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July 20, 2010

County clerk: Election issues being resolved

MT. VERNON — After spending a week in court hearing about mistakes made during the Nov. 4, 2008, general election, Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder Connie Simmons said some of the issues have been resolved with legislative changes — and others are a matter of education of election judges, workers and the public.

“Nobody realizes how much work, time and expense goes into an election unless you’ve been here and done it,” Simmons said. “I have tried, since I became clerk in 2006, not to touch ballots. I do computer work, help pack items and register a voter, but I’ve done that because I don’t want anyone to say, or for there to be any indication of fraud or misconduct.”

But that’s what was alleged in the lawsuit filed contesting the 2008 election, with Simmons named in her official capacity as the election authority. The allegations, which were dropped, ranged from accusing voters of voting without changing their address on voter registration and ballot applications to judges who numbered applications and ballots at voting precincts.

“Even though I was involved in the lawsuit in my position as holding the election, it was very upsetting to know someone is accusing you of improper conduct of any kind,” Simmons said. “There are some things that will have to be done different.”

During the trial held last week, the judge and attorneys pointed out some of the items at issue are no longer applicable to future elections as the state legislature has changed the laws regarding stating a reason why someone wants to vote absentee or during the grace period.

“We will be making sure (ballot) applications are more complete,” Simmons said. “People may have to wait longer. ... The state wants people to vote. Now no one has to state a reason on why they vote early.”

Another issue which was discussed last week was the number of people who did not change their address on their registration before voting.

“It upsets me the number of people who voted in a different place than where they lived,” Simmons said. “The judges, the workers, had no way of knowing they were no longer living in those places. If they had said they moved, they still could have voted for president and in the federal elections. I know in some instances, the voter knew they were in the wrong place, but they were afraid to say because they wanted to vote for president. It was a historic election and many people wanted to be a part of that.”

Simmons said the address requirements have also changed since the 2008 elections, which would also alleviate the concerns from voters.

“Now, you can change your address up to one week — seven days — before the election to do grace registration and voting,” Simmons explained. “They can get a full ballot, not just a federal. Before, if they had told the (election) judges, they could have filled out a voter application and gotten a federal ballot only.”

Simmons said a purge of voter registration is conducted every two years, and new cards are issued to active registered voters.

“That catches a lot of people who have moved,” Simmons said. “But people just need to know that if they’ve moved more than 30 days before an election and haven’t updated their information, they are still entitled to vote with a federal ballot.”

Simmons said the number of election judges from a political party who can be from outside the precinct they are judging will mean she will be more vigilant, but she still will not be able to change the judges — they are submitted by the party chairmen and approved by a court judge.

“New precinct committeemen were elected (this year),” Simmons said.

Simmons explained the election precinct judges are chosen by the precinct committeemen for each party — or by the county party chairman. “The new list of (precinct judges) will go to the (county) board in July for approval,” she said. “The County Board approves or denies the judges, then the list goes before a judge. ... I’ve looked over the lists, and called the State Board of Elections Legal Department. I will bring any problems to the attention of the board if they are out of compliance. ... But I can’t say someone can’t be a judge if the committeemen submit them. If I receive a complaint, then I have to call the committeeman and they have to remove them.”

Simmons said election judges receive training conducted by the state board of elections, with the next training set Oct. 12 and 13. In the 2008 election, judges were trained two weeks prior to the election. Simmons said she believes actions taken by judges in Mt. Vernon 12 Precinct on Nov. 4, 2008, were probably due to the high voter turnout at that time.

“It’s a small precinct and they were overwhelmed,” Simmons said. “In the primary, they had 20 to 25 voters. That’s the average. Then, you throw 150 people at them in 2008, and they were just overwhelmed.”

Other problems were caused by fatigue and trying to hurry, Simmons conjectured.

“When you sit there for 14 to 16 hours it gets tiring ... they just want to get out of there,” Simmons said. “I’m going to set up stations this time to help move things more smoothly. When they give applications, they will have to ask if it has the correct address on it and the correct name. ... We’re going to have to tighten up things, which will slow it down a bit, but I don’t expect to have as many voters this fall since it’s a governor’s election year, not a presidential election year.”

Simmons said there is traditionally a 25 percent difference in the number of voters during the two types of elections, with presidential year elections having the higher turnout.

“We work hard to hold a good election,” Simmons said. “It’s not something we take lightly, we take it very seriously.”

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