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'Overwhelmed' staff, new system helped delay June 9 Newton vote
Elections board chairman believes county will be prepared for future elections
0621 CovNews Election delay
Voters wait in line at the Newton County Library precinct in Covington June 9.

COVINGTON, Ga. — Staff members being "overwhelmed" with absentee ballot issues and using a new voting system for the first time "conspired" to delay a final count of Newton County votes in the June 9 election, the elections board chairman said.

Phil Johnson said he believed staff members and poll workers were trained well but were using a new system for the first time in the election.

"We had staff that understood how the machines worked," he said. "I won't say there wasn't a learning curve. We were just overwhelmed."

The election included political party primaries for county, state and federal offices; nonpartisan elections for judges; and Georgia's Presidential Preference Primary. 

State officials added the presidential primary to the June 9 ballot after postponing it in March because of safety concerns from the coronavirus pandemic.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger urged Georgians in April to request absentee ballots and vote by mail to remain safe from the coronavirus. More than 13,000 Newton residents voted by absentee ballot out of a record total of 28,000 votes cast in the election.

Johnson said a major source of delay in Newton County June 9 was more than 800 showing up to vote in person after they already had requested absentee ballots.

A poll manager is authorized to cancel an absentee ballot at the voting location if the voter brings it. However, a voter not holding an absentee ballot they requested must wait while the poll manager calls the county elections office to gain approval from the director, Johnson said.

"When you have 840 calls ... it slows the line down," he said. "That person has got to be dealt with."

In addition, a staff which usually counts about 3,000 absentee ballots in a primary election encountered 13,000 —  more than four times that amount, he said.

He said 13 were assigned to open the envelopes containing the absentee ballot. They then were then placed in a scanner to count the votes but also determine if the voter's signature matched a signature on file as well as other security aspects.

"The scan took longer than we thought," Johnson said. "We brought in a second scanner."

If the scanner determined a problem with how clearly the voter made selections, both Democrat and Republican board members were required to determine the intent of the voter which also slowed the process, he said.

He said the elections office was able to use volunteers for some tasks but five regular staff members were required to deal with "technical" ballot issues like helping determine the voter's intent. 

After polls closed at 7 p.m., the count of absentees was still ongoing and had to be halted as managers began transporting memory cards from their Dominion Voting System machines to the election office in downtown Covington.

By 1:30 a.m., the count was still incomplete and the Secretary of State's office advised Newton officials to return the following morning. The count was finalized and sent to the state office by 6 p.m., he said.

He said he knew of no major equipment failures at the 22 voting locations in the county.

Election officials transported a second machine to more quickly check in voters to the Newton County Library precinct. They also needed to replace a cable at the Mansfield precinct which delayed voting for a few minutes, he said. 

"We moved through it pretty quickly," he said.

Johnson, a veteran Newton County attorney and former state legislator, said he believed the election staff will be better prepared for the August runoff and November general elections — in part because it will be dealing with fewer absentee ballots.