Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Voter precinct consolidation plan gets pushed to a task force

Councilman Sherman Lea questions long lines on Nov. 6, 2012.

On Monday Councilman Bill Bestpitch suggested drafting a resolution for the January 7 council meeting to form a task force consisting of a member each from the NAACP, SCLC, Roanoke City School Board, Roanoke Neighborhood Advocates, Blue Ridge Independent Living, one Democrat and one Republican from their respective committees. Two poll workers will also be selected by the Electoral Board.

Council expects the task force to use what the Electoral Board has already crafted as a starting point. They will be expected to complete the precinct realignment recommendations by May of 2013.

Mayor David Bowers relinquished the chair to Vice-Mayor Court Rosen so he could provide a second to Councilman Sherman Lea’s motion to have the task force consider moving May local elections to November. Lea and Bowers said since the task force is looking at ways to increase voter participation they should also consider moving elections at the same time. The motion failed in a vote of 4-2.

Both Lea and Bowers voted for the single issue task force in the end. Dave Trinkle, Court Rosen, Ray Ferris and Bill Bestpitch were not convinced a task force was needed for making what is a political decision. “It would make it unduly complicated,” said Ferris. (See council members resistance to moving elections HERE.)

Melvin Williams, secretary of the Electoral Board recounted the history of how city council had asked the three board members, himself, Gordon Hancock and Chair Rev. Carl Tinsley to address the hodgepodge of voting precincts.

It was the perfect time in August 2011. The 2010 census numbers had just been released. A realignment of voting precincts would help the registrar recruit poll workers. It would save about $11,000 per election said Williams. Hancock said it would help resolve the difficult task of finding suitable polling locations. .

According to Williams then City Attorney Bill Hackworth had contacted the board and wanted them to start right away because the process would be lengthy. The board set out to realign the voting precincts.

Hackworth was right. The process is turning more lengthy than anyone expected. It could be two years before it gets councils approval. It started with a proposal by the Electoral Board to eliminate six precincts in 2011. 

After long tedious work by the Electoral Board and the registrar, Laverne Shepherd, Williams presented the realignment plan to city council in January of 2012. At the time council expected to approve it by December 2012 – ready for the Department of Justice and in time for the 2013 gubernatorial primaries, if any.

In June council asked the Electoral Board and city staff toarrange public input meetings. There were five meetings throughout the city. They were sparsely attended.

The last input meeting was held at William Fleming on August 14, 2012. Williams told council Monday that the meetings had maps, diagrams, and computers so voters could look up where their polling location would be after realignment. “We are blessed with a wonderful technology department,” said Williams.

They started with a blank slate. Williams thought the reduction from 32 precincts to 19 precincts would be more efficient. Gordon Hancock explained how difficult it was to find polling locations that were ADA compliant, have sufficient parking and were within reasonable distances.

Intervening in that was the 2012 presidential election. Turnout increased by 3000. “Everybody waited in lines – some longer – some too long,” said Williams. He apologize to the citizens saying it only occurs during presidential elections. “It was the perfect storm of  an Election Day.”

Williams said they were prepared to determine what needs to be done. They would be open to an ad hoc committee being formed. The task force will include looking at what is needed to avoid long lines.

The bottleneck at most polling places was at check-in. There were 2 computer poll books per precinct and some poll workers were more adept at working with computers than others.

Councilman Bill Bestpitch asked about the moratorium the state has placed on the voting machines. Williams said he understood that the state was debating on what were the best voting machines to use.

The electronic poll books have to be purchased in pairs as one backs up the other. They share a printer and could cause a backup when adding more. The software has to have sufficient time to record the voter being checked in to ensure there is no double voting.

Councilman Dave Trinkle told Williams, Hancock and Rev. Tinsley to not be shy about asking council for more funding for laptops. Williams said that upgrades in technology are approved under state contracts and new laptops may have new software and not be compatible with the older laptops.

There are not enough poll workers to relieve workers by splitting shifts. Poll workers work 15 hours straight not including 3 hours of training. Some are older. “They take great pride in administering elections well,” said Williams. Look at a pay increase he said. “We would love to have more poll workers so they are not taxed like they were in the presidential election.” Many may not be willing to be poll workers again.

Williams explained to Councilman Sherman Lea that poll workers drop out when they see that it “is a big deal.” Lea pressed Williams on why the long lines in the presidential election were not foreseen. The registrar hires poll workers with funding from the city said Williams. Precinct chiefs get $175 and regular poll workers get $145. There are additional hours for training.

Rev. Tinsley blamed it on budget restraints. “You all are going to have to make a decision [for more money].” Lea said if that was the case “we’ll improve on that.”

Registrar Laverne Shepherd confirmed that some people just don’t show up on election day and older workers are fearful of the electronics. It requires more standing and moving then it use to she said. Younger workers she attracts don’t show up.

Ferris drifted into the weeds asking if the process could be demonstrated to council with laptops and machines then thought better of it.

Williams said 2012 was the first use of the electronic poll books for a presidential election. Rev. Tinsley said, “We did the best we could.”

Councilman Sherman Lea says only ego would keep elections in May

Posted By Valerie Garner

Categories: Elections, Politics, Roanoke City Politics

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