At its May 19 meeting, the Fort Payne City Council voted to suspend its rules and approve an ordinance to consolidate five polling places to two for the August municipal elections.
The change would only impact the August 25, 2020 municipal elections to choose Fort Payne’s next mayor and council members. It would make no change to voting locations for the July 14 GOP U.S. Senate Primary runoff between former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville or the November General Election.
Council President Pro-Tem Wade Hill made the motions to suspend the rules and to approve Ordinance 2020-03. The votes were unanimous. By law, cities and towns must decide on the location and number of designated voting places by May 25.
Those registered to vote in the municipal election to choose Fort Payne’s next mayor and council will receive a notice from the DeKalb County Board of Registrars before the August 25 election letting them know that they’ve been assigned to vote at either the VFW Hall or the gymnasium inside the Wills Valley Recreation Center Polls from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The final list of registered voter names and their polling places must be published by August 14, four days after the voter registration deadline. This leaves 11 days to clear up any confusion about where someone has been assigned to vote.
Hill said he hates to inconvenience anyone, but the two facilities are large enough inside to allow social distancing guidelines and have adequate parking space for a high volume of voters.
City Clerk Andy Parker said the move will save the city money and allow for reasonable precautions to permit people to safely cast their votes in-person during a pandemic that appears likely to still be a public health threat in three months. He is also encouraging citizens to apply to vote absentee in the election.
“There are several reasons you are supposed to be able to vote absentee. I think, this year, ‘afraid to get out’ is going to be on that list,” Parker said.
When applying for an absentee ballot, due to the declared state of emergency, if the qualified voter determines it is impossible or unreasonable to vote at their polling place, an applicant can check the box that reads “I have a physical illness or infirmity which prevents my attendance at the polls,” while attaching a photocopy of their driver’s license to verify their identity.
Absentee voting for municipal elections is handled by city and town clerks, while circuit clerk offices handle absentee voting for federal, state and countywide elections for their respective counties.
Parker said applications for a municipal absentee ballot can be obtained from Fort Payne City Hall after qualifying for the candidates ends on ends on July 21, 2020.
By law, August 10 is the last day to register to vote for the 2020 municipal election. August 20 will be the last day for a registered voter to apply for a regular absentee ballot, while August 24 is the last day for a voter to apply for and submit an emergency absentee ballot, which must be received by noon on the day of the election.
Hill said he is encouraging his family members to vote absentee and publicly revealed he tested positive for antibodies, which suggest he may have had COVID-19 at some point in the past.
“I want people to have the opportunity to vote, so if we can push absentee voting, that will help also. I don’t want to have a non-turnout for this election. We’re deciding the next four years for Fort Payne,” Hill said.
“Due to the current health crisis we are facing, it’s going to be nearly, if not impossible, to man all of the polling places we have,” said Parker.
“You have to have four people per voting machine, and at some of these polling places we’ve got two to three machines. I thought this is the perfect opportunity for us to look at reducing the number of places we have to vote. Scottsboro, for instance, has one place. Rainsville has one place, and I don’t see any reason why we can’t.
“We spend anywhere from $17,000-$20,000 a year on elections, paying poll workers, buying supplies and renting the machines from the county. And you can probably add 50 percent to it [by adding plexiglass barriers and having city employees there to disinfect and keep voters social distancing from one another].”
Assistant City Election Manager Ronnie Warren said he got a price quote of $78 apiece for the plastic barriers and had also considered cardboard barriers to shield voters against respiratory droplets that carry the coronavirus and can be spread by an asymptomatic person sneezing, coughing or even just breathing in close proximity to another person.
Warren said those voting in person will be required to wear a protective facemask to prevent community spread of the coronavirus.
“If they don’t have a mask, you can give them one,” Warren said. “As far as the poll workers, you’ve got registration clerks, poll list clerks, a machine clerk, a ballot clerk, and there will be a barrier between them like when you check out at the grocery store.”
Actions such as social distancing and using face masks can slow the spread and reduce the impact of disease.
