By Patrick Yost
A proposal by the Morgan County Board of Elections to consolidate voting precincts from 11 locations to five was met with both derision and affirmation at a public hearing on the plan last Thursday.
More than 50 people attended the hearing at the Board of Elections office to hear both the specifics of the plan and what is driving the board to consider eliminating six voting precincts.
Board Chairman George Holt said voting had changed dramatically recently with the introduction of early voting (currently 21 days prior to an election) and Saturday voting. “Elections have changed tremendously…” he said. “It’s not an election day anymore, it’s a window of voting opportunity.”
Bobby Howington, elections supervisor, outlined voting trends, district changes and proposed cost savings with the consolidation plan. Early voting, he said, comprised more than half of 2012 election votes. Howington said roughly 53 percent of Morgan County voters voted early in 2012 and, he predicted, that number would rise in future elections. “It’s catching on and growing by election.”
The consolidation plan would dovetail precincts into current political districts for Morgan County Board of Commissioners and Morgan County Board of Education elections. Howington said the plan could save the county between $20,000 to $35,000 per year in staff reductions, advertising and ballot print bills. “Election costs have gone up and will continue to go up,” he said.
If approved by the Morgan County Board of Elections, the consolidation would begin with the 2014 election cycle.
Several people in the audience found fault in the plan, citing increased travel distance to the polls for some and presumed longer wait time at the polls on election day. “I really think there are going to be some lines. Many people are going to have to drive further,” said Madison City Council Member Michael Naples. “We want to make sure that the people can get to the polls easily. Why, in God’s name, for a few dollars, would you change the system?”
Rutledge resident John Artz disagreed. “How many times do people objecting to this [proposal] drive to Walmart, but you can’t drive to vote?”
Howington said the Morgan County Board of Commissioners had agreed to provide public transportation on voting days to ensure voters could reach the polls. Madison City Council member Joe DiLetto also pledged to drive voters to the polls on election day. “I’ll volunteer. I’ll drive them to the poll. All we need is 100 people to do the same thing and we’d have no problem,” he said.
Patsy Harris, head of the Morgan County Democratic Party, said the plan had no merit and would affect lower income voters. “I’m here for the people who are infirm, who are elderly and who are underprivileged. If [precincts] are taken away or moved it will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
“There is not a problem to be solved if you leave it the way it is. Leave it the way it is,” she said.
Board member Avery Jackson said the projected savings were miniscule compared to the county’s overall budget. “It’s so small. It’s hard to really talk about cost savings.” Jackson said the savings would amount to “one-tenth of 1 percent” of the county’s overall budget.
“What is more sacred that our right to vote. Thirty-five thousand dollars? Give me a break,” said Naples.
Board Member David Moore said that the elections staff had executed past elections without controversy or confusion and he asked the public to place faith in the staff and in their past track record. “They also have the right to say ‘I’m confident that they can handle it right because we have in the past,’” he said. Board Member Helen Butler said she could approve the plan if the board would agree to have two Saturday voting days.
“I would do nothing to disenfranchise or suppress votes,” said Howington. “I’m just asking you to give me an opportunity.”
The board had another public hearing on the consolidation plan scheduled for Tuesday, July 30 and will vote on the proposal at its regular meeting on Thursday, Aug. 15.