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Turnout steady for early voting as people adjust to election in a pandemic
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Sneeze shields are installed Friday, May 22, 2020, at “poll pads,” where voters check in with a poll worker on an electronic tablet as voters come out to Gainesville Exploration Academy to cast their ballot for the June 9 primary. - photo by Scott Rogers

About 600 people cast their ballots at Gainesville Exploration Academy in the first four days of early voting for the June primary.

Gainesville Exploration Academy is a new location for early voting, which is usually held at the Hall County Government Center, but the school provides more space for social distancing and does not require voters to use an elevator. The location change is one of many adjustments to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but Elections Director Lori Wurtz said voters have provided positive feedback about voting at the new location.

“It has gotten a tremendous positive response from the public, and I’m glad that we’re able to take advantage of using that facility right now,” Wurtz said.

The county has about 200 poll workers, less than the usual target of 350 poll workers but above the minimum of 124. Workers are sanitizing machines between voters, and hand sanitizer is provided at the entrance and exit of the polling place. People are required to stay six feet apart.

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Voters come out to Gainesville Exploration Academy Friday, May 22, 2020, to cast their ballot for the June 9 primary. Voters were encouraged but not required to wear a mask. - photo by Scott Rogers

While early voting will not be held Monday, May 25 because of Memorial Day, voters will have other opportunities to cast their ballots before Election Day. They can go to Gainesville Exploration Academy on McEver Road between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday until May 29. During the third and final week of early voting, June 1-5, voters can go to the North Hall Community Center, the East Hall Community Center and Spout Springs Library, in addition to Gainesville Exploration Academy. Voters can also cast their ballots from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, May 30, at those locations.

As of 7 p.m. Thursday, 591 people had voted at Gainesville Exploration Academy in the first four days of early voting. That number is similar to turnout in the first week of early voting in past primaries. In the 2016 primary’s first five days of early voting, 655 people voted, and in 2018, 516 voted in that year’s primary during the first week of early voting.

The June primary is the first time many voters will use the state’s new voting equipment, which was also in use for early voting in March before the primary was postponed. 

Voters will first check in with a poll worker using a “poll pad,” an electronic tablet that scans the voter’s license. The poll worker will verify the voter’s eligibility. If the voter brought another form of identification, the poll worker can manually enter the voter’s information. The voter will confirm the information and sign on the poll pad. Sneeze shields are installed at the check-in points to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Voters will receive an access card to insert into the machine, which has a large touchscreen the voter will use to select their choices. Voters will be able to review their choices before printing their ballots.

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Voters come out to Gainesville Exploration Academy Friday, May 22, 2020, to cast their ballot for the June 9 primary. - photo by Scott Rogers

A printer at the polling station will print the ballot, which voters can review again. If a voter realizes they made a mistake, a poll worker can help them start a new ballot. Voters then bring their ballots to a scanner that drops the ballot into a locked box. Ballots are counted when they are scanned, not when they are printed, so voters need to put their ballots in the scanner before leaving the polling place. 

Wurtz said voters have also responded well to the new technology.

“We have had a lot of positive comments about that. We haven’t actually gotten to complete an election, so this time we’re hoping to do the process all the way through,” she said. “But the voters are very impressed with the new machines. They love having their printed ballot to verify the vote they entered into the machine.” 

Absentee voting is another option. An absentee ballot application is available on the county website. Ballots can be returned by mail or in a drop box outside the Hall County Government Center. 

Three review panels will process some absentee ballots in the primary.

Voters in the primary can select either a Republican, Democrat or nonpartisan ballot.

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Voters come out to Gainesville Exploration Academy Friday, May 22, 2020, to cast their ballot for the June 9 primary. - photo by Scott Rogers

Two of the panels will review partisan ballots. Those panels will include Hall County Board of Elections members, along with one member appointed by each political party on the ballot. Ballots will not be divided based on party but will be randomly split between the panels.

The third panel will look at nonpartisan absentee ballots. That panel will include Tom Smiley, chairman of the elections board, and two members appointed by Chief Judge Kathlene Gosselin of the Hall County Superior Court.

The panels will review ballots that are rejected by the tabulator, including those that have stray marks or are torn or damaged. Ballot review will be open to the public. 

Ballots that need to be duplicated will be copied manually with a pen to another ballot, Wurtz said. The original ballot will be marked with the word “duplicate,” to signify a duplicate was made, and initialed by the reviewer. Both ballots will be assigned the same serial number and kept on file for two years.

The panels will vote on the elector’s intent if it is in question. Each panel member will look at the ballot, and then panel members will vote.

Wurtz said most voters are receiving their ballots within five to seven days of requesting one, although some ballots are taking longer. Voters can check the status of their absentee ballots by calling 770-531-6945 or emailing elections@hallcounty.org. Voters can request that the elections office cancel a ballot and issue a new one. They can also ask that their absentee ballot be canceled when they go to vote in person, although they may experience a longer wait while the ballot is canceled.

The last day the elections office can mail out an absentee ballot is June 5. Ballots must be returned by 7 p.m. June 9.


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