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'Social distancing and sanitizing': Georgia opens early voting
Bulloch voters following guidelines

ATLANTA — Wait in your car until your group is called. Stand on the painted circle so you don’t get too close to other voters in line. (Please) wear a mask. Everything you touch will be sanitized.

Those are some of the new procedures Georgians were greeted with Monday as they participated in the first day of in-person early voting for the state’s June 9 primaries with the coronavirus pandemic still raging.

In Bulloch County, Elections Supervisor Pat Lanier Jones said about 100 people had voted as of 4 p.m. Monday.

Jones said voters are required to stand at least 6 feet apart, and all are encouraged to wear masks and gloves, but they are not required. She said only three voting machines are open due to the social distancing requirements, and that may add to the waiting time.

“Some have been in and out in 10 minutes,” Jones said. “Voters have been very nice. Some have come in with their mask and gloves, and we are offering gloves for handling the pens, paper, voting cards and equipment. Everyone is doing a great job with social distancing.”

Bulloch County voting is available in the County Annex building only, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, until Friday, June 5. Saturday voting will be available on May 30 only from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

In metro Atlanta’s Cobb County, Election Director Janine Eveler said new procedures and guidelines have “slowed things down considerably, and people are having to wait.” She said that voters faced wait times of over an hour Monday morning.

Eveler said safety procedures implemented in Cobb include having people wait in their car until called up to the line in groups, maintaining 6-foot spacing in line and only allowing a small number of people into the voting room. In addition, an ongoing shortage of poll workers means the county is down to a single early voting location, when normally two are in operation for early voting’s first week.

“We’re still encouraging people to apply for an absentee ballot,” Eveler said. “Voting at the polls is going to mean social distancing and sanitizing, so the process is just going to take a lot longer.”

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said in an interview Monday from the Cobb County election site that it's been “a very orderly, safe process” so far.

“People are moving through the lines that we do have," Raffensperger said. "I think it’s as safe and as healthy of a process as it can be with the situation that we have with COVID-19.”

Raffensperger’s office has sent absentee ballot applications to all 6.9 million active registered voters in the state, and the Republican secretary is encouraging as many people as possible to skip the polls and vote absentee by mail.

Ryan Germany, an attorney for the secretary of state’s office, said Monday during a conference call meeting of the state election board that over 1.4 million absentee ballots have been requested so far statewide. Germany said of those, 1.25 million ballots have been delivered to homes and over 360,000 completed ballots have been sent back to election officials.

In Bulloch County, Jones said her office had received 9,350 requests as of Monday from registered Bulloch voters for mail-in ballots to participate in the June 9 primary. She said that 2,975 filled-in ballots have been returned and entered as received. Jones said June 5 is the last day a requested absentee ballot can be mailed to a voter

“This current election, the June 9 election, is shaping up to look very different than elections in Georgia usually look,” Germany said, noting that the number of absentee ballots cast are already “orders of magnitude” greater than had been cast in previous primaries.

Raffensperger last week estimated that half of Georgia voters will vote by mail this election, when typically around 5% to 7% do so.

The election board on Monday approved an emergency rule allowing election officials to begin processing, but not tabulating, absentee ballots before election day in order to help counties deal with the large influx.

Georgia has had over 38,000 confirmed cases of the virus, according to data from the state Department of Public Health. At least 1,642 people have died.

In Bulloch County, there have been 45 confirmed cases. No new cases have been reported since last Wednesday. Bulloch County EMS has not transported a possible COVID-19 patient since May 6.

The state has twice postponed primaries because of the pandemic. Georgia’s March 24 presidential primaries were first moved to May 19, when voters were set to choose party nominees for other 2020 races including a U.S. Senate contest. As infections and deaths mounted, election day was bumped back again to June 9.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.

Elections are one more aspect of ordinary life being upended by the virus that has crippled economies around the globe and forced millions of people into lockdowns.

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