Tinkering with election laws can be tricky. Voters are understandably sensitive to changes that feel restrictive, and Georgia must get federal approval for any tweaks.
If Secretary of State Brian Kemp gets his way, any election reforms will be deliberate.
Last month, in a column asking if it makes sense to hold runoff elections that draw as few as 5 percent of the voters, I mentioned Kemp was forming a committee to weigh election changes. After naming its members, he sat down with me to discuss some of his ideas.
First, here’s Kemp’s charge for the group: “Keep the elections secure, make them more secure, but also look at cost savings.”
And remember: Be patient.
“I think it’ll be interesting to see what the Legislature is going to tackle this year. And things they don’t, I think they’ll have a good place [Kemp’s committee] to throw things for us to look at over the next year. …
“And I’ve cautioned a lot of the legislators: Don’t make a rash decision on runoffs,” he said. “If we’re going to change something, make sure…it has a good, long-term solution and there are not any unintended consequences.
“I think you have to be careful about trying to save money,” he said, so you don’t weaken “a good secure process.”
Suggestions are already surfacing for making our elections less expensive. For runoffs, Kemp said, one option may be replacing precincts with a handful of “vote centers,” similar to what’s used for early voting.
“Like in Clarke County, where I live,” he said, “we have…24 precincts. If you had four vote centers around the county, obviously there are cost savings there.”
Another example he mentioned is consolidating precincts for all elections, as Muscogee County recently did.
Until this year Muscogee County, home to Columbus, had 48 precincts. Each one required a poll manager and two assistant poll managers — along with voting machines and all the necessary paperwork.
For the Nov. 2 general election, the county used just 28 precincts. Turnout was higher than usual for a midterm. But, said county elections chief Nancy Boren, polls weren’t overcrowded for two reasons: Early voting continued to increase, and the county shifted spare voting machines to typically high-turnout precincts.
In doing so, it cut its paid poll-worker staff on Election Day to 84 from 144 in past years. Boren said she’s still tabulating the cost reduction. But even though some of the money went to pay workers more, she said, “the savings will be noticeable.” Additionally, the county expects to reduce some equipment costs.
Getting federal preclearance, as required by the Voting Rights Act, took less than a year.
Boren, who serves on Kemp’s new committee, cautioned that not every county could do what Muscogee did. But my quick calculations indicate metro Atlanta is ripe for similar change.
If Fulton County put as many registered voters in each precinct as Muscogee now does (about 3,600 on average), it could reduce its polling stations to 145 from 333. DeKalb County could realize a reduction to 110 from 189.
That would mean 500 to 1,000 fewer Election Day workers in Fulton, and 200 to 400 fewer in DeKalb. In both cases, citizens would have to travel only minimally farther to vote.
Good luck to Kemp’s committee. But whatever it finds, metro Atlanta needs to take a good look at Muscogee’s model.
– By Kyle Wingfield
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