2016-08-18 / Front Page

Polling place consolidations considered; Charping seeks advice of commissioners

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Tara Teuta of GEMHSA presents checks totaling nearly $200,000 to Wilkes County EMA Director Blake Thompson (left) and Commission Chairman Sam Moore. The money is to help cover the costs of damages resulting from last December’s heavy rains. Tara Teuta of GEMHSA presents checks totaling nearly $200,000 to Wilkes County EMA Director Blake Thompson (left) and Commission Chairman Sam Moore. The money is to help cover the costs of damages resulting from last December’s heavy rains. Seeking advice and suggestions, Wilkes County Elections Superintendent Thomas Charping proposed that the consolidation of the four City of Washington polling places into just one would save money for the county and its taxpayers. Prompted by the extremely low turnout in the recent Republican runoff election for State Senate, Charping explained that requirements for personnel and the time they spend at the polls resulted in a cost of nearly $240 per vote on election day.

“I’m trying to save you some money,” Charping said, “It has been brought up by many people that the runoff election was very expensive.” Consolidation of polling places, he said, would reduce the number of people required to work and also ease the burden of equipment maintenance to some degree.

The idea is not without precedent and Charping reported that he has already talked to election officials in other, larger counties that have consolidated to varying degrees. Rabun, Stephens, Greene, Evans, and Oglethorpe Counties, he said, all say that the “transition was smooth, everybody is happy, they have saved a lot of money, and they are glad they did it.”

Consolidation would also help with potential power outage problems, he said, because the Young Farmers Building and the Senior Citizens Center are not equipped with generators. “If the power goes out, it’s a real problem,” Charping said, indicating that the Secretary of State’s office has to be notified and a judge has to rule on the requirements.

The need to save money is exacerbated by the aging equipment, replacements for some of which are no longer even available. According to Charping, to replace the 38 touchscreens at the regular price could be as high as $68,400 and it will be 2023 or 2024 before the state will offer any assistance.

“If we could combine some polling locations, we could save some money on the purchasing of refurbished express polls,” he said.

“Some elections are going to be more hectic than others,” he continued, pointing out that there was less than a 40 percent turnout in the recent primary and about 50 percent or more of those voters cast their ballots during early voting. “So that’s not very many people going through the polling locations.”

Asking for suggestions from the commissioners, Charping said, “For example, if we could combine two, like the Young Farmers with the courthouse, and maybe the Senior Center with The Pope Center, that would be a big savings right there; that would be a start for people to see how the big picture would work a little later if we could combine those two one day.”

“We’ve been dealing with the excessive cost of elections since they went to expanded [early] voting,” Commission Chairman Sam Moore commented. “All of that expense was put on the counties. People think that the state sends money with the different election laws that they change but they do not. It’s all on the counties and all that expense through the years has really gone through the roof. That’s why a lot of the counties mentioned are doing this kind of combining.”

Moore offered support in saving as much money as possible because of the continuing mandates from the state. “We are always looking to save money but we do not want to discourage anybody from voting and we don’t want to make it inconvenient for anybody to vote,” he said.

The chairman explained that by law, the decision on polling place locations is in the hands of the Elections Superintendent and the Board of Registrars.

Other commissioners reacted to the presentation as well.

Commissioner Ed Geddings said, “We want to back you in the decision you make,” but he was concerned over the time it might take to vote, wondering if it might take longer due to longer lines.

Charping explained that any bottleneck would be at the express polls but the number of those stations would be increased accordingly.

Commissioner Charles Jackson asked when such a change might take effect and wanted to make sure it would not be in the coming November presidential election. Charping said it would not happen that fast.

“The Secretary of State’s office says not to do a consolidation during a presidential election,” he said, but rather recommends it during an oddyear or municipal election, or during a gubernatorial election if necessary. “They strongly advise against it during a presidential election.”

He further said that voters would be informed of any changes in their assigned polling places through cards issued by the Wilkes County Registrar’s office.

“The average 85-95-year-old lady is not going to pay much attention to a voters card that comes in the mail,” Jackson responded. “Is that the only means you are going to use to notify the citizens?”

“Certainly we would have articles in the paper” informing people of any changes, Charping said, to which Jackson offered, “No disrespect, but everybody doesn’t read the paper.”

The commissioners also expressed concern over “routine interruption,” saying that someone who doesn’t know of the change and has voted in the same place for 25 years would just go home and not vote if told they must go somewhere else. “They’re not going to follow through,” he said.

“Same thing with long lines,” Jackson continued. “A lot of people vote on their lunch break. If you’ve got 30 people in line and you have 30 minutes for lunch – they’re not going to vote, they’re not going to come back, they’re not going to make a second effort to come back and vote. Any time you disenfranchise a voter, that’s not good. I admire you for trying to save money but the worst thing we can do is discourage people from voting.”

Charping agreed completely, saying “Yes, we need to have MORE people voting.”

Commissioner Clem Slaton said, “It’s like the old saying, ‘you’re not going to make everybody happy,’ but I think in time they will accept it. It might not be a smooth transition but I think they will accept it.”

Commissioner Esper Lee said he had asked a number of his constituents about the issue and most were concerned about having to make a change and about wait times. “Most of them said if the wait time is not affected it would be AOK,” he reported. “I personally wish that we could vote by way of computer online. It’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of when.”

Charping indicated that he will continue to seek public reaction to the possibility and will schedule meetings and hearing at the appropriate time if necessary. “It’s going to take some time for this to take place and for people to become accustomed to it,” he said.

In other business:

. Commissioners approved revisions in the Comprehensive Land Use Ordinance as recommended by Code Enforcement Officer Jimmy Toto.

. County Attorney Chip Hardin reported that all preparations and documentation for the validation of the bond for the SPLOST have been completed and a public hearing was set for 9 a.m. Friday, August 12. He said he was not aware of any objections to the proposal.

. Kettle Creek Battlefield Association Chairman Joe Harris offered a report on conceptual plan development including specifics on Phases I-III.

. County Clerk Karen Burton reported that Local Option Sales Tax revenue received for the month of June was $53,715.29, and that Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax was $82,638.89. T-SPLOST for the same month amounted to $75,141.03.

. Moore reported that thanks to the efforts of Emergency Management Agency Director Blake Thompson, the county has checks in hand totaling nearly $200,000 in federal relief funds for road and other damage done during the heavy December rains. Also, he said, another $100,000 is expected.

“We really appreciate the things Blake does,” Moore said. “He does a great job.”

. It was announced that the W-W Airport will host a Chamber After Hours Open House on September 1 from 5:30-7:30 for a ribbon cutting ceremony for the just-completed west taxiway project.

A called meeting of the board of commissioners will be held on Friday, August 26, at 1 p.m. for the purpose of setting the tax levy and millage rate.

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