The Habersham County Board of Elections will focus on “process improvement” to shorten the long lines that plagued voters and poll workers in Clarkesville and Cornelia during the Nov. 4 General Election. The board does not plan to add any more polling precincts.
During its monthly meeting on Dec. 18 the board said it wasn’t a lack of voting machines or precincts that caused the problem – although precinct consolidation did add to the confusion – they said it was slow check-in times. They asked Elections Superintendent Laurel Ellison to prepare a cost analysis of what it will take for the county to hire more poll workers and buy additional computers and printers to speed up voter check-in lines.
Polling problems and solutions
Ellison told the board that a number of voters showed up at the polls in November with mismatched names on their IDs and voter registration cards due to marriage and other life changes. Others showed up at the wrong polling precinct. Resolving those issues took time and caused a back up at the check-in line. Ellison said separate check-in stations will be set up in the future to help process voters who are experiencing trouble.
The November election also was the first time computers were used to check in voters. Previously, voters filled out paper forms. Ellison said the computers are supposed to speed up the check-in process and, in time, she believes that they will. She and the board agreed that the key to making that happen is to have enough computers and poll workers to man them.
Another problem the board discussed was the south precinct’s size. The Cornelia Depot is too small to accommodate all of the south end county voters. Election officials are now in talks with the First Baptist Church of Cornelia to move the south polling precinct there. Ellison said she still has to talk with the church’s pastor Eric Spivey but has spoken with other church leaders and they support the idea.
Whether the precinct winds up at the First Baptist Church of Cornelia or some other location Ellison told Now Habersham the goal is to move the precinct out of the Cornelia Depot by the time the next big election rolls around. “The only election that we’ll have in there is the City of Alto and City of Cornelia for 2015. In 2016 we should be in our new location.”
The board said if more voters took advantage of early voting it would help alleviate some of the backlog at the polls on election day. They discussed ways to improve communication with voters about early voting schedules and precinct locations.
Why precincts were consolidated
Despite a barrage of criticism, emails and phone calls made to local election officials after the November election, only one person showed up Thursday to voice her concerns.
Trudy Wade asked the board to reconsider its decision to consolidate Habersham’s previous fourteen precincts into two. She says she never had to wait longer than a few minutes when she voted at B.C. Grant Church on the south end of the county and wanted to know what prompted the board’s decision to change.
Elections board chair Ernie Garrett explained the decision was made due to federal ADA (Americans with Disabilities) guidelines. Federal law requires precincts to be handicap accessible and many of the county’s outlying precincts were not. As a result, the board of elections recommended, and county commissioners approved, establishing two county-wide precincts – one on the north end of Habersham County, the other on the south end. Those precincts are housed in the Ruby C. Fulbright Aquatic Center in Clarkesville and in the old train depot in Cornelia. Lines formed at both precincts during the General Election but the north precinct was the worst. There, some voters waited up to three hours to vote.
Garrett says he, too, waited in line and he and other board members are committed to fixing the problem. Fellow Elections Board member Pete Davitto termed it “process improvement.”
“We are taking those comments seriously,” Garrett told Now Habersham. “We do not ever want to disenfranchise any voter. We hear them. We wish there were more public participation but it is what it is. We’ll just go with what we’ve got and try to make it better.”
Wade left the meeting encouraged by what she heard but said she’d still like to see more voting precincts in Habersham County. “I wish they would revisit it and let the commissioners and everybody make a decision and put it before the public again. I don’t think we had enough outward communication that it (consolidation) was going to take place like this to start with.” Wade told Now Habersham she doesn’t want to go back to fourteen precincts but said more polling stations should be added to accommodate voters on the north and south ends of the county.
Given that is unlikely to happen, Wade said she is generally pleased by the board’s response to her questions and to voters’ concerns. She especially likes the idea of moving the south precinct from the Cornelia Depot to First Baptist Church. “It will be better than the Depot, that’s for certain, because that just didn’t work out at all.”
Funding for purchasing new equipment and hiring more poll workers must be approved by the Habersham County Commission before any changes are made.
Ellison remains optimistic the proposed changes will improve the overall election process in Habersham County. “We’ll have to get something together for the board of commissioners to actually look at,” she says, “but I think we’ll be able to accommodate the changes.”