The Hamilton County Election Commission met Wednesday morning in preparation for the November election. The deadline for mailing out military absentee ballots is Saturday, so ensuring that the ballot was correct was needed in order to have them printed in time to send. The ballot has been checked and double checked to make sure everyone that is supposed to be on it is there, said Scott Allen, assistant administrator. Ordinances for the city of Chattanooga, have been checked by City Attorney Phil Noblett and for the city of East Ridge by City Attorney Mark Litchford.
The Election Commission members were given printed copies to review for final approval. The commissioners are now satisfied with the accuracy of the ballots. Equipment to print them had been purchased before the Covid-19 outbreak, so they will be printed in-house. That equipment is secured so that only authorized people have access to it.
Safety measures for in-person voting that have been taken regarding threats from the virus include having personal protective equipment that the state and county have provided. Disposable pens and folders have been purchased and voting sites will continue to be cleaned for early voting and for the November election. Covid Compliance Officers (CCO) will be at all polling places to check compliance inside the buildings.
People at each voting location will include the poll workers, whose training will start next Monday. The bare minimum number of 900 poll workers are needed, and the election commission is aiming to have 1,000.
A new position at each location will be a Voting Assistant Clerk who will be present to handle the more complex questions that might arise rather than hold up a line of voters while the poll worker tries to find answers. A Covid Compliance Officer will also be at each site. In all there will be 1,100 individuals working at the voting locations around Hamilton County.
This year there are two additional sources of funding to help with all the expenses, said Administrator of Elections Kerry Steelman. The Cares Act will provide reimbursement at $1.50 per voter for expenses directly related to Covid-19. That amount has partially been used for the August election. The amount left is sufficient for the November election, he said. Additionally, a security grant will come from the state of Tennessee to help with securing the election and for cyber security. A physical vulnerability study by the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office has already identified security issues with the Election Commission building and they are now being addressed.
It is expected there will be 25,000-30,000 absentee voters in the November election, evidenced by the number of ballots that have been requested up to this time. Mr. Steelman said that in August, 11,000 absentee voters were planned for when the actual number ended up being 10,000. There are elaborate procedures in place for securing and storing those ballots as they are received. Locked boxes can each hold 3,000 ballots. They cannot be counted until the day of the election, and then 30 workers at the election commission, who are dedicated to counting them, will have just 12 hours to do it.
That short amount of time allowed for counting absentee ballots can be a problem, said Mr. Steelman, it is possible that the results will come in after the election day. The high-speed ballot scanners are unable to read some of the ballots that are stained, torn, have circles that are not completely filled in, or have miscellaneous markings on them that the scanner might pick up and not recognize what to do with it. In most cases an actual person can read what the scanner has trouble with. In these instances, there will be adjudicators present to help. For each problematic ballot, a Republican and a Democrat work together at the same table and at the same computer, will look at the ballot and make a judgement about the intent of the voter.
He said that a recent change, based on a decision that was made in Davidson County, will allow any person to vote by absentee ballot, even if it is the first time they have voted or if they have never voted in person before.
Electronic voter registration is allowed and there is a process to verify who requests and signs an absentee ballot. An actual signature is required at the time a person registers to vote. If it is done electronically, a printout of the document must be signed with a pen, then scanned or photographed to submit it. That signature is digitized and stored and will be compared to the one on the absentee ballot by people who are trained to recognize fraudulent hand writing.
There also is an interstate cross check that is intended to detect if a ballot is requested from two different states. If that happens, one of the registrations will be cancelled.
Early voting will be held in the same four locations that have been used in the past. They are the Brainerd Road Recreation Center, Collegedale City Hall, the Hixson Community Center and the Election Commission building. It starts on Oct. 14 and continues through Oct. 29.
The commission members met privately in "executive session" for almost an hour. There was no word on what that was about.
The election commission will meet again on Sept. 30 to address any questions that might come up.