Both Parker and Warren noted that a large number of poll workers fall within a high-risk group for complications from COVID-19 if they catch the disease.
Older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions like asthma, chronic lung disease, diabetes, liver disease, heart conditions or weak immune systems, may be at higher risk for more serious complications. This is a new disease and there is limited information regarding risk factors.
The novel coronavirus is so new that experts are still learning about the risks, which makes planning difficult and requires some flexibility as new information is dispersed (For the most recent information about testing locations and options related to the coronavirus, call 1-888-264-2256 or visit CDC.gov).
Council Member Gerald “Red” Taylor said, “As spread out as Fort Payne is, I’d like to see at least a couple [of voting locations], one on the north end and one on the south end.”
Keeping voting convenient for residents on Lookout Mountain was of particular concern to the council. Hill said voters who live around Five Points where Adamsburg Road E., Dogtown Road SE, Fruit Farm Road E., and Scenic Road E. converge already had to come down to vote at the DeKalb County Council on Aging on Tyler Avenue S. in past elections. The polling place serving voters living along Desoto Parkway in Fisher is not large enough to allow for social distancing, he added.
“I don’t want to inconvenience anybody either, but we’ve also got to be able to make it safe,” Hill said.
The council called a special meeting at noon on Friday, May 22, to discuss concerns that some residents have expressed to council members about the ordinance since hearing about it. If it stands, Parker said the two voting locations will each have two voting machines. One machine is required per 2,400 voters.
City Attorney Rocky Watson estimated typical turnout for city elections to be around 25 percent of registered voters. He said, “You can try it once because of the coronavirus, and this is a great reason and opportunity to test that and save the city money in the long run. If you do this and don’t care for it, you’ve got four years to change it back.”
Mayor Larry Chesser agreed, saying, “You can try it, and if it doesn’t work this time, you can change it back for the next city election in 2024.”
The next municipal election deadline will be July 2, 2020, when cities must finalize qualification fees. July 7 is the date when candidates may begin qualifying at City Hall once mayors have given notice of the election. Qualifying ends at 5 p.m. on July 21.
Election results will be canvassed on Sept. 1 with the city council certifying winners.
Discussing the election after the meeting, Parker explained that a run-off election can be held on Oct. 6 if there aren’t at least five candidates receiving at least 50 percent of the vote count on August 25 to fill one of the five at-large positions on the council.
If three candidates do get at least 50 percent of the vote, Parker gave as an example, the next four highest vote-receiving candidates would enter a run-off election to fill the remaining two seats on the council.
The process was altered by a February 2019 local act in the Alabama Legislature amending how council members are selected.
In other business, the council:
• heard a report from Mayor Chesser about a public hearing held to receive comments about the City’s plan to apply for a Community Development Block Grant and Appalachian Regional Commission funding to assist in demolition of the old hospital building located in the 1300 block of Forest Avenue North.
“We had that public hearing at 11 o’clock today and really nobody showed up,” Chesser said. “I think the general opinion of the public is that they want it gone. We were told this morning that we stand a good chance of the ARC grant. We’ve got a pretty good idea that this is going to go this time. I think [House Majority Leader Nathaniel] Ledbetter and [State Sen. Steve] Livingston lit some fires under some peoples’ feet in Montgomery.”
• authorized Ladd Environmental to proceed with the bid process for the 49th Street /Terrapin Hills Sewer Project. All easements have been signed to proceed with a gravity line from the pump station on 49th Street to Dead Man’s Curve. It could be extended to the lagoon that services Terrapin Hills once ownership issues are resolved, Parker said.
• noted a claim against the city for damage received during the Easter Sunday flood event by Burger King. The claim was forwarded to the city’s insurance carrier. The city previously cleaned out and widened the shoreline of Big Wills Creek to make that area less flood-prone.
• approved a curbing request from Tyler Griggs at 411 38th Street N.E.
• went into executive session to discuss potential litigation. Parker said no action was taken before the council adjourned.