COVINGTON — A dispute over what is an effective face covering to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has taken on political undertones in Newton County.
Democrats monitoring the Jan. 5 runoff election absentee ballot process at the Newton County Administration Building walked out for the second day in a row Tuesday, claiming that their Republican counterparts are compromising their health and safety with improper face covering.
D. Ryan Barrett Sr., chairman of the Newton County Democratic Party, said there was a confrontation Monday between the Democratic monitors and the two GOP appointees, who he said were wearing masks covering only their mouths. On Tuesday, Barrett said one of the GOP representatives was wearing a faceshield, which he said under CDC guidelines does not provide adequate protection from the spread of COVID-19.
In an email to Board of Elections Chairman Phil Johnson, Barrett said he had instructed the Democrat members of the voter review panel and ballot processing monitors that “until we hear concretely that their safety will be made a priority and a face covering that is in compliance with the CDC guidelines (will be required) … I cannot in good faith ask any of them to return to continue the processing and adjudicating of ballots for this election.”
The Democrats did not return on Wednesday, and Johnson said he had suspended absentee ballot adjudication until after the Christmas holiday. Johnson said the adjudication process was caught up for now and would resume Tuesday.
Scott Jay, chairman of the Newton County Republican Party, said Monday’s confrontation was more of a verbal attack by a Democrat monitor on two GOP members who were sitting together talking.
“It’s not for another citizen to cause that type of verbal abuse on anyone, especially to tell them they are killing people,” said Jay.
Johnson said the dispute has taken on a partisan nature that isn’t solely about health and safety. “It’s about partisan positions on health and safety issues,” he said.
Newton County has a mask mandate in county facilities, but Johnson pointed out that there are exceptions that “limit our ability to enforce beyond what’s in the law.”
“What we are going to do is we have asked everyone who comes in to wear a mask,” said Johnson, who is an attorney and a former state legislator. “We have some monitors who choose to wear a faceshield, and under the county’s mask ordinance, I believe that would be covered. We are going to continue to work with people and try to encourage them to do what’s right.”
During the early voting process, each party appoints monitors and members of a voter review panel to oversee and adjudicate absentee ballots. Typically each party has two present at all times ballots are being processed.
If the Democrat monitors continue to stay away, Johnson said the ballot processing will continue.
“I do think I can get everybody back in the room,” said Johnson. “I just need to spend some time talking to them about what the purpose of all this is, which is transparency in the vote.”
Johnson added that the Board of Elections is focused on keeping its employees and party volunteers safe.
“I know this is a tense time for people when you read the statistics… if we were to get an infection in our office, it would be a disaster for the election,” Johnson said. “In addition to that, we’ve got an election run, and there are tight timetables. We have a responsibility to get the election managed and get the votes counted as transparently as we possibly can.
“We are asking both (parties) to help us run the election, to participate,” he said.