Commission rejects opening courthouse for Saturday absentee voting

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Jefferson County voters wait in line to cast absentee ballots in person at the downtown Birmingham courthouse Saturday, October 17, 2020.

Miranda Fulmore, WBHM

An effort to open the Jefferson County Courthouse for Saturday absentee voting was squelched Tuesday during the commission committee meeting.

Commissioner Sheila Tyson presented the resolution for consideration to be placed on the agenda of Thursday’s commission meeting. Commissioner Lashunda Scales moved the item and Tyson seconded it before it was defeated 3-2 on a roll call vote.

Tyson pressed her fellow commissioners as to why they voted no since a similar matter was moved to the agenda and approved in 2020.

“In 2020, we were under a pandemic,” Commissioner Joe Knight said. “There was a special circumstance issued by the secretary of state to give people an option to check to vote absentee. I just got something from (Jefferson County Deputy Circuit Clerk) Karen Dunn Burks about opening the courthouse for Saturday voting. We don’t have early voting.”

Burks’ memo to commissioners suggested having the courthouse open for Saturday absentee voting from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Oct. 15 and 22.

Tyson continued to argue her point, saying that Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill had provided permission for absentee ballots to be taken on Saturday.

“The secretary of state approved it and as long as it was approved by him, the clerks can work on Saturday,” Tyson said. “We don’t need y’all up here. You don’t need to come up here. This is all about accessibility.”

Commission President Jimmie Stephens said there are no conditions that currently exist that didn’t exist in any previous election prior to 2020, adding, “people are always going to get COVID.”

The commission president said he spoke Monday with Jefferson County Probate Judge James Naftel II, who agreed there is no need for the courthouse to be open for absentee voting on Saturday.

Following the meeting, Stephens acknowledged quoting President Biden that the crisis is over.

“The pandemic is finished and we should do what we can to get our lives back to normal,” Stephens said. “That is what we’re attempting to do, to go back to the normal pattern and practice of voting that we have done on all elections prior to the pandemic.

Stephens said the special circumstances that existed at the height of the pandemic required altering the normal practice when it came to giving everyone free access to voting.

“We did so and everyone utilized that,” he said. “Now, when we go back to a sense of normalcy, all of those are still afforded to the citizens but not voting Saturday because it’s never been needed in the past. If we change our normal pattern and practice of behavior, it needs to be done to a legislative act.”

Stephens said the increased cost of having the courthouse open for absentee voting on Saturdays in 2020 was borne by the federal government due to COVID.

“It falls back on Jefferson County now,” he said. “That’s another consideration. A, it’s not needed. B, it’s not uniformly applied. And, C, it costs Jefferson County taxpayer dollars. Based on those three things is where you saw our decision.”

 

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