COVINGTON, Ga. — Newton’s Democratic chairman has agreed to serve on a vote review committee for Tuesday’s runoff election after other party members refused to participate because of what they say were unsafe conditions Republicans caused by refusing to wear masks for protection of others from COVID-19.
The agreement came just hours before the Newton County Board of Elections voted Thursday, Dec. 31, to approve a resolution allowing Chairman Phil Johnson to ask a judge to order either political party to participate in the review process that state law requires before any county’s final vote totals can be certified.
The panel must decide the voter’s intent when ovals on an absentee ballot are not completely filled in, or ballots are damaged in the mail.
Johnson said he worked unsuccessfully for hours Wednesday, Dec. 30, trying to broker a compromise between Newton County Democrats and Republicans on what face coverings should be worn during the process of reviewing ballots.
He said Democratic Chairman Ryan Barrett agreed to participate if given a mask covering his face and if plexiglass dividers are used to divide the panel’s members.
Johnson and county Republican Party member Leesha Jay are vote review panel members. Barrett agreed to replace Theresa Hesterley after she refused to participate because Jay declined to wear more than a face shield during vote reviews and while monitoring absentee vote processing which began Dec. 21.
Democrats, led by Barrett, had maintained for weeks that all vote reviewers and absentee ballot monitors from both parties wear face coverings because a plastic face shield did not adequately protect others from exposure to COVID-19.
Republicans led by Jay’s husband, party Chairman Scott Jay, said the face shield worn by Leesha Jay was adequate and complied with a county mask ordinance in part because she experienced breathing problems while wearing a mask.
Barrett, who is an emergency room technician, said, “Unsurprisingly, (Scott Jay) refused to budge and do as he was requested from the beginning Newton Democrats agree to be part of vote review panel required for runoff
Had objected for weeks about GOP member’s refusal to wear mask during process state law mandates for certification appoint an individual who did not have any objections to wearing a mask for this process.
“As I stated to the Board of Elections (Thursday), I have agreed to serve as the Democratic appointee as long as safeguards are met to protect those of us in that room due to the unwillingness of the GOP to do what is right for the overall good.
Barrett said the “process is far too sacred to allow it to fall through the cracks.”
“People have gone through a lot to make sure that their votes are cast and their voices are heard. I would not want it weighing upon my conscience that I had a part in disrupting a free and fair election,” he said.
“What is not surprising is that it is the Democrats, yet again, having to further accommodate a stagnant and bullheaded opposition party — all for the simple fact that they feel the need to politicize a public health crisis.
“It is truly reprehensible that we are having to deal with something like this, but we are determined to do what is right to save our democracy,” he said.
Scott Jay has said county Democrats are using the issue of which face coverings prevent the spread of COVID-19 “to score political points” after Democrat absentee vote monitors began complaining to Republican monitors about use of masks Dec. 21.
He noted Republican monitors are following the county mask ordinance’s requirements and does not see a need to change anything about how it will participate in vote reviews.
Scott Jay did not immediately respond today to a request for a response to the compromise.
The county’s mask ordinance requires face coverings in public areas outside the cities and in county-owned buildings but allows numerous exemptions, including objections on medical, religious or other grounds and at voting precincts.
The elections and registration office is located in the Newton County Administration Building which also serves as a location for in-person advance voting.
Marcello Banes, chairman of the Newton County Board of Commissioners, said a sign on the building’s front door encourages wearing of masks and the government wants those entering to follow CDC guidelines on preventing the spread of COVID-19.
However, the county government cannot legally mandate the use of masks by everyone, he said.
The Georgia Department of Public Health’s latest statistics show Newton County had 562 confirmed cases per 100,000 population between Dec. 12 and 25 — lower than the statewide rate of 672 per 100,000.
Newton had recorded 4,409 confirmed cases through Dec. 25, the department reported.