ALBANY — Dougherty County officials have reacted to long waits and complaints in the first week of early voting by providing a security officer, shade and water for those standing in line.
While updates to the state voting system have cut the wait times, voters can still expect to stand outside due to social distancing precautions meant to reduce the chance of the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Voting advocacy groups filed a complaint last week, and Dougherty County Election Supervisor Ginger Nickerson said there have been other complaints. Nickerson asked that The Herald make an Open Records request before providing those complaints.
The complaints also reached Dougherty County Administrator Michael McCoy, who paid a visit last week to the polling location at 225 Pine Ave., where early voting began on Oct. 12.
Albany City Commissioner Demetrius Young, who is working with Black Voters Matter, referenced that encounter during a Tuesday City Commission meeting. Young said volunteers working with voting advocacy groups were threatened with arrest.
The volunteers were not advocating for a particular party or candidates, but responded when voters were forced to stand outside for several hours as early voting started Monday, he said during a telephone interview.
The group handed out bottled water and snacks and provided umbrellas and chairs.
“People were really struggling,” he said. “We were here to increase voter turnout. We just wanted to ensure people continued to vote and stayed in line. We were playing music to keep people encouraged.”
Some people seemed offended by the Black Voters Matter T-shirts and van logo, Young said.
On Oct. 13, several volunteers affiliated with the effort filed a report with the Albany Police Department about an encounter with a voter. Witnesses said that a woman used racist and vulgar language toward them and displayed a handgun after an encounter, according to police reports.
The reports said that the woman, identified as Sarah Webster, called them dogs at the scene and in a Facebook post and that she displayed a weapon during the encounter.
Webster said the confrontation began after she complained about the proximity of the van, which she estimated at 20 feet from the polling location. Webster said she believes that the group’s activities within 150 feet of the polls violated election laws.
“Hip-hop music was blaring out of the van,” Webster said. “That was annoying to me.”
Webster made a complaint to a poll worker outside and an Albany Police Department employee on a scooter, who told her that she could file a report. Eventually someone asked the group to move the van farther away, which it did.
At that point, Webster said she spoke with Young and questioned the legality of the group’s presence so close to the polling location
“He said he was standing up for the black man. Then he put his hand on me and I flipped out,” said Webster, who added that she has post-traumatic stress disorder from childhood and that being touched or threatened can be a trigger. “The rest of them got riled up at me.
“I told him if he was going to do something for some people, he should do something for all people. People had gathered around me, and they were giving me the mob look.”
Young left, and when a poll worker appeared, Webster, 71, told him that she was having issues with her hips locking up and was allowed to go inside and vote.
“When I got back outside on the sidewalk, a group of 10 people started the same thing,” she said. “I’m sure they called me all kinds of names.”
Webster said she was fearful when she had to pass between the Black Voters matter van and the side of the building.
“I made a remark (that) communism is all fun and games until you have to eat your puppy for dinner,” she said. “They asked me what I said and I repeated it. They chased me to the car. I feel like my life was in danger.”
At that point, Webster said she removed her pistol from her purse and put it on her hip, but did not brandish it or point it at anyone.
Webster said she did make some online Facebook posts, one of which encouraged people to “armor up” in support of the Second Amendment and that harassment has continued. She said she is considering a lawsuit.
“That’s something that’s between me and my attorney,” she said. “It’s definitely something I have thought about, and it’s something I want to pursue.
“When I got home (from voting) it wasn’t over. I have been getting death threats, bullied, called all kinds of names.”
Webster was charged on Wednesday with disorderly conduct based on a warrant issued through the Albany Police Department, which is the investigating agency, Dougherty County Sheriff Kevin Sproul said. She was released on bond.
“We reached out, contacted her and she came down to the office,” he said. “She was very compliant and did everything we asked her to do.”
Georgia law prohibits taking a firearm within 150 feet of a polling location, he said. However, weapons are not allowed at locations that are on school property, as is the case with several voting precincts in the county.
The elections board has hired deputy sheriffs to work part-time as security at the downtown early voting location and has asked Sproul’s office to provide security at all 28 precincts for the Nov. 3 election. The office is working through the logistics of how to handle that request.
“We haven’t had any issues lately,” Chief Deputy Terron Hayes said. “We just want a peaceful transfer so you can vote, get in and out, and everybody minds their own business.
“Everyone is safe, and the black voters group is there assisting in ways they can — assisting voters when they’re hot, fatigued. They’re abiding by the 150-foot rule. We’re good so far.”
The sheriff’s office has not threatened to arrest anyone, Hayes said.