COVINGTON, Ga. — County elections officials discussed how they planned to count absentee ballots for the runoff election beginning Monday, Dec. 21, amid increased scrutiny of the process from Georgia Republicans.
The Newton County Board of Elections also voted to add more days and hours to its early voting schedule as interest surges in casting ballots in the Jan. 5 runoff for two U.S. Senate seats and a Public Service Commission post.
Board members voted Monday, Dec. 14, to:
• Add Saturday, Dec. 19, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. as a voting day at the Newton County Administration Building at 1113 Usher St.;
• Extend the hours of voting on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, at the Administration Building until 5 p.m.;
• Add Monday, Dec. 28, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Administration Building as a voting day;
• Extend the hours of voting on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, until 5 p.m. at the Administration Building.
The schedule already included advance voting through Dec. 18 at the Administration Building and the Newton County Library at 7116 Floyd St. NE in Covington.
It adds two more voting locations the second and third weeks, Dec. 21 through 31, at Zion Baptist Church at 7037 Ga. Hwy. 212 North, and St. Augustine Catholic Church at 11524 Hwy. 278 East.
No voting is scheduled on Christmas Day Dec. 25 and New Year’s Day Jan. 1.
The board also voted Monday, Dec. 14, to require its staff to use an area of the county election office that is visible to the public to begin processing the thousands of absentee ballots it has received for the Jan. 5 runoff.
In addition, the vote stated the board's intention to research if the county government could employ equipment, already used to livestream board meetings, to broadcast the signature verification process on absentee ballots.
Chairman Phil Johnson said the Georgia Republican Party has asked Newton and other counties to do the processing in a public setting, including the verifications.
Elections director Angela White-Davis said her office already has issued more than 12,000 absentee ballots for the runoff election.
Johnson said he asked county political parties to provide monitors for the processing.
He said the county would be able to process the ballots openly but not allow public viewing of voters’ personal information.
The Secretary of State’s office said they should comply with the request but left it up to local election offices on the process, he said.
Johnson suggested any audience be allowed to see the rear of a computer only to comply with the request for public viewing while maintaining confidentiality.
Board members agreed livestreaming of the process did not necessarily need to be available for viewing on a screen in the room where the verifications were being done.
Election workers verify voters’ identities through comparing the signature on the ballot’s envelope to a digital version of the voter’s registration card on file with the Georgia Secretary of State office.
The board’s Republican member, Dustin Thompson, said he agreed with the procedure.
“What you suggested makes sense,” he said. “I don’t have another recommendation.”
He added later he believed the public verification method the board was suggesting would be the norm in future elections because of statewide Republicans’ concerns about the transparency of the process at the county level and GOP leaders protesting it nationwide.
“This is going to be the expectation going forward,” Thompson said.
Voters lined up Monday on the first day of advance voting outside the Administration Building.
Davis said slow internet connections throughout the day slowed check-ins of voters, which led to lines for advance voting at the Administration Building.
However, no lines were reported throughout the day at the second location at the Newton County Library, she said. Davis told board members she tried to encourage voters in line to travel to the Library location but few apparently did so.
She added she was unable to add more staff to the advance voting locations because the county already had stopped taking applications for the positions. They also required training that could not be performed in time, she said.
Three races are on the runoff ballot, including hotly-contested and heavily-advertised races for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats.
Democrat Raphael Warnock is challenging incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler for the right to complete the remaining two years of the term of Johnny Isakson, who resigned in December 2019 for health reasons.
Democrat Jon Ossoff is challenging incumbent Republican David Perdue for a full six-year term in the U.S. Senate seat that Perdue has held since 2014.
Also on the ballot is a runoff for the District 4 seat on the Georgia Public Service Commission between Democrat Daniel Blackman and incumbent Republican Lauren “Bubba” McDonald.
Election day for in-person voting at the county’s 22 voting precincts is set for Jan. 5.
For more information about voting in the runoff election, call 770-784-2055 or visit https://www.co.newton.ga.us/167/Board-of-Elections-Registration.