DeKalb commissioner to Elections Board: The money for extra help is there, so use itFILE PHOTO USED FOR ILLUSTRATION PURPOSES: (left to right) Christina Allen with her son, Hartley, 13 months, and David Garrett vote at the First Christian Church of Decatur in Decatur, Ga. on November 5, 2019. Photo by Rebecca Breyer, contributor
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By Logan C. Ritchie, contributor
DeKalb County, GA — Less than one month before early voting begins in DeKalb County for the Nov. 3 election, the Board of Registration and Elections is sending mixed messages about funding additional staff to handle the anticipated rush of voters.
Board Chair Sam Tillman said DeKalb County has historically denied the Voter Registration and Elections Department’s requests for additional staff to manage elections.
“For the past 10 or 12 years, every year when we submitted our budget we put in for additional staff. Every year. And every year, those additional people that we had requested, was turned down,” he said. “We have always been short-staffed. We have never had more than 15 or 18 people in this office at any time.”
As the number of residents grew in DeKalb County, said Tillman, more people voted. Requests for two to three additional staff members were denied.
But when DeKalb County Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson joined the Elections Board meeting on Sept. 14, she said commissioners are willing to contribute unlimited funds to the Elections Board.
Davis Johnson said Fulton County was awarded a grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life to pay for staff at the polls and postage for mail-in ballots.
“If we can get at least what Fulton County got, which was $6 million, we would add to the unlimited amount the commissioners are pretty much committing to give to the Board of Elections this election,” she said.
Davis Johnson said with so many voters expected to show up at the polls, the county can use commissioners’ money to hire staff and police escorts, and distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) at the polls.
“We have the money, we have the means,” she said. “We have you covered. We want to be the number one county in the nation with the most effective voting process for our citizens.”
Erica Hamilton, director of voter registration and elections for DeKalb County, said top-level management planned to be on-site for 22 days straight during early voting.
Indivisible GA 04, a voter advocacy group, has offered to relieve staff by bringing food and help with office tasks. Hamilton said no.
“There is no lack of help available,” said Margaret Arnett, Indivisible GA 04 voter education chair. “The work they do is absolutely leaps and bounds above what most people are asked to do under extraordinary circumstances, especially under COVID. But when we offer and are told no multiple times, it’s infuriating.”
Elections Board member Dele Lowman Smith said the structure of the elections department is unique because it reports to a board, rather than an executive. She said the board and staff have to be willing to adapt from the status quo “to meet the challenges of the new reality that we face.”
“Our department is staffed, resourced and skilled to meet a reality that no longer exists,” Lowman Smith said. “If it were just the machines that were new, it would be a lot to deal with … but new machines, on top of a completely out of control pandemic that continues to decimate our staff and totally undermines everyone’s life, on top of an 80 percent turnout, with most of that coming through absentee ballots at a level we have never managed before is not something we are skilled and staffed to be able to address.”
During the meeting, Director Hamilton proposed a special called meeting to review the department’s communication plan.
Hamilton said, “DeKalb County is currently working to finalize information as it relates to the upcoming General Election, including early voting polling locations, dropbox locations for absentee ballots, and polling locations for Election Day. This information will be posted online no later than Sept. 26.”
“While many people will vote at the same locations as they have previously, the County wants to ensure the accuracy of all information as some places have changed due to the pandemic,” she said, adding information can be found at www.dekalbvotes.com.
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