Advance voting resumes in Bartow, although elections officials encourage mail-in voting

VOTE OF CONFIDENCE Election procedures changing in wake of COVID-19

By JAMES SWIFT
Posted 12/31/69

As of Wednesday, 13,176 ballots had been mailed to voters throughout Bartow County. By that point, the Bartow County Elections Office had received 3,936 back. “We have rejected, so far, 11 …

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Advance voting resumes in Bartow, although elections officials encourage mail-in voting

VOTE OF CONFIDENCE Election procedures changing in wake of COVID-19

Posted
As of Wednesday, 13,176 ballots had been mailed to voters throughout Bartow County. By that point, the Bartow County Elections Office had received 3,936 back. 

“We have rejected, so far, 11 applications for coming in with no signature at all,” said Bartow County Elections Supervisor Joseph Kirk at Wednesday afternoon’s special-called Bartow County Board of Elections and Voter Registration meeting. “If they come in with the wrong signature, we issue the ballot provisional, and in those cases we’ve issued 213 ballots provisional — of those, 21 have done what they have to do to get those ballots accepted by sending a signed affidavit to us with a copy of their ID.”

Another 50, he said, have been returned to the office with an affidavit but no ID copy. 

“I’ll have some proposals for ya’ll at the next meeting for how to handle those in a way that we think is fair, that we’re counting the ballots that we know the voters signed and came from that voter,” Kirk said. “And not counting the ones that we are not confident in, that didn’t go through the right process to get those ballots to count.” 

Absentee ballots will continue to be mailed out until 5 p.m. on June 5. Bartow County Assistant Elections Supervisor Cheryl Billard said the number of ballots received so far represents a slightly higher rate of return than normal for the local community.

“I’m pretty happy about this right now, because every ballot we get back in is somebody who’s not going to come in-person and try to cast a ballot,” Kirk said. “As long as we encourage those other 8,000-or-so to get their ballots back into us, we should have an easy time on Election Day.”

Bartow County voters have about three more weeks to request absentee ballots ahead of the June 9 election date.

“At this point, we have about a two-day turnaround time on getting those ballots issued back out,” Kirk said. “Once we get them issued in the system it takes about a week for the voter to receive their ballot.”

Kirk continues to encourage voting through the mail as opposed to voting in-person, adding that those who opt for the latter are in for "a slow process.”

He said he anticipates at least five absentee ballot drop boxes to be deployed throughout the county shortly. As of midweek, drop boxes have already been installed at the elections headquarters building at 1300 Joe Frank Harris Parkway and the Frank Moore Administration and Judicial Center at 135 West Cherokee Ave. in Cartersville. Locations at the Manning Mill gymnasium in Adairsville, the Allatoona Resource Center in Acworth and Euharlee City Hall are also planned. 

“The same rules apply to turning a ballot into them as walking into the office,” Kirk said. “So you can’t gather up a bunch of ballots from everybody you know and drop them off at the box at the same time.”

All of the drop box locations, he added, are under video surveillance. 

“So if anybody tries to tamper with one, we will have that on camera and we will prosecute them,” he said.

BALLOT ISSUES

Kirk said he’s heard from many community members who simply do not trust the absentee ballot process. However, he said those fears of “rampant” voter fraud are unfounded. 

“Since 2007, I’ve caught one person voting in someone’s else’s name and turned it into the State elections board,” he said. “We’re going to count every ballot we legally can. They’re saying that they don’t trust some nameless, faceless entity, but no, that’s us, our office and our employees.”

Still, he said it’s not unheard of for absentee ballots to wind up at the “wrong addresses.” Sometimes, he said that’s due to vendors pulling the wrong city; but usually, it’s because the mailing addresses listed for a voter is different than his or her physical residential address.

Kirk said anyone with concerns about misplaced or misdirected ballots can call the local elections office at (770) 387-5098 or visit the Georgia Secretary of State’s My Voter Page at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov. 

“There is a way we can track these things through the mail, and there has been a handful that has called in now that, for some reason, were never issued a ballot and we had to get with the State to get that reissued,” he said.

He addressed some confusion that has arisen in the local community recently. 

“It looks like other organizations have started sending out absentee ballot applications to voters who maybe haven’t received their ballot yet or haven’t returned their ballot yet,” he said. “The one we know of right now is from the Republican Party, and I haven’t had a chance to reach out to them yet to find out what’s going on.”

As a result, Kirk said some residents are getting those additional applications and assuming something went “wrong” with their first ballots. 

“From the cases I’ve talked to, it looks like they got a voter list and it looks like they sent applications to people who had not mailed back a ballot yet as opposed to people who have not been issued a ballot yet,” Billard said. “It’s public record — you can request an absentee list at any time, anybody can do that.”

As Kirk noted, essentially anyone can mail a ballot application to another individual just as long it matches the State’s format.

"So whoever they decided to send them to, it’s legal,” he said. “In fact, the State publishes on their website, I think daily, everybody who's been issued or returned an absentee ballot by voter registration number. So if you have a way to link those numbers up, you can see who’s returned their ballots so far.”

Kirk also noted that ballots are no longer being rejected merely for signature mismatches. 

“We give them a chance to cure it,” he said. “They have until the Friday after the election to get stuff into us.”

THE IN-PERSON VOTING DILEMMA

Advance voting begins in Bartow County on Monday. At Wednesday’s meeting, the local elections board approved a request from Kirk to only open the “legal minimum” number of polls throughout the community. 

Effectively, that means just the elections headquarter building off Joe Frank Harris Parkway.

