New proposed North Suffolk polling location fails

Published 5:32 pm Tuesday, March 26, 2024

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Following a contentious debate among Suffolk City Council members with a brief discourse between Council Members Roger Fawcett and Timothy Johnson, a vote to establish an early voting precinct at the North Suffolk Library for the 2024 general election failed in a tie vote, with Council Members Leroy Bennett, Shelley Butler-Barlow, LeOtis Williams and Johnson voting in opposition. 

During the City Council’s Wednesday, March 20 meeting, debate followed after the Office of the General Registrar and Suffolk Electoral Board’s recommendation not to establish an absentee voting site at the North Suffolk Library. This follows a Feb. 21 motion by Fawcett for council to direct the City Manager to determine if an absentee voting site can be created at the North Suffolk Library. Presenting the report, Deputy City Manager Azeez Felder detailed their recommendations.

“ … To ensure a safe, efficient and secure election, it is recommended that the following actions be taken,” Felder said. “Number one: the Electoral Board will not proceed with establishing an early in-person polling location in the North Suffolk Public Library, the Suffolk City Council develop a plan to create a North Suffolk Registrar satellite office and early voting location, allow a sufficient amount of time to open a North Suffolk voting facility prior to the 2025 general elections, and lastly, the general registrar’s funding be increased to accommodate the staffing and operation of a satellite office in North Suffolk once it is established.”

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The report also detailed the estimated cost for required equipment and personnel, including ballot scanner programming, rolling security cages, and knowing poll books. Equipment costs totaled $78,645.00, and personnel wages totaled an estimated $101,355.30. Together, the total estimated cost was $180,000.30. Likewise, the report provided both the advantages and disadvantages of being set at the North Suffolk Library, with the positives being that the library is a city-owned building, security cameras monitor the lobby area and electrical hookups for computers, scanners and booths being sufficient. Negatives listed included that the lobby area is extremely loud, disruptions to the library daily operations and community activities and no security devices on the room proposed for sensitive voting equipment storage. 

Fawcett disapproved of the report, finding faults to the North Suffolk Library disadvantages.

“I find this document is, to me … I just think it’s very troublesome. And I want all the people on the north end of Suffolk and the City of Suffolk to know that I put before this council … to get an early voting precinct now that has adequate timing … Almost 200 days out. Close to 200 days before we get to early voting,” Fawcett said. “This disenfranchises the voter on the north end.”

Agreeing with Fawcett, Vice Mayor Lue Ward asked Chairman James Oaks if it was possible to get the voting precinct installation done in time for the 2024 general election.

“It would be a big lift,” Oaks said. “We have another election between now and then with another 45 day early voting period, which starts in the third of May [and] runs through the end of June, and then we go directly into the preparations for the next elections with the ballot preparations. For this June primary, we’re already putting together the ballots and accepting packages coming in and putting things together, so the registrar staff is quite busy. It could be done, but it would be a big lift.”

When Johnson asked for a general time frame to implement an equitable city policy for early voting, Oaks said it would take “180 days” to purchase equipment, hire personnel, and train them to use it.

“That’s my very point,” Johnson said. “I don’t disagree with Councilman Fawcett, I don’t disagree with Vice Mayor [Ward] either, it’s something that we should’ve already looked at. My concern is the process that we’re going about this is totally unacceptable from my book … But I think it needs to be looking at all the citizens in our city and all the places where we can vote and make it easy.”

On Bennett’s question about whether the registrar has problems getting people to work the polls, Oaks says that on an average election, they need eight people per precinct. He reflected that the last election saw “several precincts” with only four to five people working the entire day. Mayor Michael D. Duman agreed to draft an ordinance to allow for a North Suffolk area polling place, even for preparation for the 2025 election. 

While noting that the polling place would have to be a city-operated building, Fawcett reemphasized the need for an absentee polling place for the 2024 election.

“We’re still going to the same Market Street and it’s not helping the people that are in a position that can’t get there or have problems getting there that want to come and vote,” Fawcett said. “This is just another avenue, and I don’t understand where the roadblock in mind is about this is an avenue to give these people an opportunity, and every opportunity should be made by the voter registrar’s office and this council to see to it that those people have that option on that end, regardless of what anybody says.”

Following the meeting, General Registrar Burdette Lawrence says the North Suffolk Library will remain the Bennett’s Creek Precinct come Election Day; however, she notes that both the General Registrar and Electoral Board “agree” an Early In-Person Voting site is needed in the North Suffolk area.

“We view the failed passage of the ordinance as an opportunity to get through the next two major elections and work on this project properly,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence also gave Suffolk residents important tips before early voting for this year’s election.

“Tip 1: Please ensure you have an acceptable form of ID when you vote. It will make your voting process even quicker,” she said. 

Tip 2: If you requested an absentee ballot but you decide you do not want to [use it to vote], please bring it with you to early vote or on Election Day. Voters must surrender their mailed absentee ballot before voting in person.”

 Likewise, Lawrence says that if residents have moved or changed their names to “not wait” to check their registration status.

“The deadlines for the June 18 Primary Election are Tuesday, May 28, for registration and registration changes and Friday, June 7, for absentee ballot requests. “The deadlines for the Nov. 5 Presidential Election are Tuesday, Oct. 15, for registration and registration changes and Friday, Oct. 25, for absentee ballot requests.”

For more information, call the registrar’s office at 757-514-7750.