Earlier voting, more sites sought for next year in Macon-Bibb

jgaines@macon.comNovember 23, 2012 

Macon City Councilwoman Elaine Lucas wants two, or at least one, more early voting locations in place before Macon-Bibb County elects its first consolidated government in November 2013.

“What we’d like to see is a downtown location and also an east-side location,” she said. “Three places should be a minimum for a city our size.”

Lucas would also like to see a site for Saturday voting besides the Board of Elections office at 2445 Pio Nono Ave., which is also the county’s only early voting site.

Lucas has submitted a council resolution asking the county -- which oversees and funds elections -- for just that. It’s assigned to the Ordinances & Resolutions Committee for debate, and it could get a final vote Dec. 4.

And whether more locations open or not, state Rep. Tyrone Brooks said he wants voters in Bibb and Georgia’s 158 other counties to have longer to cast their ballots.

“I really believe that Georgia should reconsider reinstating the 45-day early voting period, as we had for several years,” said Brooks, an Atlanta Democrat.

Lucas and Brooks both referred to President Barack Obama’s election-night comment that “we have to fix” voting problems after people waited for hours at the polls in several swing states.

On Nov. 6, a few precincts in Bibb and Houston counties reported lines of 100 people.

“Because of those lines, we just felt that some people had to give up,” Lucas said. More locations and more Saturday voting would make it easier for working people and the elderly, she said.

“Early voting increases participation by so many people.”

At the time of the 2008 general election, Georgia allowed early voting for 45 days.

Statewide, 1.8 million of the 3.9 million who voted in that election cast their ballots early, not counting mail-in absentee ballots. That’s 45.5 percent of the total.

In February 2011, the Georgia House voted 148-20 for House Bill 92. The Georgia Senate followed suit in April 2011 by a 34-20 margin.

That legislation cut the early voting period from 45 days to 21, and it required one Saturday of voting rather than making it optional to open polls on several Saturdays.

In the 2012 presidential election, about 3.9 million Georgians again voted, but the number of early voters dropped to 1.7 million, or 43.8 percent of the total, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s office.

In Bibb County, nearly 32 percent of 2012’s voters cast ballots early, according to the Bibb County Board of Elections.

Council members Lauren Benedict and Rick Hutto are listed as official co-sponsors of Lucas’ resolution, but Lucas said five more had signed on by Tuesday night. That’s enough to win council passage, and she hopes to make it unanimous.

Councilman Henry Ficklin is one of those early supporters.

“I personally carried people to the polls who got there and saw the lines and asked me to take them back and said they’d go another day,” he said.

Former Macon Mayor C. Jack Ellis and members of the local Democratic Party executive committee support her resolution too, Lucas said.

She said at least two Bibb County commissioners, Bert Bivins and Lonzy Edwards, have told her they support the idea. It takes three of the five commission members to get county ratification.

“And I’ve heard (Commission Chairman) Sam Hart say that there really is no problem that he sees with it,” Lucas said.

Brooks said he was “one of the few that voted no” on HB 92. The Georgia Municipal Association and Association County Commissioners of Georgia lobbied for shortening the early voting period, saying it was “wasting money” because some days nobody voted at some precincts, he said.

“I said, ‘Well, it costs money to run a democracy,’” Brooks said.

He’d like to see early voting extend to 90 days, and it’s “possible” he’ll push for new legislation. But Brooks hopes Republican state officials will agree with him and other Democrats that a longer period and more Saturdays are needed. If the United States truly wants to be a champion of world democracy, voting should be as easy as possible, he said.

State Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, was the author of HB 92. He said he sought to cut the early voting period back from 45 days because of the cost and several cases of “confusion at the polls.”

“We tried to look at what we felt like was a reasonable time period,” Hamilton said.

He noted that two of his five main co-sponsors were Democrats, Reps. Keith Heard of Athens and Howard Mosby of Atlanta. The U.S. Department of Justice also had to agree, Hamilton said.

“Obviously they approved it, so they found no reason to believe it wasn’t fair,” he said.

A Senate bill would have cut the early voting period even further, but there was bipartisan agreement that “three weeks plus a Saturday” was enough, Hamilton said.

“I’ve heard very little comment that it’s too short,” he said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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