COVINGTON, Ga. — The Board of Elections chose Monday, Nov. 8, to change where and when voting will occur in Newton County for the 2022 elections.
Board members voted to reduce the current 22 voting precincts to 17 in an effort to equalize the wide-ranging numbers of registered voters now assigned to election precincts.
They also voted to approve one Sunday advance voting day for each of the May primary and November general elections; and two early voting locations for the entirety of the advance voting periods rather than phasing them in over time as done for the 2020 elections.
Democrats and Republicans in the audience and on the board split over establishing Sunday early voting days and the number of advance voting locations.
Democrats generally favored a Sunday early voting voting day and up to four advance voting locations, while Republicans opposed Sunday voting and backed only two early voting sites.
Board Chairman Phil Johnson broke a tie in both instances.
Johnson supported Democratic member Kelly Robinson's call for two Sunday advance voting days in 2022, and Republican member Dustin Thompson's motion for two advance voting locations with a third location ready in case the first two became overwhelmed — as occurred at the county Administration Building during the first days of early voting in the 2020 General Election.
The advance voting locations for 2022 will be the Turner Lake building at 6185 Turner Lake Road in Covington, and Zion Baptist Church at 7037 Hwy. 212 in west Newton County.
Election officials also would prepare the Newton County Library on Floyd Street for use as an advance voting site in case the others become too crowded, he said.
During a public comment period before the votes, Republican Party chairman Brendan Cherry said there was not a great need for Sunday voting because of lower turnouts for Saturday voting and the recent Virginia election showing voting at relatively lower rates on Sundays.
He said the new law allows a second Saturday advance voting day which should allow increased weekend access for those whose jobs restrict the times they can go to the polls.
However, Kathy Wilborn said she believed a Sunday voting day allowed greater access no matter the turnout.
"We should be trying to encourage as many people to participate in the (process) as we can," she said.
Robinson said her stand on the issues before the board was based on data and current conditions.
She said four early voting locations would reduce the lines seen during advance voting at the elections office in 2020. It also would make in-person voting easier to access and reduce the number of provisional ballots cast by those going to the wrong precinct.
It also would offset the new law's changes that reduce the amount of time voters can request absentee ballots from six months to 78 days, and not require those mailing absentee ballots to count on an increasingly unpredictable U.S. Postal Service to deliver the ballots in time to be counted.
Thompson countered that the turnout for the 2020 election should not be used as evidence of the need for more access.
He said the election was an "unusual" event and 16 days of early voting provided "ample opportunity for everyone to vote."
Thompson added that the Newton County elections office's limited staffing and funding meant it did not have the resources it needed to provide four advance voting locations, and offer Saturday and Sunday voting days as well.
The Georgia General Assembly's sweeping voting law changes earlier this year allowed two days of early Sunday voting and an additional day of mandatory Saturday early voting.
It also required ballot drop boxes to be inside a building and only accessible during the times early voting is allowed — which was 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in 2020 — rather than 24 hours a day as previously allowed.
Only one drop box is allowed for every 100,000 voters in any Georgia county, meaning Newton can only utilize one drop box countywide because it has around 85,000 registered voters.
The elections office had drop boxes available at the Administration Building and on Salem Road in west Newton — though officials complained the Salem Road box was under-utilized.
Johnson said moving advance voting from the Administration Building to the Turner Lake recreational facility will allow more voting machines to be available in one location and provide better shelter from the elements for voters waiting in lines.
He said he favored offering one Sunday voting opportunity for each scheduled election in 2022 as a way to find if there was enough demand for it. If few vote on those days, the board can later eliminate their use, he said.
The precinct changes, which are tentative, reduce the number of precincts and make them more equal in size, Johnson said.
He noted that the current 22 precincts ranged in size from 880 voters in Newborn to 7,000 at a west Newton precinct. The new 17 precincts range from 5,394 to 3,884 registered voters.
Major changes include combining the Mansfield and Newborn precincts and Brick Store and Hub precincts; and combining four precincts into new Gum Creek and Oxford precincts.
However, election director Angela White-Davis said she had not finalized contracts for use of all of the precinct voting locations. The board voted to make the precinct changes contingent on securing all the contracts.