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Advocates say DeKalb County needs more early voting options

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Advocates say DeKalb County needs more early voting options

FILE PHOTO USED FOR ILLUSTRATION PURPOSES: A long line of voters gathered outside the Voter Registration and Elections Office on Oct. 12, the first day of early voting in the Nov. 3 elections. Photo by Dean Hesse
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By Logan C. Ritchie, contributor 

DeKalb County, GA — Residents are complaining about a lack of transparency from the DeKalb County Voter Registration and Elections Office, citing confusion surrounding early voting locations and absentee ballot drop boxes. 

The county elections director says that residents will have plenty of ways to participate in the upcoming Jan. 5 runoff elections.

Early voting for the Jan. 5 runoff begins on Monday, Dec. 14 at locations around the county. This will be the sixth time since May that DeKalb County voters have been to the polls. To see a list of dropbox and early voting locations, click here.

On the ballot will be two U.S. Senate races that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate and a seat on the state’s Public Service Commission.

But there may not be enough early voting locations to ensure a smooth election this time, advocates say. The League of Women Voters has been asking the county to look at this for months.

A recent letter to the Elections Board from LWV suggested it “re-assess the needs of the polling locations and to reallocate resources to ensure that polling locations are equipped with adequate numbers of poll pads, touch screens, poll workers, and technicians so that voters during the remainder of this election cycle are not forced to spend hours in line in order to vote.” 

The letter writer, Susannah Scott, president of the League of Women Voters of Georgia, was referring to the June 9 primary, when record numbers of voters stood in long lines, and polling places were forced to stay open late on Election Day. DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond called it a “statewide meltdown.”

In a special called meeting today, DeKalb Elections director Erica Hamilton announced three drop boxes used in the previous election would be relocated. Tiffani Gilbert, an elections supervisor, said all of the advanced voting locations have been secured, except for Brookhaven. Under consideration is Latin American Association Atlanta Outreach Center on Buford Highway.   

Hamilton said that due to construction, the board needed to sign off an emergency location change in Brookhaven.   

At a press conference held Dec. 11 Hamilton said, “The only one we will present to the board today as an emergency change is Briarwood Recreation Center is under construction and that will be moved to Lynwood Recreation Center. That is the only change from Nov. 3 that we will have.”  

The Elections Board approved a motion to “remove Briarwood Recreation Center from the list of authorized polling places, and to instead designate Lynwood Recreation Center as an authorized polling place; and direct the Board of Registrations and Elections and/or the county attorney to advertise that change in accordance with applicable law.” 

Under Georgia law, an emergency poll change must be advertised in a newspaper of record, and the public allowed to comment. 

The board voted unanimously to approve the motion and certified the Dec. 1 runoff election of Georgia’s 5th Congressional District and Doraville District 1.    

When Decaturish inquired with Brookhaven about the polling place change, a city spokesperson said both Briarwood Recreation Center and Lynwood Recreation Center are unavailable for early voting or on Jan. 5 due to construction. 

“We have a dropbox at City Hall, but that’s just not the same,” said Burke Brennan, Brookhaven communications director.   

DeKalb County is not new to election problems. Last-minute changes to polling locations were made before the Nov. 3 presidential election and the June 9 primary election. Letters were received by mail as late as Nov. 2 regarding poll locations.

Dekalb County posted a list of advanced voting sites this week, claiming 13 locations are available. However, DeKalb County Elections Office at Memorial Drive is listed as two locations: One line is dedicated to those in need of assistance, like seniors and disabled voters. The Decatur Recreation Center is open only Dec. 14-20, while Agnes Scott is open Dec. 21-31. 

The city of Brookhaven has no confirmed advanced voting site. And in the eastern and southern parts of the county, voters will drive between six and eight miles to the nearest advanced voting site. 

Blaming DeKalb County for excluding voters, a local voters rights advocate criticized the department’s communication strategy. 

“It’s disenfranchisement,” said Margaret Arnett of Indivisible GA 04. “Excuse after excuse after excuse, Erica Hamilton is not getting voting locations nailed down. DeKalb does not have adequate accessible advanced locations for every person in the county.” 

Hamilton, through a spokesperson, disputed this claim.

“DeKalb County continues to offer a number of advance voting locations across the county,” Hamilton said. “Utilizing a similar footprint reflective of our successful advance voting efforts for the general election, DeKalb Voter Registration and Elections continues to work with our partners to provide expanded options for in-person voting, both early and Election Day. We also are working to expand dropboxes locations to grow our footprint for those voters who are utilizing absentee ballots. Hosting advance voting opportunities across the holidays has created a challenge for many election offices to navigate times, staffing and other issues but we are proud of our many partners who have opened their doors to provide voters with multiple locations to vote early in person.”

County officials commended Hamilton and her staff for how they handled the Nov. 3 presidential election which saw 369,948 of 546,711 registered voters in DeKalb County cast their ballots.

During the Dec. 11 press conference, county officials encouraged voters to take advantage of the county’s early voting options.

DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond said voting is not only a right, it’s a liberty. 

“We are encouraging everyone, whether by mail, by absentee, or voting early or voting on election day, to please take advantage of his right so many previous generations have literally sacrificed their lives for us to enjoy,” said Thurmond. “On behalf of the Board of Commissioners, I will commit that we will continue to work together to make resources available so that we can have fair and free and accessible elections in DeKalb County.” 

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