially when you think how many people we need to have to do that and the social distancing constraints that are going to be upon them,” Raffensperger said.

The secretary of state said if something isn't done, it could take weeks to get election results.

Raffensperger confirmed to Gray that he will be asking the state election board to pass an emergency rule that would allow counties to open those ballots and scan them into the system before Election Day.

Nothing would be counted early, but it would give counties the ability to securely get those ballots into the system early.

Election officials say sending out absentee ballot applications is best way to vote in primary