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Polling site change unnerves minority voters

County elections board approves precinct consolidations

POSTED: September 1, 2015 8:59 p.m.

The Hall County Board of Elections approved several voting precinct consolidations and polling location changes Tuesday, but objections from Latino and African-American political organizers could make one change short-lived.

With more than 6,000 voters, Friendship I is a large and fast-growing precinct. In fact, South Hall is home to several large precincts, so much so that board members also approved carving out an additional one to serve voters this year.

However, this has presented board members with limited options for polling locations.

“We have a monstrous problem finding places that would let us have an election in South Hall,” said Republican board member Tommy Sandoval. “So you have a giant population down there and no place to go.”

Friendship I voters will now cast their ballots at the Sheriff’s Office in South Hall, though this could be temporary and change again in 2016.

“It is not a comfortable environment for our voters … being that there is no trust (with) law enforcement these days,” said Phyllis Brewer, president of the local NAACP chapter. “We would like for you all to reconsider.”

Elections Director and board chair Charlotte Sosebee said the Prince of Peace Catholic Church on Spout Springs Road is no longer available due to scheduling conflicts.

Other options have not panned out, either.

Cristian Ramos, a student at the University of North Georgia representing the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said his own experience had taught him that minorities would be hesitant to vote at the Sheriff’s Office.

Though a citizen, he was illegally detained by law enforcement some years ago and held for weeks.

Ramos said that because the Sheriff’s Office is an authorized Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility, it would act as a deterrent to some Latino voters.

Sosebee said the county is testing the waters on a number of changes this year ahead of elections in 2016, when voter turnout is likely to be higher with the U.S. presidency at stake.

Moreover, Sosebee said she has to meet a deadline this week to submit the new precinct plans to state and federal authorities.

Sosebee voted along with the two Republican board members to hold voting at the Sheriff’s Office, though all said they were open to making a change next year.

Doug Aiken, a former member of the elections board when it existed in a different incarnation, said voters’ fears about casting ballots at the Sheriff’s Office must be remedied in light of recent national stories involving deadly encounters between law enforcement and minorities.

“I tell you right now it needs to be fixed,” he added.

Meanwhile, polling in Friendship II will move to the new Cherokee Bluffs Park.

Polling in Friendship III will move to the Mulberry Creek Community Center.

And the new Friendship IV will hold voting at the Spout Springs Library.

Other polling site changes include moving the Big Hickory precinct to Journey Church and the Wilson precinct along the Ga. 369 corridor to Pleasant Hill Baptist Church from Free Chapel Worship Center.

The board is also reducing the number of precincts from 35 to 31 to lower costs, streamline operations and mitigate risk in time for a November election on a special purpose local option sales tax referendum to fund projects for the Gainesville, Hall County and Buford school systems.

The board also approved adding early voting hours on one Saturday this year at three locations: the Hall County Government Center, the North Hall Community Center and the Mulberry Creek Community Center.

Opening an early voting site in East Hall to serve working-class families there could be on the table in 2016, board members said.

Gabe Shippy, a Democratic member of the board, said he would like to expand early voting hours going forward to ensure more access to the polls.

“I do think it’s worth undertaking,” he added.


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