Mother unable to vote because her crying child was ‘distracting’

DeKalb County mother Jennifer Fair was unable to cast her ballot Thursday when election workers decided 2-year-old Casey Fair’s crying was too distracting. Fair thinks Georgia law that allows such broad discretion at the polls is not family friendly. CHRIS JOYNER / CJOYNER@AJC.COM
DeKalb County mother Jennifer Fair was unable to cast her ballot Thursday when election workers decided 2-year-old Casey Fair’s crying was too distracting. Fair thinks Georgia law that allows such broad discretion at the polls is not family friendly. CHRIS JOYNER / CJOYNER@AJC.COM

Credit: Chris Joyner

Credit: Chris Joyner

Jennifer Fair, a Georgia mother of three, has her hands full.

Between 4-year-old Maggie, 2-year-old Casey and newborn Audrey, Fair has a lot to juggle, which is why she went to downtown Decatur, Georgia, Thursday morning to cast her presidential election ballot early and avoid the crowds. But even though she was in sight of an empty voting machine, Fair left without casting her ballot.

Why? Blame 2-year-old Casey, that’s what DeKalb County did.

Fair said Casey, as sometimes happens with toddlers, started crying. Loudly. Her mother said she recently has had some unpleasant visits to the doctor and the institutional building and weird attention from strangers was too much.

“She just got scared and freaked out and was crying,” she said. “Everybody kept coming over and trying to calm her down, but it just freaked her out more.”

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Fair had filled out her paperwork and handed over her driver’s license, completing the various hoops we all have to go through to vote these days. There were about five other people casting their ballots and machines were available. But the poll manager told Fair she would have to leave and come back when Casey was calm.

“I knew there was nothing I could do to calm her down,” Fair said. “It’s just how she is. If she’s scared, she’s not going to calm down in a place where she is scared.”

Casey was in a double stroller with her sleeping infant sister and not running wild through the precinct, she said.

“She was restrained. She wasn’t hitting anybody, preventing anybody from voting,” Fair said. “She wasn’t campaigning.”

Law gives poll workers discretion

Poll workers and even some voters were sympathetic, Fair said, but she wasn’t allowed to vote with a crying toddler in tow. And state law backs up the decision.

Children are allowed to accompany parents up to the voting machines, but poll workers have broad latitude to step in if the children are judged to be “causing a disturbance or are interfering with the conduct of voting,” according to the law.

DeKalb County Elections Director Maxine Daniels said she looked into it and said she was told Casey was quite loud.

“Many of the other voters at the precinct were turning around at the booths and it was distracting them,” she said. Regardless, Daniels said Fair wasn’t prevented from voting, per se.

“She was told to take the child out and have the child calm down and she could come back,” she said.

‘I’m just really frustrated’

That’s easier said than done. Fair said she is going to try to vote again Friday, but there is no guarantee that Casey won’t again be frightened. Because her older daughter’s prekindergarten is closed, Fair said she will be returning with three children, a bag of Halloween candy and her fingers crossed.

“It’s frustrating that I was there and I was turned away because I’m a mom with a crying child,” she said. “It’s like I have to work twice as hard to vote when I’m working so hard as it is.”

Fair said she is less mad at the poll workers than she is disappointed in a law that is “unsupportive and not child friendly.”

“Where did this come from where they decided they could do this? What they did was legal, so why is that possible?” she said.

It’s a good question. Fair was there to cast her vote for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, a choice she takes personally.

“I have three daughters. This was a very important election for me to vote,” she said, her voice choked with emotion. “I feel like I’m voting for their future. I’m just really frustrated.”

Fair's experience comes amid a backdrop of tension created around fears of voter suppression, hacking and chicanery voiced by supporters of Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump alike.

Social post draws sympathy

Fair shared her story on Facebook and got immediate reaction from friends around the country.

“Worked at polls years ago,” one friend shared. “Cannot even think of turning anyone away. It is your right to vote!”

Elizabeth Winkler Adams, who lives in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, said she took her two children, ages 6 and 2, with her to vote and they weren’t exactly cherubs.

“Mila was screaming, Sawyer was drawing on the cardboard of the voting booths,” she wrote on Fair’s Facebook page. “Yeah we were totally that family.”

Adams said there were a lot of children in the precinct.

“It was around 7 p.m., which as any parent of young children knows, is not exactly their best hour,” Adams said. “However, the place was packed, and there were loads of families with kids there and it was quite noisy, so perhaps their outbursts were not so noticeable!”

Despite the noise, no one was asked to leave, Adams said, even though Maryland has a similar “distraction” law and also limits parents to no more than two children while voting.

Among those supporting Fair is the Democratic Party of Georgia.

“While the poll worker may technically be operating within the legal limits of Georgia code, it’s unfortunate that they would use this latitude to interfere with this mother’s constitutional right to vote,” said Party Executive Director Rebecca DeHart. “I bring my 2-year-old child with me to the polls every single time because I want him to grow up valuing the precious right to vote.

Parents like Fair should be applauded and supported, she said.

“It’s not easy to juggle parenting and the various things we have to do on any given day, so a little latitude to help make voting easier would have been more appropriate,” DeHart said.