Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger confirmed Monday, Memorial Day, that two employees at the McDuffie County Elections and Voter Registration Office had tested positive for COVID-19.

The office was shut down last week for disinfecting, and staff – except for Elections and Voter Registration Director Phyllis Brooks who tested negative last week for the coronavirus – will quarantine at home. Brooks will continue to work inside the office. Brooks has worn a mask and gloves and practiced social distancing when interacting with poll workers at the county’s polling sites.

Raffensperger told the Progress during a phone interview that election offices in two neighboring counties, including Richmond County, could assist McDuffie’s election office by offering support in the way of personnel.

“We’ve been in contact with her (Brooks),” Raffensperger said. “Chris Arby our election director has been in contact with her. She (Brooks) believes she can handle a lot of what she has to handle. Two of your neighboring counties have offered personnel. So we are really grateful for Richmond County offering that. It’s really a team approach.”

Brooks commented last Friday that she has handled a heavy workload in the past, and can do so again.

“I did it for the first five years I was here,” she said.

Appling County’s election office was also temporarily shut down for disinfecting after a voter voted early in-person, and was later diagnosed with COVID-19, according to Raffensperger.

The Secretary of State detailed actions his office has taken to mitigate the spread of the pandemic, and make voting as safe as possible for voters and to secure the accuracy and due process of the June 9 election.

First and foremost, he is encouraging voters to vote absentee by mail in the General Primary/Presidential Preference Primary.

“Particularly on Memorial Day it’s really important that people understand that their county election officials have worked hard to make sure that everyone can exercise their right to vote; because people have died for the ability that we can have a free nation, a free people and the right to vote,” Raffensperger said. “So we understand how important it is as we work through COVID-19.

“And that’s why we took the unprecedented step to mail out absentee ballot applications. Over 1.6 million voters have responded to that favorably and have said ‘I want to get an absentee ballot.’”

The secretary said as of May 25, his office had received nearly 600,000 mail-in absentee ballots.

“Right now we know there’s about 1 million votes still sitting out there,” he said. “They haven’t been cast yet and received by us yet. They’re on people’s kitchen tables. We want to get them off of people’s kitchen tables and back to your counties’ election offices.”

Raffensperger said his office has been proactive in lessening the risks for those voters who choose to vote in-person or those individuals with disabilities that need assistance at the polls, such as the visually impaired.

 “When you show up to vote you will be spaced farther apart, there will be fewer machines due to space requirements and so you’ll find it will take longer to move the same number of voters through than in normal times,” he said. “If you vote from the safety and security of your own kitchen table you’ll be able to avoid lines and be able to avoid those delays.”

According to Raffensperger, even those counties that don’t have a current situation with COVID-19 are struggling with staffing issues. Many poll workers tend to be retirees and therefore considered to be in the most vulnerable age group for experiencing complications from the coronavirus.

“That’s really a statewide issue; trying to round up poll workers right now,” he said. “And then when you get stricken with COVID-19, it just exacerbates that situation.”

Raffensperger maintains Georgia has a system “with guardrails in place” to ensure voting absentee by mail is protected from fraud. He said there had been no substantiated reports of voter misconduct.

“When your ballot shows up the only person who is supposed to touch the ballot is the voter, the voter’s spouse or a close family member,” he said. “But someone who is driving up and down the street is not allowed to be touching your absentee ballot.”

Such a situation of “ballot harvesting” would warrant an investigation, he said.

Raffensperger said they also use signature match to ensure a voter’s signature on their ballot is genuine. He explained that absentee ballots are coded so the U.S. Postal Service can track them.

To avoid election officials from having to count “a crush” of last minute mail in ballots, the secretary urges voters to mail them in as soon as possible.

“Mail in ballots must be received no later than Tuesday, June 9 by 7 p.m. to be counted,” Raffensperger said.

McDuffie voters who vote absentee can mail in or return their completed absentee ballots to a ballot drop box on the sidewalk outside the old Courthouse in Thomson.

Early in-person voting in McDuffie is taking place at the old gym in Thomson, across from the Brickyard. The polling station in Dearing was closed last week.

Hours for in-person early voting are from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. today through May 29; and from 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturday, May 30; and from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. June 1-5.

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