Low election turnout raises questions about staffing

Gary B. Gray • Apr 13, 2013 at 9:59 PM

Early voting for Johnson City’s April 23 municipal election has now passed the halfway point, and the three voting sites have so far tallied 814 votes with five days remaining.

The number of people voting early so far is less than half that of the 2011 municipal election. And though turnout has been fairly brisk at the Washington County Health Department in Johnson City, numbers at the two “satellite” sites at the Jonesborough Courthouse and Gray Commons are noticeably sparse.

That fact raises the question of whether its worth the cost to station poll workers at perimeter sites.

There have been two separate days at Gray Commons at which one voter was recorded. On April 6, not one voter showed up at the Jonesborough location, though eight poll workers making $100 a day were there waiting.

Johnson City has budgeted $75,000 for this year’s election, and neither Washington County nor its Election Commission incurs any expense. That said, there are 24 trained poll workers at the three sites, and the total cost for their services through 14 days of early voting will be $33,600.

Several county commissioners have expressed concerns that low turnouts at Jonesborough and Gray Commons do not warrant the number of poll workers employed at these sites or the amount of money spent for their services.

“As a county commissioner who represents both the county and Johnson City, there seems to be an awful lot of money being spent,” said County Commissioner Pete Speropulos. “Keep in mind, Jonesborough has eight poll workers there. Somebody should know from past history that they don’t need that many poll workers.”

Administrator of Elections Maybell Stewart said Friday she did not think there were too many poll workers.

“When they were appointed we really did not have any idea how many people would turn out, and we did cut back the number of workers for this election,” she said. “It’s better to be overstaffed than to be understaffed and to have people waiting in line.”

Early voting numbers traditionally start picking up during the last week, she added.

“In the past we have voted about as many at Jonesborough as the Johnson City site,” she said. “There has been construction on Jonesborough’s downtown streets, and that could be a part of it. It usually picks up toward the end of early voting. We recommend some of the people drive to Gray or Jonesborough. They can get in and out quickly.”

City Manager Pete Peterson said Friday that the state has mandated Jonesborough be an early voting site because it is the county seat. He said the city made a conscious decision to use Gray Commons as a location. But depending on how cost effective it is, the city may change the location.

“I’ve asked the Election Commission to monitor the amount of voters we get there,” he said. “After this year’s election, we will look at their findings. Government has a couple of primary functions when it comes to municipal elections, and one is that everyone have access to polling places.”

City and county officials, as well as voters, have asked over the past few years why the municipal election could not be moved to coincide with the county general or primary elections to both garner more voters and to save money.

Peterson said the city has “never” communicated with the Election Commission to see if Johnson City would save money by moving the election and that the city charter would have to be changed to do so.

“From the information I’ve seen in numbers nationwide, the average turnout is from 20 percent to 25 percent,” Peterson said. “So, moving it may increase participation, and it may not. But holding a separate election allows voters to focus on issues within the municipality. And, it won’t cause voters to get lost in all the things going on in other elections.”

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