The pros and cons of no Election Day voting at Hawkins courthouse

Jeff Bobo • Dec 15, 2017 at 6:00 PM

ROGERSVILLE — Rogersville leaders aren't happy with a Hawkins County Election Commission decision to end Election Day voting at the historic Hawkins County Courthouse, so they're taking their grievance to a higher power.

On Tuesday the BMA voted to authorize City Attorney Bill Phillips to seek an Tennessee Attorney General's opinion on the change, referencing a statute which Phillips believes shows that the law is on Rogersville's side.

The Election Commission recently consolidated the three District 5 precincts into one which will now vote at Hawkins Elementary School on Election Day.

On Monday Rogersville City Attorney Bill Phillips asked the Election Commission to reconsider.

"They declined to change their minds," Phillips told the Board of Mayor and Aldermen Tuesday. "I don't even think their was a motion made."

Now Phillips wants a second opinion. 

"(The statute) says the county Election Commission may, upon request from a municipality, consolidate one or more polling places from one or more precincts within the limits of the municipality," Phillips said. "Not only have we not requested they do it, we've requested they not do it — or consolidate them and leave voting down at the courthouse."

As a cost-cutting measure, the Hawkins County Election Commission recently combined the two city precincts (Rogersville North Inside and Rogersville South Inside) with Rogersville South Outside, which was not in the city but a part of the county’s 5th District.

Rogersville South Outside previously voted at Rogersville Middle School, while Rogersville South Inside voted at the courthouse, and Rogersville North Inside voted at Hawkins Elementary.

The new combined precinct, which has more than 4,000 registered voters who now vote exclusively at Hawkins Elementary on Election Day. Both sides have made their arguments, and now the Attorney General will have his say.

Here are some of the arguments against eliminating Election Day voting at the courthouse:

* History and Tradition: The Hawkins County Courthouse has been used as an Election Day voting location since construction was completed in 1836. It's the oldest courthouse in Tennessee still being used fro government purposes.

* Better for Business: The Board of Mayor and Aldermen of the town of Rogersville believes it is in the best interest of its citizens, particularly business owners and merchants in the downtown area, that historic downtown Rogersville be promoted by the encouragement of its residents and others to visit downtown Rogersville and become patrons of its shops and businesses. The BMA is concerned that the diversion of voters from the courthouse in downtown Rogersville to a polling place outside the area of downtown Rogersville is detrimental to the continued viability and development of historic downtown Rogersville.

* Confusion for Voters: Although the Election commission will be sending out public notices to voters who voting location is changing, there is concern that folks who have been voting at the courthouse their entire lives are going to show up at the courthouse anyways and be turned away.

Here are some of the arguments in favor of eliminating Election Day voting at the courthouse:

* Early voting continues: There will still be early voting a the historic Hawkins County Courthouse for about two and a half weeks before every election. In the August of 2016 state primary and county general election there were 1,520 early voters at the Hawkins County Courthouse, and in the November presidential election the number of early voters increased to more than 5,100.

Elections Administrator Donna Sharp: "That's pulling in people form different areas of the county, not just people who live here in town. That seems to me like a big plus on the economic part of it."

* Overcrowding and long lines: The precinct that previously voted at the courthouse encompassed 1,400 registered voters, but there are more than 4,300 on the rolls in the combined District 5 precinct.

* Saving taxpayer dollars: The Election Commission has eliminated eight precincts county wide. But, just eliminating the two District 5 precincts alone will save $1,100 per election, or $3,300 for all three Election Days in 2018.

* Faster service for voters: There's not enough room at the courthouse for the five voting machines and three sets of registrars that would be needed to accommodate the volume of voters in District 5.

Sharp: "You're taking about space, parking, having space for your workers. Lines backed up. If we had it here in the courthouse I don't know where we'd put the people when they had to stand in line. It's congested in there anyway. It worked out for Election Day when you had 200 people coming through. For the Presidential election last November we had a total of 863 people vote in all three District 5 precincts. If all of those had been coming through the courthouse on that day, we just can't handle a crowd that size at the courthouse. I would love to keep it here but you've got to look at the numbers."

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