Board says lack of poll workers cause of closures
By Tia Lynn Ivey
Just one week before the highly-anticipated Senate runoff elections, Morgan County is closing down two polling places on Election Day, January 5, after a wave of COVID cases and COVID quarantines hit local poll workers.
The Morgan County Board of Elections and Registration (BOER) held an emergency special-called meeting, announced just hours before convening on Tuesday, Dec. 29, in which only three board members attended, voting to close Morgan County’s two smallest precincts—Clack’s Chapel and Bethany Springfield Church—on account of a significant poll worker shortage. Chairman James Woodard presided over the meeting, held virtually over Zoom, and only the two Republican members of the board, Bob McCauley and Dena Lanier, attended in time to cast a vote. The Democratic members, Avery Jackson and Helen Butler, did not attend in time.
According to Jennifer Doran, elections director for Morgan County, the election office reached a “critical tipping point” on Monday, Dec. 28 in which staffing Morgan County’s seven precincts was no longer feasible.
“Due to the surge in COVID, we have had some poll workers and managers in the last week and in the last couple of days express concern that they don’t want to work and we have some that are actually sick and we have some that are actually in quarantine due to exposure,” said Doran to the present members of the BOER at Tuesday’s special-called meeting. “Last night, was the final sort of tipping point, where we went from managing seven precincts to reaching a critical level at which where we just can’t manage it.”
According to Doran, during the General Election in November, the county had 40 poll workers to manage Morgan County’s seven polling places. As of Tuesday, Dec. 29, that number has dwindled to 23.
“Right now, we have barely enough to fill the minimum required poll workers for each station by law,” said Doran. “Legally we need three workers at each polling place, but really, because of the election equipment set up, we need four poll workers at each polling place,” explained Doran. “If any more of our poll workers get sick or quarantined before the election on January 5, we would not be in compliance with the minimum number of poll workers required by law if we still have seven precincts open.”
“With the election just one week away, with the time crunch we do not have enough time to hire and train new poll workers,” added Doran.
Doran proposed closing Morgan County’s two smallest voting precincts—Clacks Chapel and Bethany Springfield—and moving the voting equipment to the closest polling precincts.
“Clacks Chapel voters would go to Centennial Baptist and Bethany Springfield voters would go to Buckhead’s precinct to vote,” said Doran. “It will be inconvenient but have the least impact.”
Doran noted that the two precincts closing are Morgan County’s smallest precincts, and the voting equipment from both locations will be utilized at the open precincts.
“There’s no co-mingling of equipment,” said Doran, despite the closures. “Clacks Chapel voters will be voting on their machines and Centennial will be voting on theirs.
Doran does not believe the last minute closures will dissuade voter turnout or increase wait times on Election Day.
“Wait times should not be impacted as the precincts will have their own voting equipment set up from the closed precincts. There will be no co-mingling of equipment.” explained Doran. “I do not believe voter turnout will be impacted.”
However, the short notice of the public meeting and and sudden change in precinct locations so close to the upcoming runoff election drew the ire of the Morgan County Democrats.
Jeanne Dufort called into the Zoom meeting Tuesday to speak on behalf of the Morgan County Democrats, arguing that the meeting violated state law which requires at least 24 hours notice for a public meeting to be held.
“I am speaking today on behalf of Morgan County Democrats. We want to lodge an objection to this meeting and anything that will be decided at this meeting due to the fact that there has not been proper public notice of this meeting, said Dufort. Dufort granted that the reasons for the proposed closures were serious, but asked the board to refrain from voting on the matter until there was proper public notice.
“The fact remains, the law is the law,’ said Dufort. “You are not allowed to make decisions without proper notice of meetings.”
However, Doran said that 24-hour public notice is not required in cases with special circumstances.
“Under the Open Meetings Act, if there are special circumstances like this, 24 hours notice is not required,” said Doran. “Our office did not come to the conclusion to close down these precincts lightly.”
Dufort issued a statement after the meeting on behalf of Morgan County Democrats.
“The BOER’s failure to provide the legally required public notice is disappointing,” said Dufort. “Failure to plan is not a sufficient reason to break the law. COVID-19’s effect on staffing has been a factor since June. There has been plenty of time to train backup staff, to be prepared to handle the fallout of some workers.”
The three BOER members in attendance voted on closing the two polling places for the upcoming January 5 runoff. Chairman Woodard did not, as he only cast a votes in the event of a tie. The two present BOER members, Lanier and McCauley both voted in favor of closing the two precincts.
Clacks Chapel Fire Station, located at 2391 Broughton Road, Newborn, will be closed as a voting precinct on Tuesday, Jan. 5. Morgan County voters assigned to Clacks Chapel will now vote at Centennial Baptist Church, located at 5321 Brownwood Road in Rutledge. Bethany Springfield Fire Station, located at 4291 Seven Islands Road in Madison will now be closed as voting precinct on January 5. Voters assigned to Bethany Springfield will now vote at Buckhead Baptist Church, located at 1061 Parks Mill Road in Buckhead.
On Tuesday, January 5, the polls were open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the remaining 5 voting precincts in Morgan County.