COVINGTON, Ga. — Newton's Democratic chairman has agreed to serve on a vote review committee after other Democrats' refusal to participate because of fears about Republican members not wearing masks threatened to halt certification of votes in the Tuesday, Jan. 5, runoff election.
The agreement came just hours before the Newton County Board of Elections voted Thursday, Dec. 31, to approve a resolution allowing Chairman Phil Johnson to ask a judge to order either county political party to participate in the review process that state law requires be completed before any county's final vote totals can be certified.
The panel determines the voter's intent when ovals on an absentee ballot are not completely filled in, or on ballots are damaged in the mail. Both parties are required to provide members.
Johnson said he worked unsuccessfully for hours Wednesday, Dec. 30, trying to broker a compromise between Newton County Democrats and Republicans on what face coverings should be worn during the process of adjudicating ballots.
He said Democratic Chairman Ryan Barrett agreed to participate if given a mask covering his face and if plexiglass dividers are used to divide the panel’s members.
Democrats, led by Barrett, had refused to serve as monitors and vote review panel members because they objected to a Republican member wearing a plastic face shield they said did not comply with CDC guidelines for providing protection from exposure to COVID-19.
Republicans, led by Jay's husband and party Chairman Scott Jay, said a face shield worn by Leesha Jay complied with a county mask ordinance in part because she experienced breathing problems while wearing a face covering.
Newton County's mask ordinance requires face coverings in public areas outside the cities and in county-owned buildings but allows numerous exemptions, including in voting precincts and for objections on medical, religious or other grounds.
The elections and registration office is located in the Newton County Administration Building which also serves as a location for in-person advance voting.
Barrett will join Johnson and Leesha Jay as vote review panel members.
The Democratic chairman agreed to replace Theresa Hesterley after she refused to participate because of the face shield objection.
Barrett, who is an emergency room technician, said today, Jan. 1, that, "Unsurprisingly, (Scott Jay) refused to budge and do as he was requested from the beginning — appoint an individual who did not have any objections to wearing a mask for this process."
"As I stated to the Board of Elections (Thursday), I have agreed to serve as the Democratic appointee as long as safeguards are met to protect those of us in that room due to the unwillingness of the GOP to do what is right for the overall good."
He said the "process is far too sacred to allow it to fall through the cracks."
"People have gone through a lot to make sure that their votes are cast and their voices are heard. I would not want it weighing upon my conscience that I had a part in disrupting a free and fair election," he said.
"What is not surprising is that it is the Democrats, yet again, having to further accommodate a stagnant and bullheaded opposition party — all for the simple fact that they feel the need to politicize a public health crisis.
"It is truly reprehensible that we are having to deal with something like this, but we are determined to do what is right to save our democracy," Barrett said.
Scott Jay has said county Democrats are using the issue of which face coverings "to score political points" after Democrat monitors began complaining to Republican monitors about use of masks after absentee vote processing began Dec. 21..
He said today, Jan. 1, that "whatever Ryan needs to do to help him feel comfortable to finish this task is fine with me."
"We were not the ones obstructing this process and quite frankly we’re the ones getting the most heat and scrutiny," Scott Jay said.
"Our choice (Leesha Jay) is simply the best choice to represent the Republican Party and its voters," he said.
He said three sheriff's deputies assigned to enforce the mask ordinance in the administration building had inspected Mrs. Jay's face shield and found it complied with the county ordinance.
"She is competent, respectful, socially distances when not adjudicating (ballots) and takes her temperature before leaving for the Election Board," he said..
Marcello Banes, chairman of the Newton County Board of Commissioners, said a sign on the building's front door encourages wearing of masks and the government wants those entering to follow CDC guidelines on preventing the spread of COVID-19.
However, the county government cannot legally mandate the use of masks by everyone, he said.
The Georgia Department of Public Health's latest statistics show Newton County had 562 confirmed cases per 100,000 population between Dec. 12 and 25 — lower than the statewide rate of 672 per 100,000.
Newton had recorded 4,409 confirmed cases through Dec. 25, the department reported.