By BRIAN JUSTICE
Legislation being considered by the Tennessee General Assembly that would potentially create one election center for every 10,000 voters is having its intent questioned by Coffee County’s Democratic Party chairman.
At present, Coffee County has 21 voting districts and 22 precincts. If the legislation passes, this could be reduced to three or four.
Democratic Party chairman Jeff Ridner said Friday the Republican-sponsored bills — 907 in the Senate and 703 in the House — appear as though they would restrict some voters from being able to get to polling places.
“I think at first blink, it looks like there’s an effort to sell the idea of cost reduction, but it would be through voter chilling,” he said, adding that the move appears to mirror a photo identification requirement that Democrats deemed was targeted at making it more difficult for elderly and minority residents to vote through creating a major, additional step in the process.
Republicans have said the photo ID move was geared to curb voter fraud.
Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton, who sponsored HB 703, said the larger-scale election centers are about convenience and saving money. He added that the legislation, if approved, would allow a flexible pilot program that would be up to the individual county election commissions to adopt and tailor to what best suits their voting populations.
“House Bill 703 creates the ability for local election commissions to enter into a pilot program that will allow them to more easily process and accommodate voters on election days,” Sanderson said in an email to The News. “So often I have seen my constituents drive to work on Election Day that pass two or three different polling locations only to have missed the voting deadline because they were forced to travel back across the district(s) after work.
“This bill works because it leaves the choice to the locals, allows for forward thinking election officials to fully utilize new voting technologies, and allows for registered voters to vote at any centralized voting center on Election Day.”
Sanderson said each election commission can customize how many voting centers they have as long as they meet the one for every 10,000 registered voters.
“There is no limit to the number of voting centers in a county,” he said. “This bill does not mandate any closing of polling locations. These centralized voting centers would not affect the current system of voting, and registered voters would be able to either vote early or on Election Day as they always have done. We hope that this pilot program will be successful in reaching as many voters as possible.”
Ridner said he thinks it could have the opposite effect by hindering the election process for some who would have to travel farther and wait in longer lines just to vote.
“It would make it a little harder to do it and would increase lines,” he said. “There would be more people and fewer places to vote. It increases the possibility of impediment.”
Ridner said elections have traditionally been community-oriented events, and the individual precincts Coffee County has reflect that.
He said he believes the centralized voting precincts would be a bad idea.
“I’m against it,” Ridner said. “The cost savings sounds good, but when you scratch beyond the surface, there’s a lot more to it.”
He made a comparison to the photo ID and voter-fraud rationale.
“There really hasn’t been much voter fraud,” Ridner said, then referring to the new legislation. “In this case, it’s senseless. It would make it harder to vote — a little farther to go and longer lines.”
Vernita Davis, Coffee County administrator of elections, said that with 21 voting districts and 22 precincts, it could be difficult to find large enough locations to accommodate up to 10,000 voters.
However, she said the move could lead to a cost savings.
Davis said that the larger election sites could be manned by a total of 15 election workers, compared to the 150 now with the 22 precincts.
She said an average election costs about $18,000, and the workers are paid minimum wage — $7.25 per hour.
With 150 employees on a 12-hour Election Day schedule, the wages would total $13,050. With 60 election workers, the wages would be $5,220, a $7,830 savings.
“There would be a pretty good savings,” she said. “But there’s costs up front to consider.”
Davis said the equipment necessary to accommodate the program would have to be factored in.
Still, she said the process has a long way to go before it would ever be put into use.
The legislation must be approved at the state level before it can be implemented, she said. Then it’s up to the individual election commissions on how to handle their individual programs, she added.
“I don’t want to get anyone too concerned about this right now because these bills might not pass anyway,” Davis said recently. “But while I think it could save the county money in the long run to have only three voting centers, we have a lot of concerns about it.
“For starters, it would be hard to locate centers large enough to handle 10,000 voters in one place, and the upfront costs could be substantial. In addition, it would require people to go outside their neighborhoods to vote instead of going to the precinct they are accustomed to, so it would require a lot of voter education and awareness on our part to let people know where the new centers would be.”