No disenfranchisement, no election-day drama, no attention from state or national media on Madison County politics. County leaders and citizens want next year’s elections to run smoothly.
However, officials aren’t in total agreement on how money should be used to make that happen.
Madison County leaders sparred Monday, Sept. 30, on budgeting for the 2020 elections, with elections official Tracy Dean saying more funds are needed in the budget and county commission chairman John Scarborough saying money can be allocated as needed if costs exceed the elections budget.
This marked the second elections budget discussion at the BOC table in September, though again, no votes were taken.
County commissioners heard Sept. 9 from Dean, who serves as chairperson for the county elections and registration office. Several citizens also backed up Dean at that meeting in calling for a boost in election funding. Dean noted that new, state-mandated voting equipment, which provides a paper trail for voters, will take up much more space than the current voting machines. So, she asked the board to consider funding an expansion of the elections office to handle the need for more storage space. Dean said it’s important to keep the equipment at the elections office for security purposes and not move it offsite. The elections official also asked the commissioners to consider an additional $30,000 for poll workers. She noted that next year’s elections will include more poll workers, more training and potentially more elections. Thus, she said more funding is needed.
Scarborough was recovering from back surgery Sept. 9 and unable to attend the meeting that night. He said Monday that he watched the video of that meeting, and he addressed the elections issue in the “chairman’s notes” agenda item at the beginning of Monday’s meeting. He opened by emphasizing that all precincts will remain in place in 2020 and that the discussions of consolidation of precincts are done.
Scarborough said the elections budget is in line with the past two presidential-election year budgets. And he said there were no cuts to the 2020 elections budget. Instead, he noted that Dean’s requested budget wasn’t fully met, but that this didn’t constitute a “cut.” Scarborough said there’s no way to know exactly how much of an increase in election expenses there will be in 2020. He added that whatever election cost is necessary will get covered. But he said he doesn’t favor budgeting items that aren’t known. He prefers budget adjustments on such matters.
“Just about every department has an item that is just unknown,” he said to Dean. “And your fund balance should be sufficient to cover those things.”
Commissioner Brian Kirk said he favored this approach, too, when expense amounts aren’t clear.
“If you just budget an amount, it gets gone,” he said. “It gets used.”
Scarborough also didn’t favor Dean’s request to add on to the elections office for more storage space. He said the equipment will be kept elsewhere.
“It will be in a secure, climate-controlled facility,” he said.
The elections issue wasn’t on Monday’s agenda. But Dean addressed Scarborough and the BOC during the public-comment portion of the meeting at the end of the agenda. Dean said she was confused about why the elections matter wasn’t scheduled for the Sept. 30 meeting, since it had been a major topic during the Sept. 9 agenda-setting meeting.
“Why wasn’t I listed on the agenda?” she asked.
Dean said she had not been informed when the BOC set the line item for poll workers at $46,000, instead of $80,000 as requested. Scarborough said he and Dean spoke by phone and she had the opportunity to bring it up, but didn’t.
Dean said communication needs to improve.
“If you ever have a question, come to me and ask,” she said. “We’re not communicating.”
Three citizens addressed commissioners Monday. They urged communication between officials and citizens and one speaker asked what had changed between Sept. 9 and Sept. 30. Dave Ramsey, who wrote about the issue in this week’s opinion section, said there seemed to be agreement Sept. 9 that more support is needed for Dean’s proposal.
“What happened?” he asked. “Why has this changed? Mrs. Dean’s proposal seemed very reasonable to me.”
Dean was not in favor of Scarborough’s assertion that election equipment could be stored away from the elections office. She said where elections equipment is stored is a decision of the board of elections, not the board of commissioners. And she said she will stack the equipment to the ceiling in the elections office if needed, but it won’t be moved off site.
Scarborough responded that the elections office is not manned 24/7.
“If you’re not there 24 hours a day, then you have to acknowledge you’re not close,” he said.
Dean voiced dismay with an email she received from Scarborough regarding elections. She said she feels she has been battling commissioners on election preparations and that she doesn’t have time for it. She said her office is preparing for a Nov. 5 vote on the sales tax renewal and a referendum on Sunday alcohol sales, while also planning for an overhaul of the county election equipment in a presidential election year.
Scarborough’s email sparked some discussion of the word “disenfranchisement.” Dean said she feels that standing in a long line can constitute “disenfranchisement” for elderly voters. Scarborough said he doesn’t want people to wait in lines, but he said he doesn’t believe a line meets the definition of disenfranchisement, given that voting in metro areas like Fulton County often involves lines.
Commissioner Tripp Strickland said he was bothered that “disenfranchisement” was being discussed at all. He said there is early voting, absentee voting and a precinct in “every nook and cranny” of Madison County. He said talk of disenfranchisement in Madison County is nothing but “fear mongering.”
“I hate to hear voter suppression come up since there’s nothing to back it up with,” he said.
Strickland also said didn’t understand why Dean sent commissioners an email saying they would no longer be given notification of when their mandated ethics filings with the state were due. Dean said her office is simply required to serve as a filing agency and that the reminders were simply a courtesy.
Dean brought up the issue of compensation. She said other offices in the Madison County government got raises last year, but the elections office wasn’t included in that, despite long-time service to the county. She added that the raises weren’t the reason the reminders were discontinued.
Strickland said the compensation matter was the reason for the discontinuance of the notifications.
“It wasn’t very nice,” he said. “There was no other way it could have been taken. It was not innocent.”
Commissioner Theresa Bettis said she wanted to see everyone focus on the future and the importance of upcoming elections, not the past.
“We are all on the same team; we have got to work together,” she said. “We have to be open and transparent. I don’t want to talk about the past anymore. I want to move forward.”
In other matters Monday, the board agreed to give county clerk Rhonda Wooten more authority in making decisions when Scarborough is not around to make a call on immediate administrative issues. This decision did not involve any change in pay, but commissioners plan to evaluate county salaries sometime later this year.
By the numbers:
•2020 elections budget: $249,989
•2020 requested elections budget: $336,329
•2016 elections budget: $244,989
•$70,000 has been set aside in the county’s “capital outlay” expenses for new election equipment. This is not included in the elections departmental budget.