Voting During a Pandemic

In 2019, the legislature appropriated well over 100 million dollars in bond funding to purchase new, state-of-the-art touch screen voting machines. I opposed the purchase of these machines for a long list of reasons, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine what a bad idea touch screen voting would be during a pandemic.

These new machines were supposed to be rolled out for the March 24th Presidential Preference Primary, but it was abruptly terminated and postponed until the May 19th General Primary, due to community spread of the virus. The election was then postponed again until June 9th.

The virus will still be lurking in June, so how do you safely vote during a pandemic? Vote-by-Mail — the same process we have always had, known by the name of absentee ballots. Before 2005 you had to state a reason for voting absentee but now anyone can Vote-by-Mail by personal choice. If you have never voted by mail, now is the time to prepare, because there are several steps involved.

Check Your Address: First, you need to make sure the address on your voter registration is up-to-date. Do this by looking up your record on My Voter Page. This is a really easy-to-use site. You should bookmark it and check your registration well ahead of any election. You must make any changes to your registration 30 days prior to the election, so your deadline for this step is Monday, May 11th. Do it now!

Request a Ballot: Second, you must request a Vote-by-Mail ballot every time you vote (there are exceptions, including those over 65, disabled, or military who can check a box to apply for a ballot only once per election cycle). Most people were mailed a Vote-by-Mail request form about a month ago — it had a Red, White & Blue “Secure the Vote” logo (scroll to the bottom of this email to see a picture). If you still have this request form, you can use it. Or, you can request a ballot by using the My Voter Page —  did you bookmark it? Once you find the request form, you need to print it out, fill it out, and either mail it to your local elections office or take a picture and email it. There is no fixed deadline for requesting a Vote-by-Mail ballot, but your voting ballot must be received by the final day of voting, June 9th, so do this right now!

Complete Your Ballot: Third, wait for your ballot to arrive. You can get updates on My Voter Page — did you bookmark it? Once it arrives, fill it out, put a stamp on it and mail it back in, or find an official dropbox and save the postage — do it in plenty of time for it to be received by the last day of voting, June 9th. Check My Voter Page to make sure your ballot was received. You did bookmark it, right? You will be in good company voting by mail. Already, the Secretary of State has received ballot requests for the 2020 Primary from as many people who voted in the 2016 General Primary overall!

Let me know if you have questions, and I’ll have a volunteer reach out to you to help. If you prefer, you can still vote in person using those new touch screen machines — just don’t forget your hand sanitizer and mask.

Targeting our Interventions

Each week I listen to a conference call provided to elected officials by the WellStar Health System, getting updates from both hospitals and Public Health Directors. It’s been an invaluable resource.

Black & Hispanic Communities: This week we had a special guest — Dr. Jeffey Hines, who works for WellStar and specializes in gynecologic oncology. Dr. Hines not only spoke insightfully about why black and hispanic communities across the nation are being hit particularly hard by this virus — he also shared some concrete COVID-19 containment action steps.

Dr. Hine’s short, yet powerful presentation got me thinking, and I haven’t stopped since. I can’t stop because Georgia is not taking the necessary actions to help the people this virus is hitting the hardest.

Hall County is showing signs of being Georgia’s next new hotspot. Recently, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that almost 400 poultry workers across the state had tested positive for the virus. Gainesville has been called the Poultry Capital of the World. And President Trump has now signed an Executive Order aimed at preventing supply chain shortages, keeping meat processors open and workers as risk.

This illustrates the daily peril so many of our essential workers, many of whom are brown and black, face everyday. They risk their lives to go to work so that the rest of us can have what we need. And when they get sick, they are told by our leaders to self isolate in their homes. Never mind that they don’t have rooms to isolate in, nor a separate bathroom, and that they live alongside their vulnerable grandparents who have also been mandated by our leaders to shelter-in-place to avoid getting the virus. This is a major reason Dr. Hines says this population ends up getting hit harder by this virus than others. Yet our containment policies are written for the “others.”

A couple of weeks ago, a constituent shared an article with me entitled “Coronavirus Advice from Abroad: 7 Lessons America’s Governors Should Not Ignore as they Open Up their Economies,” asking me to share it with Governor Kemp. One of the lessons presented in the piece was radical, advocating that the sick be isolated from their families for 14 quarantine days. This was a lesson from Italy, where multi-generational living is commonplace. However, lessons from Taiwan during the 2003 SARS outbreak found that this type of quarantine was often viewed as being sent to jail, and people ran away, so they learned that you have to treat people really well. Put them up in the Hilton, feed them good food, check on them often, and let them watch movies. This is the kind of policy that can protect those being hit hardest by this virus.

