Complaints over four-hour wait times and accusations that officials turned would-be voters away plagued the Mobile County in-person absentee voting process on Saturday, Oct. 17.
Despite the complaints, the office processed 434 walk-in absentee voters, Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis said. Overall, the county has processed 16,539 absentee ballot applications — both walk-in and mail-in — and has received 11,347 filled-in ballots, he said.
“We’ve already exceeded the number for any previous election,” Davis said of absentee turnout.
Davis confirmed that the absentee office turned some voters away at 1 p.m. on Saturday when it closed. He said every voter actually inside the building was processed before officials left for the day.
Davis defended the office from possible voter disenfranchisement by arguing it was their idea to open on Saturdays to begin with to help accommodate voters. Offices, he said, are not required to do that for this or any other year. Davis also said the office has doubled its staff and brought in temporary workers to help process voters as quickly as possible.
“I don’t think we could fit another person in there and still follow the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s] guidelines,” Davis said. “They’re sardines back there.”
To accommodate an expected influx of absentee voters this year, due to the pandemic, the absentee election office opened on select Saturdays, beginning Oct. 10. Davis said a decision was made to move the office from Government Plaza to the Mobile County Courthouse Annex last year before the pandemic, because Chicken Salad Chick had taken over the empty space previously used for in-person absentee voting.
The smaller area combined with virus-related protocols has led to fewer people being allowed in the office at one time, Davis said.
“We’ve limited the number of people who can be in there and that’s maintained by security,” he said. “We’re asking people inside and outside of the building to maintain social distancing.”
However, Davis complained that a number of voters were not wearing masks and were not social distancing, even though many have cited the pandemic as a reason they are voting early.
“One of the difficulties we’re experiencing with voters is they are not social distancing and not wearing masks,” Davis said. “That seems counterintuitive to them being there in the first place. It doesn’t seem to add up and I wish to God someone would make note of it.”
Secretary of State John Merrill has said voters do not have to wear a face covering to vote. However, Davis said county residents entering the building for other reasons are still required to wear a mask.
The process could go a lot smoother, Davis said, if voters came to the office with an absentee ballot application already filled out. That way workers could just hand them a ballot. Currently, most voters are given an application and have to fill it out while in the office before receiving a ballot, Davis said.
“We’re trying to see if there’s a way to adjust our procedures to help better control the situation,” he said.
Voters can print out an application on the probate website or Merrill’s website. They can also call the office at 251-574-6400.
Davis also noted that the absentee voting office is open on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. It will be open on Saturday, Oct. 24 for walk-in voting. On Saturday, Oct. 31, Davis said, the office will only be open to receive filled-in absentee ballots.
Mobile County Democratic Executive Committee Chairman Ben Harris said the enthusiasm for voting among residents in the county is “wonderful,” but concerns linger over the wait times reported to the office.
“The last voter allowed inside just before 1 p.m. got in line at 9:03 a.m.,” Harris said. “That’s a four-hour wait. That is something we’re very concerned about.”
Also concerning for Harris are the complaints of voters who were in line before 1 p.m. being turned away.
“If you’re in line by 1 p.m., you should be allowed to vote,” he said. “I understand that’s what happened in most, if not all, other locations offering Saturday voting.”
Harris agreed with Davis that filling out the application ahead of time might be a good way to cut down the wait time. Harris also said the long line for in-person absentee voting makes a case for the state to adopt early voting.
“This demonstrates a compelling need for early voting,” he said. “It demonstrates more polling places and more accessible polling places.”
Mobile County Republican Party Chairman Adam Bourne called the in-person absentee voting process “strong” and complimented the workers and volunteers involved.
“It appears we’ll be setting some records,” he said. “We’re encouraging people to come out and vote if they choose to vote absentee. It’s positive. The more people who vote the better.”
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