Voters in 6th District losing manners as election becomes aggressive

After months of phone calls, campaign ads and insistent knocks on their doors, some voters in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District have finally lost their Southern manners.

Local poll workers in two of the district’s three suburban counties say they have seen noticeably aggressive behavior among people coming to cast ballots in the runoff election between Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff.

Among the transgressions being reported local officials during the runoff’s early-voting period are voters wearing campaign paraphernalia and arguing when told to take it off, not getting off their mobile phones when asked to do so, and otherwise barking at poll workers when they’re approached.

The worst behavior appears to be in Fulton County, where officials decided to post retired marshals this week at five of its six early-voting locations as both a precaution and deterrent. The sixth, the county’s North Annex in Sandy Springs, is a location that regularly has sheriff’s deputies for security.

“It’s slightly disturbing that people are losing their civility over voting,” said Richard Barron, Fulton’s director of registration and elections. “The election is really getting heated. Poll workers are feeling insecure over these incidents. People are being aggressive.”

In Cobb County, Elections Director Janine Eveler said deputies have always been staffed at early-voting locations in larger elections such as this month’s runoff, which will be held Tuesday. They’ll also be used as needed on Election Day, something Eveler called “a definite deterrent” to rude behavior.

Cobb, she said, had not seen nearly the kinds of confrontations reported in Fulton. But not every voter has been on their best behavior, either, she said.

“Emotions are high for this election,” Eveler said. “There have have people that have been upset with different scenarios,” such as the voting lines not moving fast enough.

The stakes in the suburban district, which also includes part of DeKalb County, have national implications. The race has been pegged as an early referendum on President Donald Trump’s administration. Scores of outside groups from both sides have invested in the outcome, using tens of millions of dollars as well as a small army of volunteers to sway voters.

That spotlight has been intensified by the fact that the runoff is the only game in town right now. Pundits on both sides have said most voters already know who they want to win, meaning just a few thousand undecided voters could end up swinging the election. To reach them, both campaigns have bombarded residents inside and outside the district with television and radio ads. District residents have also reported as many as a dozen calls a day and canvassers seemingly knocking nonstop on their doors at home.

With the race less than a week away, both sides have also released a final flurry of ads including Handel chiding Ossoff for not living in the district (he lives closer to Atlanta, near Emory University) and Ossoff repeating his top priorities, including cutting what he calls wasteful government spending.

None of that massive effort, however, has apparently centered on voting etiquette.

Fulton in past elections has only used off-duty officers to direct traffic. Starting Tuesday, the county hired the retired marshals to try to tamp down on the number of incidents it has to deal with in the runoff for what’s become the most expensive U.S. House race in history.

Those incidents have crossed party lines.

One man in Milton didn’t want to take off his Make America Great Again baseball cap. Another in Roswell refused to turn his Ossoff shirt inside out. When a poll worker told him he couldn’t wear the gear to vote, the man accused the poll worker of punching him, said Sharon Benjamin, the Fulton deputy elections director.

Witnesses confirmed the poll worker had only leaned close to tell the voter that he couldn’t wear the shirt in the precinct. She didn’t want to embarrass him, Benjamin said, and so she had tried to talk quietly.

In another incident in Milton, a voter got “loud and disruptive” with a poll worker who wouldn’t tell him where she lived, Barron said.

Yet another voter, who was registered in Gwinnett County and not qualified to vote in the 6th District runoff, got so upset that he yelled at everyone in the precinct, then went outside and tore the “Vote Here” signs out of the ground and threw them back into the room.

“The staff didn’t feel safe,” Barron said. “That’s why we need security. Since I’ve been here, I’ve never heard of that happening.”

The department will spend about $5,000 to pay for marshals at voting locations through Friday, when early voting ends. Barron said he hopes their presence will make people think twice before they refuse to turn off their phones — as at least eight people in Milton have — or call a poll worker a vulgar name for a female dog, which happened last week.

In that incident, Fulton officials reported the language to the Secretary of State Office. A state investigator called the offender, who apologized to the worker.

A spokeswoman for the state office said it has not opened any formal investigations based on “voter aggressiveness” or any related category for the special election and runoff. The reports so far — except for the man who apologized — seem to have mostly gone to local elections officials, some of whom said the number of complaints they’ve received is similar to what they might get for a presidential election. The voting base in this race, however, is much smaller.

“They’re angry, and they’re angry at the wrong person. The poll workers are seeing the anger,” Fulton’s Benjamin said. “The culture of the election has changed. It’s very disrespectful. If it’s not going their way, they’re just reacting.”

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