Poll observers can’t speak to Macon-Bibb voters; COVID-19 contract for workers


Liz Fabian

Early voters enter the Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections to cast ballots Friday in the 2020 Presidential Election.

Elections observers will no longer be able to talk to Macon-Bibb County voters in line at the polls under new restrictions passed Thursday evening by the board of elections.

The board’s action does not apply to official poll watchers, which are governed by Georgia law, but refers to groups or individuals who claim they have the right to observe and assist voters.

“If we don’t have procedures in place, how can we tell them they’re breaking procedures?” board chairman Mike Kaplan asked.

Attorney William Noland drew up the policy that does not take a position on the lawfulness of the practice but “reserves the right to deny these groups and individuals any special status should it come to light that these groups and individuals are not operating lawfully.”

“We do not want to antagonize the observers or infringe upon their rights as citizens,” Noland said Friday. “We just want our voters to feel as comfortable as possible while exercising their right to vote.”

Under the new rules, observers must remain 25 feet from those in the voting line at all times unless someone requests assistance.

“I think the idea is to protect these voters from being influenced or accosted,” said Noland, who clarified this was not an issue unique to one political party.

The observers cannot speak to voters unless someone asks for help or talks to the observer first. The observers are allowed to hold signs offering assistance and are free to conduct exit polls after voting, Noland said.

The sole purpose of the rules is to protect voters, according to the document that was unanimously approved.

“Voters come to the polls to vote and should at all times be allowed to do so free from harassment or influence,” the policy states.

New COVID-19 contract and hazard pay for poll workers

Poll workers in Macon-Bibb County are eligible for hazard pay expected to be funded by a $557,000 grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life.

Noland, who serves as legal counsel for the board, advised that the seasonal poll workers differ from year-round county elections workers who are under Macon-Bibb’s human resources policies that don’t currently award hazard pay for those exposed to the risk of infection.

“We can fix hazard pay for poll workers and we have the money to do it,” Noland said. “It’s not something we have to have the county approve.”

The board also approved a new contract for poll workers to sign due to the global coronavirus pandemic.

All poll workers are mandated to wear masks while at the precincts and other personal protective equipment, or PPE, is available. The board of elections purchased gloves, face shields and gowns that are optional.

Workers must sign the form to acknowledge the equipment was offered to them even if they chose not to wear it.

Those working the polls also must agree to stay home and notify the elections supervisor if they show any symptoms of COVID-19 or were exposed to someone who tested positive for the deadly virus.

Workers also must inform the supervisor if they traveled out of state to an area experiencing high rates of the coronavirus.

They must agree to avoid large crowds within two weeks of working and subscribe to precautions designed to prevent the spread of the virus including frequent hand washing, sanitization and social distancing.

New ballot drop box and envelope opener coming

A poll worker assists a man with absentee ballots Friday at the Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections. (Liz Fabian)

Board chair Kaplan announced the county has received another absentee ballot drop box after installing two others earlier this year.

“We have a free one from the State of Georgia waiting for a place,” Kaplan said.

To ensure security, the box must be placed on county-owned property that has round-the-clock surveillance.

“We’re waiting to see from mayor-elect (Lester) Miller if we can put one in Lizella,” Kaplan said.

Elections board member Henry Ficklin suggested the box go to south Bibb County at a library or the new recreation center. Currently boxes are located in front of the elections office at 2525 Pio Nono Ave. and on Mulberry Street next to the county courthouse.

Ficklin also suggested the board use grant funds to approve the immediate purchase of a letter opening machine.

“It will open 15,000 envelopes within an hour’s time. That would certainly cut down on the old fashioned way of doing it with the letter opener,” Ficklin said.

The board approved the acquisition, which could speed vote counting. Elections workers began opening and processing absentee ballots on Monday. They can begin scanning and counting them on election day but won’t be tallied or totaled until after the polls close Nov. 3.

Ficklin said he has consulted with other grant recipients for ideas on how to spend the money for things like the letter opener.

“Rockdale County spent most of their grant money and they let us know it’s a wonderful piece of equipment to have,” he said.

Macon-Bibb has until December 31 to spend the grant which is designed to improve voting access, safety and procedures during the pandemic.

Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Fabian at 478-301-2976 or [email protected].