One might think this would be a hard sell in Georgia. But it’s not really that far-fetched from what I’ve seen Georgia already do. We housed over 200 sick homeless people in a hotel in downtown Atlanta and provided public health professionals to care for them. And early last March when there were only a few cases of the virus, Georgia set up a quarantine site at a State Park where people could go if they couldn’t self isolate at home. At some point, land was identified for the construction site for a larger quarantine facility. What happened to this effort? Certainly we can’t quarantine every sick person, but perhaps we could return to this idea so that our essential workers don’t have to put their families at risk in order to keep life more “normal” for the rest of us.

Six Lessons from Other Countries as we Open the Economy

The “Lessons for Governors” article continued with six other lessons. Let’s take a look and see how Georgia is doing.

Build an Army of Contact Tracers: The Georgia Department of Public Health has shifted its focus the last couple of weeks to developing and recruiting an “army” of contact tracers, much like the state of Massachusetts has done. They currently have 500 public health employees across the state who have been temporarily reassigned to contact tracing roles. In addition, new positions for 300 contact tracers have been posted, and hiring will begin soon. Student internships will be offered to 175 Master of Public Health students for school credit. Public health has also partnered with Google, though the Google app is not a replacement for contact tracing. Georgia’s contact tracing program has already been rolled out in three communities and will go statewide next week. No one in public health has any experience with an effort this large, and I’m sure there will be hiccups, but I applaud public health for having the vision to give this a try.

Prepare to Test Constantly: Gen. Tom Carden, Director of the Georgia Dept. of Defense, has been put in charge of testing. Over 50 drive-thru testing sites have been set-up, and more are being added. Over the last few weeks, the number of tests conducted each day has ranged from 3000 to around 19,000, although data graphs do show signs of “batching” — holding test results from one day to the next, making some daily totals look larger than they are. Testing is improving, but Gen. Carden has refused to state an ultimate daily goal. When pushed, I have heard him say that testing 10% of the population is not realistic, and that trying to test 11 million Georgians is like trying to boil the ocean. When pushed further, Gen. Carden said he’s going to push testing until the system breaks. Let’s hope not.

Protect, Protect, Protect Healthcare Workers: For our healthcare workers, COVID-19 is a marathon, not a sprint. Ensuring they have the proper PPE is undoubtedly important, but as a potential second wave looms, it’s critical we bolster their morale so they don’t quit their jobs. Low wage healthcare aides need to be paid more. And they might need to be put up in a hotel if they get sick so they don’t have to endanger their families. It means continuing all the community support we’ve been laying on them — the meals, the cards, the cheers. Put simply, without our healthcare workers, we’re toast. We’re doing okay so far, but we have to keep it up.

Normal is not the Goal: The legislature is going to go back in session sometime during the next six weeks to finish the 2020-2021 budget. When we do, we’re looking at having to work in an environment where it’s not possible to physically distance ourselves. The chambers just aren’t big enough. The Senate Democratic Caucus has discussed splitting into two groups so only half of us are in the chamber at once, but we’re hearing the Majority Party wants things to look “normal” — that’s their goal. Wearing masks is a powerful way to communicate that things are not normal.

Keep your Eyes Peeled for the Second Wave: This requires good data, and right now, I’m not trusting Georgia’s data. Last week I reported how changing the way cases are recorded would result in the 14-day downward trajectory of COVID-19 cases Georgia needs to meet the Gating Criteria put forth in the Open American Up Again plan. That graph came out this week, and as Dunwoody resident Robert Wittenstein said, “It is more brazen and outrageous than I expected it to be. That sharp decline during the “14-day window” is a result of their backdating cases combined with our current protocols of only testing folks with symptoms.  If you are getting tested, it means you have symptoms, and if you have symptoms, it means you were infected over two weeks ago!” We data geeks need to hold our Georgia leadership accountable so that their desire to make “normal” their goal does lead to being blind to a second wave. We owe that to our healthcare workers too.

Clear Communication is Critical: I still participate in a weekly conference call with the Governor’s office. Sixteen questions are selected and turned in prior to each call. The last couple of weeks, the Governor’s staff has pretty much refused to answer many of these questions, to the point where it’s like, “why bother?”  Lots of room for improvement with this lesson.

Vote Like You Mean It

It’s 2020 — the year of the big November election we’ve all been working toward. But we can’t go out and register voters, we can’t host gatherings to nurture the communities we’ve all grown to love. So what do we do? Vote-by-Mail is a tremendous opportunity to change the way we vote, to a process that makes so much more sense to so many people. It’s still not as easy as it should be, but it’s basically the “hand-marked paper ballot” so many have been fighting for. So during the next couple of weeks, tell everyone you know, especially young people, to go to My Voter Page (remember, you bookmarked it) and to request a Vote-by-Mail ballot. Let’s see how many people we can get to vote this June, just like we increased voter turnout during the 2018 General Primary. This is how we “practice” for 2020.