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ACC Board of Elections Declines Early Voting Location for East side, Opts for just Two Days of Extended Hours
By Joe Lavine
Midterm elections are November 6th, and Georgia’s governor race between Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams and Republican nominee Brian Kemp is drawing concern from across the country. As Georgia’s Secretary of State, Kemp is overseeing his own election, and he has consistently found ways to make it harder for people to vote, primarily Black and Brown voters.
Here in Athens, many residents and some local officials have worked to make voting easy and accessible to Athenians, but not everyone seems to be on board with that effort.
In September, the Athens-Clarke County Board of Elections declined to support an early voting location in East Athens, and in October they opted to go with two days of extended early voting hours instead of four. Linda Lloyd and Fred Smith Sr. attended the September BOE meeting and spoke in favor of an early voting location on the East side.
“I told them that I think we need to have an early polling location at Cedar Shoals [High School] on the East side because it would give the community more diversity and make sure we make the poll as convenient as we can for people to vote,” Lloyd said. “And you know, the Board of [Elections], they were all shaking their head like they agreed with me.”
Board of Elections member Jesse Evans says he has been pushing to get an early voting location in East Athens since January 2017, but the proposal has been met with resistance.
“I teach here, in East Athens. This is the community that I serve, and we have a history in Athens, Georgia of neglecting the East side community,” Evans said. “Voter education, voter registration, and placement of polling locations are huge in making sure that people - particularly people in historically marginalized communities - are in the system to vote, but also are likely to vote.”
Evans said that in the past when he’s proposed an East side early voting location, BOE staff said that they didn’t have the personnel or funding, and that they would aim for the next election. So when the 2018 Midterms started to roll around, Evans took steps of his own. He got in contact with the poll manager who manages Election Day voting at Cedar Shoals High School. Evans said that this person was “thrilled” about the idea, and was confident they could get their team together to make it happen.
When Evans confirmed with the Cedar Shoals principal that the school could hold early voting, all of the pieces seemed to be in place for a decision at the September Board of Elections meeting. But by the time the meeting had started, things had already gone awry.
“When I arrived for that meeting that day, there’s a sign on the door that says we’re going into executive session,” Evans said.
Sure enough, soon after Lloyd and Smith expressed their support for an early voting location on the East side, the meeting went into Executive Session, and Lloyd and Smith were forced to leave the room. “I don’t think they wanted us to hear what they were saying,” Lloyd said. “They said it was a personnel issue, but I think it was us requesting the early voting place on the East side.”
When Lloyd and Smith were allowed back into the meeting, the decision was done - there would be no early voting on the East side in 2018. Instead, Evans proposed that the BOE gather data to help them choose the best voting location for early voting on the East side - in 2019. The proposal was unanimously approved.
“I was disappointed about that,” Evans said. “We didn’t get to do what I really wanted to do, which was have an early voting location for 2018’s election.”
When Lloyd asked for an explanation, the Chairman Charles Knapper & Director of Elections and Voter Registration Charlotte Sosebee provided several reasons, such as security of election equipment, logistics of transportation of equipment, and personnel/staffing.
“I wasn’t buying it because they already do election day at Cedar Shoals,” Lloyd said. “That’s one of the polling places for the Nov. 6th election. And we had informally talked to the poll manager there who said that she would take it on for early voting, so we couldn’t see the problem.”
Because the meeting went into executive session, the records from that part of the meeting are not public. That may change, however, because the decision to go to executive session is under review by ACC Attorney Bill Berryman. Berryman confirmed that this will be addressed in an open meeting at the December Board of Elections meeting.
As if the September BOE meeting was not eventful enough, the October meeting also raised some questions. The Board was discussing how to make voting as easy as possible for residents, and Evans was asking for four days of extended early voting hours instead of two days.
“I asked if funding was an issue. Staff said no, we’ve got the funding. I asked if personnel was an issue. Staff said no, we’ve got the personnel,” Evans said.
Staff was confident they could support two days of extended early voting hours at the Board of Elections office downtown, and the only issue was whether the Athens Clarke County Library could support the other two days. The proposal for four days passed with the contingency “pending availability of personnel and venue” at the end of the proposal.
“We left the meeting knowing that there would be two extended days with a possibility of four, provided the library would allow it,” said School Board member Greg Davis, who was in attendance of the meeting as a member of the public.
That same day, Sosebee contacted the library. Library staff confirmed that they told Sosebee that same day that the library could support two days of extended early voting hours.
But in a poll-worker training that occurred less than two hours after the board meeting, Sosebee was directing staff that they were doing just two days of extended early voting hours - at the library, but not the Board of Elections Office.
Davis followed up with Sosebee over the phone to try to understand why the two days at the BOE office were cut.
“One reason was parking, and I pointed out to [Sosebee] that if anything, the parking is better at 6 o’clock than it is at 3 o’clock,” Davis said. “She also talked in terms of the staffing issue, and so I went ahead and raised that issue with her myself, because the thing is that what she had said finally at that meeting is that staffing will not be a problem.”
The next Board of Elections meeting falls on Election Day, and another important decision will go up for a vote. Evans, who has heard the concerns surrounding Kemp’s voter registration policies as Secretary of State, has proposed that the Board follow the lead of Morgan County and perform an audit on the midterms, in order to help verify election results. The Board will vote on this proposal at their next meeting, which is at 2 pm on Election Day at the Facilities Management Building, located at 2555 Lexington Rd.
“I urge members of our community to attend our Board of Elections meetings,” Evans said. “This is your Board of Elections. These are your elections, and they place people in positions of power over many aspects of our lives."