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New machines, pandemic and absentee votes cause challenges

    Election Superintendent Marion Hatton shares Early Voting election results with Sheriff Butch Reece. DEBBIE LURIE-SMITH/Staff
    Andrea Riley and Bill Goodman work diligently to open absentee ballots in the hallway of the Government Center. DEBBIE LURIE-SMITH/Staff
    Connie Monaco (l) and Denise Griswold, who worked the Barron Precinct, are the first to bring in election results. DEBBIE LURIE-SMITH/Staff

The big story from the June 9 election in Jones County was the unexpected large voter turnout, including both in-person voting on Election Day and the number of voters who decided to use the option of mailing in their ballots.

Jones County had a turnout of over 36 percent of its voters. That included over 3,600 mail-in ballots that it took until Saturday afternoon to finish counting.

The total number of registered voters in Jones County is 19,547, and the number of votes cast in the election was 7,128.

The two local elections for Jones County included the approval of a renewal of the one-cent sales tax and the election of a new District Attorney for the Ocmulgee Circuit.

Jones County voters approved the sales tax renewal by a vote of 3,998 to 1,981. Jones County voters also selected T. Wright Barksdale as District Attorney by an 89.5 percent margin.

Election officials will remember 2020 as a year when a lot of lessons were learned about how to handle a pandemic and how to handle an unexpected amount of absentee ballots.

A presidential election year is always anticipated to have a bigger turnout, and adding a separate local general primary brought the total of elections for the year to three, not counting any possible run off elections.

The pandemic added more challenges with the March 24 presidential primary and May 19 general primary both postponed to the June 9 combined election.

The June 9 election was the first using new voting machines and that completed the perfect storm of challenges for the Secretary of State’s office and election officials in all of Georgia’s 159 counties.

Unlike state officials, Jones County Election Superintendent Marion Hatton took full responsibility for local election issues.

In an interview June 12, Hatton said the new voting machines actually operated as they were designed. The issues at the precincts were due to the number of new poll workers and managers and their lack of training on the machines.

“We learned a lot,” she said. She said the majority of Jones County’s usual poll workers were retired and in the age group that were most vulnerable to the COVID–19 virus.

“It just wasn’t safe for them,” the superintendent said.

Hatton said the new poll workers and managers simply did not receive the amount of training she would have liked because of the way they had to be trained, in small groups, and in the time available before the election.

“We didn’t expect the turnout we had at the precincts on Election Day because of the number of absentee ballots we had received by mail,” she said.

She said the wait to vote at the precincts on Election Day was longer than usual due to the reduced number of voting machines at each precinct to allow for social distancing, but there were no reports of wait times longer than an hour.

Hatton said the longer waiting times were also attributed to poll workers not being familiar with operating and maintaining the new machines.

A big reason for the delay in closing out the election was the time it took to open and count the large number of absentee ballots. The superintendent said counties were actually allowed to start opening and counting the ballots as early as June 2, a week before the election. She said she opted to wait to start the process at 5 p.m., June 9, for reasons of transparency, but in retrospect that was a mistake.

“I won’t do that again,” she said.

Hatton said the election would be officially closed out sometime this week. The soonest it could have been closed out would have been Friday, June 12, due to absentee ballots that were sent to military personnel out of the country.