Georgia presidential primary pushed back amid coronavirus concerns

  • Rep. Patty Bentley tests out a new voting machine during a demonstration at the Georgia State Fair. (Secretary of State’s office)
    Rep. Patty Bentley tests out a new voting machine during a demonstration at the Georgia State Fair. (Secretary of State’s office)
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ATLANTA – Concern for the safety of voters and poll workers due to the spread of coronavirus was behind the decision to postpone Georgia’s presidential primary from March 24 until May 19, elections officials said Monday.

Around 250,000 ballots had already been cast during the early voting period for the partisan contest before the precincts were closed Saturday amid the COVID-19 scare, according to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office. Elections officials were facing their first major statewide test of Georgia’s 30,000 new ballot-marking voting machines, which have been rolled out since summer to replace the state’s old touchscreen devices.

But as last week wore on, growing concerns about the health and safety of voters and workers at polling places led many poll workers to quit or not show up for training, said Janine Eveler, Cobb County’s election director. The average age for poll workers in Georgia is 70, leaving them more at risk for harmful effects from the respiratory virus than younger age groups.

The “dam broke” on Thursday, Eveler said, after Gov. Brian Kemp gave a public show of support for school districts that decide to close temporarily. Many of them proceeded to do so.

“We eventually said this is really going to compromise the election,” Eveler said at a news conference Monday.

Raffensperger, also speaking Monday, said his office decided to push the presidential primary back to May 19, when primary contests for dozens of seats in Congress and the General Assembly will be held along with many local races. The choice was made despite other states like Arizona and Florida that are poised to press forward with their presidential primaries this Tuesday.

“We did not make this decision lightly,” Raffensperger said. “We made the decision in the interest of public health, safety and security.”

Georgians who have already cast ballots in the early voting period will not need to vote again for the May 19 primary, Raffensperger said. Voter registration cards needed to sign in at precincts should automatically remember that a vote was cast in the presidential primary. The cards should only list down-ballot state and local contests on a person’s ballot.

“Again, I cannot stress this enough: If you voted early, your vote will count,” Raffensperger said.

State elections officials expect the 2020 fall election to smash turnout records in Georgia, with potentially 5 million or more voters casting ballots on the new machines. Purchased for $107 million, the new devices involving touchscreens and scanners have faced intense scrutiny in recent months over whether they will ready for prime time.

As of Monday afternoon, 121 cases of coronavirus had been confirmed in Georgia including one death. Schools and businesses across the state have pivoted to studying and working from home for the time being. Big sports events including NCAA college basketball’s Final Four and The Masters golf tournament have been canceled or postponed.

Health officials and hospitals are urging people age 60 and older and those with chronic medical conditions to avoid crowds, keep their hands sanitized and prepare to stay at home for the foreseeable future.