A decision by the local election commission to close roughly 40 percent of Hardin County’s polling sites sent a shock wave rippling through the Hardin County Commission two weeks ago and raised the question of whether adequate public notice was given.
(Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a story published in the Feb. 21 print edition.)
The day the County Commission met, Hardin County Administrator of Elections Jeanette Cronise announced that election officials have scheduled a public meeting to “hear the concerns of the community and voters regarding the closing of these polling places.”
Most typically in government, public meetings to seek citizen input are held prior to – not after – major decisions.
The meeting is set for Wednesday, March 27 at 3 p.m. in the courtroom at the Hardin County jail on Water Street in Savannah. The meeting was originally to be held at the Hardin County Courthouse, but was moved to accommodate a trial.
A letter dated March 4 addressed to county commissioners states that “we the members of the Hardin County Election Commission have voted unanimously to merge the polling precincts in each of the 10 districts in Hardin County to one polling location. We will decrease polling precincts from 18 locations to 11 locations.”
The letter continues, “As a courtesy, we are informing you of the decision to consolidate polling precincts in advance of notification of the voters involved. We recognize that this decision will be difficult on some but our hope is that the majority will easily adapt.”
The letter is signed by the five Hardin County Election Commission members, as verified by the Tennessee State Election Commission: Chairman John H. White III, Rosa Morris, Rhonda Cagle, Bruce Williams and VaRand Sevier-Pride.
It was also signed by Cronise, and noted, “To ease the burden to the voters we are hopeful that we can extend early voting hours to allow people more flexibility.”
According to Cronise, any action by the local election commission to alter the closure decision will require a new vote. She said the decision to reduce the number of voting sites was prompted primarily by budget concerns.
The county commission keeps “cutting my (requested) budget – they don’t give me enough money to get done what I need to get done, and they don’t give me enough to pay poll workers to get anyone to want to do it,” Cronise said.
She said poll workers currently get paid $85 for what amounts to a 12-hour work day during an election, or just over $7 per hour, plus $15 for a required two-hour training session. One election officer at each poll gets $95 for the day.
“In the last election in 2018 we had no alternate poll workers that we could use in the event someone was unable to work on Election Day,” the letter states.
In an interview on Friday, March 15, Cronise said election officials are asking for an increase in election day pay to $100 for poll workers and $120 for officers. The letter also cites “declining voter turnout” and the county commission’s resistance to purchase new technology designed to make election day more efficient and give more accurate results as reasons for closing polling places.
A reporter at the Hardin County Commission meeting on Monday, March 18 asked the board if any members had been made aware beforehand of any discussion to possibly close polling places, or if any of the officials had attended election commission meetings at which the closing of polling places was considered.
Multiple responses came in angry shouts.
“No!” and “Nobody told me anything!”
“I wasn’t told a thing until I got the letter!”
“They just decided it with-out telling any of us!”
Public notice of such meetings is required by state law. The Tennessee Supreme Court declared that the more important the topic, the more effort must be made to ensure the public is adequately notified of the meeting.
Cronise said she did post notices of the Jan. 18 and Feb. 6 election commission meetings at which officials decided to close voting sites. The notices, she said, were posted seven to 10 days prior to each meeting on bulletin boards at the county courthouse, county library, Savannah City Hall, and the door of the elections office.
Monday, the Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel responded to a question from The Courier as to whether the public notice Cronise describes giving would be considered adequate.
The office said the notice would be adequate “if, based on the totality of the circumstances, it fairly informs the public and gives interested citizens a reasonable opportunity to exercise their right to be present at the meeting.”
Describing a 1999 case, the office said the Tennessee Court of Appeals determined notice must be posted in a location where a member of the community could become aware of such notice. In that case, the court determined posting of the notice at city hall, a post office and at a local bank was sufficient under the circumstances.
“Accordingly, a court could find that posting notice of the election commission meeting on the front door of the election commission office, bulletin boards of the county courthouse, Savannah City Hall and county library main office is adequate notice to fairly inform the public of the election commission meetings,” the Office of Open Records Counsel wrote.
The question, however, can only be answered by bringing it before a court of competent jurisdiction.
Cronise, who was appointed local Administrator of Elections by the Hardin County Commission in February 2014, said no public notice was published in the county newspaper of record due to lack of money.
In a follow-up interview Monday, Cronise added, “The caveat is we’ve never published an ad in the paper for special called meetings – we’ve never had it budgeted. It’s never been a normal course of business” due to their irregularity.
Although Cronise has in the past made successful requests to The Courier for free news coverage regarding election issues, no such request was made about the two meetings.
Asked why she didn’t, Cronise only smiled widely.
During the subsequent interview, Cronise said she’s contacted The Courier before, but took exception to the way this was described in the original, print edition of this story.
“When we bought new elections machines, something like that, yes – I’ve called you. But I never asked for a ‘free ad’ – the way this was worded, you made it look like I was offered one and declined it.”
The newspaper did not use the words “free ad” in the initial story. The Courier referred to “free news coverage” to make it clear that no cost would have been incurred if the elections office had simply informed the publication of the developing situation affecting the citizens of Hardin County.
Cronise maintains she gave adequate public notice of the meetings, as required by law, using the best means she had and that her office could afford.
Adding to concerns that election officials could have been more open about plans to close polling places, the official minutes of the election commission’s Jan. 18 meeting state, “Everyone agreed that all discussion must remain totally confidential!”
A March 5 letter from the election commission to polling places being closed says, “Until the time the voters have been notified, please do not share this information.”
District 5 (Saltillo-Morris Chapel) County Commissioner Kathy Smith said, “If they were trying to ensure adequate public notice of this meeting, on this topic that is so important to all Hardin County voters – why did they keep asking others, and agreeing among themselves, to keep it secret?”
Cronise also addressed the comments regarding secrecy, in the meeting minutes and the letter to closed polling places, during Monday’s interview.
“At the meeting in January, the decision was made to only close some polling places, and we were going to go on ‘road trips’ and look at other locations to make decide on others. We wanted to wait until we knew for sure all of the locations we were going to close, and notify the county commissioners of all of them, all at the same time,” she said.
“It wasn’t that we were trying to keep it a secret. By law, we didn’t have to tell the county commissioners – we could have just sent letters to the affected voters. We wanted to let the commissioners know as a courtesy,” she said.
Cronise contends the Hardin County Elections office is “all about transparency.”
She said the decision to close some polling places ultimately centered on budgetary constraints, lack of available poll workers, and resistance by the county commission to adopt new technology. She’s been requesting $5,000 to purchase new polling technology called “polling pads” for five years.
At least a dozen county commissioners said they plan to attend the Hardin County Election Commission’s upcoming meeting.
Local election commission Chairman John White said he would have “no comment until after the meeting on the 27th. I want the input from the voters in the districts across the county. We’re not trying to keep anyone from voting. Everything will come out and be discussed at the meeting. We want to hear from everyone in the community, and it will all come out then.”
Asked Monday what she believes the outcome of Wednesday’s meeting will be, Cronise said, “I think there will be a meeting of the minds, and I think we’ll come to a solution that will be beneficial to everyone – the voters, the county commission and the election commission. But if I can’t get poll workers, I can’t run an election. It’s that simple.”
The election commission has voted to close these polling places: Airport 1-1, Nixon 2-1, Southside 3-2, Shiloh 4-1, Morris Chapel 5-2, Cerro Gordo 6-1 and Rhodes 6-2 (changed to Robertson Chapel 6-1 and Olive Hill 6-2), and Walnut Grove 7-2.
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