The year 2020 is fast approaching and so are the elections, including the all-consuming presidential showdown and decisions on numerous other offices. So, is Madison County prepared to handle these elections on new, state-mandated voting machines?
That’s the question that consumes Tracy Dean’s thoughts. Dean oversees the Madison County elections office and is the chairman of the Madison County Board of Elections and Registration.
“I don’t want any problems in any election and the voters of the county are my priority,” she said. “I want to make sure they have the opportunity to vote.”
Dean was not alone in concern over next year’s elections. Twelve people took the podium Monday, Sept. 9, to ask commissioners to do whatever is needed to support Dean and the election process in Madison County. Georgia’s voting practices have received national attention over the past year. And Monday night’s speakers, both Republican and Democrat, spoke in favor of guaranteeing sound election practices in the county. They said Dean is doing a good job and needs funding support from the commissioners.
“Some places will have something said about voter suppression and other miskeeps,” said Dave Ramsey. “I don’t want Madison County to be on that list.”
Local, state and federal elections in Georgia will be held on new voting machines from Dominion Voting that offer a paper trail. But the old machines won’t be picked up from the county elections office until at least a month after the upcoming Nov. 5 referendums on a sales tax and Sunday sales.
That’s when the transition begins in earnest.
The new machines must be ready to run in March. And about 75 poll workers for 12 precincts must be trained on how to use the machines, while 20,000 registered county voters must also be educated on how the new process works.
Dean appeared before commissioners Monday to give an overview of how the machines from Dominion Voting will work. She also talked about the need for additional storage space for the new equipment, which includes washing-machine-sized tabulators, pointing out that the current voting machines take up less space than the new ones. But the storage room is packed full now. And new equipment can’t be stacked like some of the current equipment. Dean presented board members with a price quote for adding a 22’ by 22’ area on to the storage room at the elections office. BOC members will have to seek bids if they agree to pay for expanding the storage area.
The overall elections budget for 2020 is $249,989. Dean requested $336,329 to handle the presidential election year budget. Another $70,000 has been set aside by commissioners in the county budget for election equipment expenses, though this is listed in the general fund, not in the elections budget. Election expenses in 2016, the last presidential election year, were $244,989.
Dean asked commissioners why $30,000 was cut from her budget line for poll workers. And commissioners didn’t have an answer. She requested $80,000 for poll workers, but only $50,000 was budgeted. She said she was never notified that the line item was being cut. The elections office spent just over $46,000 on poll workers in 2016. Dean said the 2020 elections will include more poll workers, more training and potentially more elections. There were four elections in 2016, with potentially six next year. Poll workers must arrive on election day at 6 a.m., then stay for the duration of voting, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. They then remain until all tallies are complete. The day can stretch on for 14 or 15 hours. Poll clerks are paid $125 a day. Assistants are paid $145. And managers are paid $160 for the day.
“They don’t get the thanks they deserve,” said Dean of the poll workers. She urged commissioners and others to tell them thanks for the job they do.
The county must cover the cost of toner for the new printers and a particular paper mandated by the state that costs 13 cents a page. The state has promised 82 voting tablets, 82 printers and 15 tabulators. Dean said the county needs at least 20 to 22 tabulators, which cost $4,000-to-$5,000 apiece. She said the elections office had been using the old coroner’s van to transport equipment to and from polling sites, but now it has no vehicle. She said the county might have to rent a U-haul for election days.
Dean gave commissioners an overview of the process for voters with the new machines, which includes getting a voter certificate filled out, presenting ID, getting an electronic ballot from a poll worker, inserting that ballot into a pad (which looks similar to an iPad), selecting choices, reviewing those choices, then printing the ballot onto a printer that sits next to the pad. The voter will then feed that ballot into a large tabulator. The paper ballot will be kept in a locked bin inside the tabulator until the election is over.
BOC members took no votes on any matters Monday, but they agreed that preparing for the 2020 elections is important and that they will look into the matters Dean brought up.
“We need to do everything we can to support your department,” said commissioner Theresa Bettis, who added that the county is “blessed to have you (Dean) and your staff.” Bettis apologized for any miscommunication on budgeting and said all problems needed to be remedied to ensure smooth elections for Madison County in 2020.
There had been some talk earlier in the year at the commissioners’ table of consolidating polling places in Madison County. This is actually a decision under the authority of the county board of elections, not the county commissioners. No one in the meeting room Monday expressed any desire to see that happen in 2020.
In other matters Monday, the board discussed a title change for county clerk Rhonda Wooten. The proposed new title would be county clerk/administrator. Commissioner Brian Kirk said he feels “administrative assistant” might be more appropriate than “administrator,” saying that title might create confusion, with people perhaps equating her role to that of a county manager or county administrator operating outside of the guidance of the county commission chairman. Bettis and commissioners Lee Allen voiced support for Wooten and noted that she already performs a wide variety of administrative duties. Three people took the podium Monday to voice support for Wooten’s position change, while one speaker said she was concerned about pay increases at a time when the elections office needs more money.
Commissioners unanimously agreed to chip in an additional $1,500 toward the salary of the new county extension agent. The University of Georgia has agreed to allocate an additional $11,000 for Carol Knight to take the role of county extension agent, replacing Adam Speir, who took a job at Jackson EMC. The school board is also being asked to chip in $1,500. Commissioner Tripp Strickland said Knight is highly qualified, adding that UGA agreeing to boost pay by $11,000 shows how much they think of her taking the role in Madison County.
Commissioners also approved a final plat for Kaydence Springs Subdivision off Colbert-Diamond Hill Road. The plat was approved on the condition that Lot 1 and Lot 16 be accessed from Faith Lane and Lot 17 be accessed from Diamond Hill Colbert Road.
Commissioner Derek Doster requested upgrades at the intersection of Bullock Mill Road and Colbert Danielsville Road. He suggested rumble strips and shrub trimming to improve driver safety.