Credit: Liz Fabian / The Macon Newsroom
Elections board raises concerns about voter accessibility at new mall location
The new office space for the Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections on the lower level of Macon Mall drew mixed reviews during a tour Friday morning.
Four of the five members of the Board of Elections and most of the staff got to see the new location in what used to be the back left corner of the first floor of the old Sears building that once housed the appliances.
While most were happy with the general layout, the larger offices and loading dock access to storage, board members are concerned about the distance voters will have to walk.
From the closest handicapped parking space to the front door of the new board of elections, it’s about 175 yards — 25 yards shy of two football fields.
“It’s a long way to go,” said Board of Elections Chairman Joel Hazard, a Republican party representative. “We’re going to have to figure out a better way than to ask people to walk that distance that don’t walk that well.”
Robert Abbott, a new member of the board who also is a Republican, said he’s concerned about handicapped voters and the elderly.
“It’s a chore for some of them just to stand in line to get to where they check in,” Abbott said. “Everybody doesn’t have motorized chairs. It’s going to be a chore for a lot of these people, and you’re probably going to hear some complaints if we don’t do something to modify it. And this transition needs to be as smooth as possible because this is 100% changing everything. People are going to be totally lost when they come in.”
Next week, the Board of Elections’ Administrative Assistant Kimberly Mitchell will meet with contractors to discuss placement of directional signs to guide voters to the office.
During a December tour of the construction site with Mayor Lester Miller and the Macon-Bibb County Board of Commissioners, Miller said it was an 80- to 90-second walk from the parking lot.
During that tour, Commissioner Elaine Lucas said she was concerned about the high volume of voters expected for the next presidential election, but architect Gene Dunwody told commissioners that there has been talk of using golf carts or other vehicles to shuttle voters who need assistance, but nothing has been finalized.
Board members also wondered aloud how they could police the whole mall since Georgia election law prohibits anyone from soliciting votes within 150 feet of the “outer edge of any building within which a polling place is established.”
Taken literally, that could mean no one wearing a campaign shirt would be allowed anywhere inside the mall, since it’s technically one massive building.
Democrat Tom Ellington, who recently replaced Darius Maynard on the board, said he believes there must be precedent established.
“Apparently in other counties they’re doing locations inside malls,” Ellington said following the tour.
“I’m certain this question has been answered in the past. We just need to get the answer,” Hazard said.
Staff also is perplexed as to where to locate the absentee ballot drop box, which now must be in a secure, indoor location that is monitored during early voting hours, according to changes made through Georgia Senate Bill 202 that took effect in July of 2021.
That means those who are dropping off absentee ballots must park and take the 175-yard trek into the mall to deposit ballots during the advanced voting period.
At first glance, Ellington liked the office.
“It looks good so far. Well-protected from tornadoes,” he remarked of the windowless walls on what is technically a basement level on that side of the old store.
Storage space concerns
Mike Kaplan, the Independent member of the board, also was concerned about moisture problems discovered in one of the equipment storage rooms, which is essentially underground. The project contractor assured Kaplan that steps are being taken to mitigate that issue.
Clarence Maynard, Macon-Bibb’s Election Tech Specialist, is worried there’s not enough storage space for the 6,000 pieces of voting equipment currently required under Georgia law.
In recent months, Maynard and part-time techs have been keeping all the batteries charged to preserve their life while the equipment is being stored in un-airconditioned space on the first floor of the old Macy’s department store.
Even on a cool morning with large fans blowing, it was warm.
“It’s not fun, but we got the job done,” said elections tech Norman Wills.
They must have everything moved out of the board’s current location at 2525 Pio Nono Ave. by the end of June when the lease is up, said acting Elections Supervisor Tom Gillon.
Convenient storage rooms just a short stroll from the loading dock at the old Sears building will be used for equipment, but Maynard doesn’t think everything will fit.
“Even if it holds it, you won’t be able to get to it,” Maynard said, of what he believes will be cramped spaces.
Mitchell and Hazard disagree.
“It may look small until you get it all in there. I will say the space we’ve got is way bigger than what are now in just one side,” Mitchell said.
“I’d be amazed if it doesn’t fit,” Hazard said.
During the December tour with the county officials, Dunwody said the equipment was measured and he believes there is ample space for storage.
New lockable storage cages will be used to house all of the necessary equipment for each precinct in those storage rooms, but they are on the opposite side of the old Sears building from the elections office.
The county’s new courtrooms are adjacent to the equipment storage corridor, so precinct managers will have to walk across the public atrium to bring the memory cards to the tabulators.
While Abbott was concerned about the “chain of custody,” security is expected to walk with those poll workers on election night.
It’s in that public lobby where advanced voters will line up to cast ballots in the three weeks leading up to elections. Workers are confident that the space has ample room for voters, even if they have to queue up like they’re at “Disney World,” Ellington said.
“One thing that’s going to be positive for voters is that people will be out of the weather,” Ellington said.
Large windows provide visibility for absentee vote counting and the registrars’ counters will have computer tablets mounted for easy check-in.
The elections staff seemed excited about the new office space and board room that will be outfitted for audio and video recording.
“We’re going to be able to breathe,” Carrie Middleton said on the tour.
“Wow, this is huge,” Mitchell exclaimed as she surveyed the new lobby.
“It’s a new place and we won’t be on top of each other,” Middleton said.
No elections are scheduled for this year, which will allow staff to settle in this summer before next year’s presidential election and the county mayoral and county commission races.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Macon Newsroom.