“We legally have to have voting at our office, there’s not a way we can switch over to one of these larger locations,” Billard said. “There’s not avoiding this situation at all.”

The office will be open for in-person voting Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. until June 5. Advance voting is also scheduled to take place on Saturday, May 30, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

Kirk said he intends on using as few employees as possible to facilitate the process. As a safety measure, only five voters will be allowed in the building at one time. 

He said procedures are in place in case lengthy lines begin forming at the polling place. 

“We’re going to try to get folks to take a number and wait in their cars,” he said. “I don’t know how it’s going to work yet, but we’re going to try.”

He also encourages those who intend on voting in-person to bring a ballot with them, if one has been issued to them via mail. 

“If they bring the ballot with them, it makes it much easier on us to cancel that ballot and get them through the process faster,” he said. “Two, if they get tired of waiting in line, they can always go ahead and mark it, sign the envelope, drop it in the drop box here and head on out … there’s no reason they have to wait in line, they can just drop the paper ballot off here.”

Equipment, clipboards and scanners will all be wiped clean between voters — contrary to some misinformation making the social media rounds, Kirk noted that the machines do not have to be turned off to be properly disinfected. 

Advance voters, Kirk said, will be required to wear masks "at all times" inside the elections headquarters. 

“We will also be asking them to tell us if they’re symptomatic or if they’ve been diagnosed with COVID,” he said. “The deal is, we cannot deny someone’s Constitutional right to vote because they’re sick.”

Kirk described the protocols that would take place if a voter reports coronavirus-like symptoms.

“We’ll have an area inside for them to sit at and we’ll declare a minor emergency — it’s how it works legally — and bring all the stuff to them at that spot so they’re sitting in one location,” he said. “A hand-marked paper ballot will be issued to them to vote there, and when the scanner clears out they’ll be escorted to the scanner to feed the ballot into the scanner and head out the door.”

Board members discussed the possibility of using enclosed, outdoor tent areas for voting. Kirk said that proposal raises concerns about potentially creating two different “classes” of voters in an attempt to safeguard against the spread of COVID-19.

“I don’t have a way to get around them not feeding that ballot into the scanner themselves,” he said. “I’m really hoping that no one who’s contagious shows up to vote in-person. Voting in-person this time is a bad idea, it just is.”

Preventative measures like temperature screenings, he said, are completely out of the question. “I’m not sure what the legalities of that would even be,” he said. 

Still, he said he wouldn’t be surprised if symptomatic individuals do indeed head to the polls, regardless of the potential public health risks. 

“Some of the folks I’ve talked to lately are so adamant about not voting through the mail that I could see some of them doing it,” he said. 

POLL POSITION

There are certainly some unknowns heading into next month’s elections, but Kirk said he’s confident that neither the June 9 election date or the August 11 runoff date are likely to change.

“There is a lawsuit right now that’s asking for that date to be changed to June 30, but that would be in violation of federal law and I’m pretty sure the [Department of Justice] has already reached out and said that’s not a good idea,” he said. 

A building expansion at the elections headquarters, Kirk said, is going to limit parking space. In turn, he anticipates that limiting the number of people who can vote in-person at the facility. 

However, he said he expects that project to wrap up by early September. 

“So we should be in good shape going into the November election and move that operation over before we get too far into testing for that election,” he said. 

When Election Day does arrive, Kirk said social distancing policies will be enforced, with voters required to adhere to six-feet buffers. 

“If they don’t want to comply, if they are aggressive about it, the sheriff’s offered to send some deputies to help with that,” he said. “We’re going to start off by trying to be nice, and if that doesn’t work, then we’ll get law enforcement involved.”

Ultimately, he said the voting venues will determine both the number of poll workers and voting machines onsite. Plans for each voting location will be presented to the board at a meeting scheduled for 3 p.m. on May 29.

As of midweek, Kirk said he does not know if the Cartersville Civic Center will be used as a June 9 polling place. 

“We are in negotiations with them right now for what we can do to use it for Election Day so we don’t have to move that poll,” he said. “If they do not allow us to use that poll for Election Day, we will have to move it to another location in that area as an emergency measure, and I’m trying to avoid that as much as I can.”

Kirk said there are no plans to restrict employees by “risk categories” — i.e., replacing poll workers over a certain age. 

“If they choose to work, they’re welcome to work, if they don’t want to they can stay home with no penalty,” he said. “We’re avoiding hiring anybody who’s new right now, because we have so many folks that have already been trained.”

Furthermore, in the case of pronounced employee shortages Kirk said the County can activate reserves from a student poll worker program. 

“So if we get into a bind, we can do that,” he said. “I’m not concerned about staffing right now.”

The board also voted unanimously to allot every employee who agrees to work on June 9 a $20 stipend. 

“That way if we need them, we can call them the week before and say ‘Yes, we need you, plan on working that day,’” Kirk said. 

The board likewise voted to approve payments of $20 per virtual training session for each potential poll worker.

“As we move into advance voting [this] week, that cuts into a lot of our space and people will be getting closer and closer together to keep everything running the way it needs to,” Kirk said. “As far as protective gear goes, we now require masks to be worn in the common areas of the office, so if the employees are in their personal work space of their own office, they can take it off.”

He said that anyone who has questions or would like to drop off a ballot is more than welcome to visit the recently reopened elections headquarters building.

“We have limited it to three people in the lobby at any one time,” he said. “When we go out to deal with the public, we have Plexiglas between us and we’re going to keep that in place as long as we can.”