By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times
A bipartisan group of Jefferson County (AL) Commissioners on Friday voted 4-0 to open the downtown Birmingham and Bessemer County Courthouses for in-person absentee balloting ahead of the November 3 general election.
Republicans Jimmie Stephens, the commission president, and Republican Joe Knight along with Democrats Lashunda Scales, pro tem, and Sheila Tyson voted to open the Courthouses on Saturday, Oct. 17 and Saturday, Oct. 24 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. for in-person absentee voting.
Republican Commissioner Steve Ammons was not present because of a family matter.
The decision to open was driven by concerns over the public health and safety of voters due to the COVID-19 pandemic, commissioners said.
“The right to safely vote, especially during this pandemic will not be denied to any citizen in Jefferson County,” Stephens said during the meeting. “We will adhere to the law to ensure that the integrity, security and confidence of the election process is accessible for those who choose to vote in-person absentee.”
After the meeting Scales said, “We did not want for the public to perceive this was a Republican or Democrat fight. We believe in the democratic process and because of that it was important for all of us to speak from one sheet of music because we believe voter participation is very important.”
Knight, Chairman of the County’s Judicial Committee, said, “We expect a large voter turnout for the November 3 election. As such, the safety of our citizens and personnel working the polls remains paramount.”
In Mobile County, Alabama, Republicans Don Davis, Probate Court Judge and Jo Jo Schwarzauer, circuit court clerk, earlier this month also announced absentee voting on Saturdays.
Davis, who is also Chief Election Officer, and Schwarzauer, the Absentee Election Manager, said Schwarzauer’s office in Mobile County would be open the second, third and fourth Saturdays in October to offer citizens “additional opportunities to submit an absentee ballot application and/or obtain absentee election materials prior to the 2020 General Election.”
“Additionally,” they wrote in a press release distributed by both Democrats and Republicans in the Mobile County Legislative Delegation, “the Absentee Election Manager’s Office will be open [the fifth] Saturday, October 31, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. for voters to hand deliver absentee ballots to the office.”
The decision in Jefferson County came after a week of uncertainty over whether the courthouses would be open.
On Monday a press conference was held to announce the downtown Birmingham courthouse would be opened for absentee voting. On Wednesday, the Jefferson County Probate Court Judge said the courthouse would be closed. Later that day, state Rep. Merika Coleman contacted the secretary of state’s office to let officials know her concerns about not having the buildings opened for absentee voting.
“The in-person, absentee voting for the weekend, extended hours . . . that’s for everybody to have the opportunity to vote,” Coleman said. “This is an election that folks are very interested in on both sides of the aisle . . . people are very excited about this election.”
She added that absentee voting is nonpartisan and open to all and also some have concerns about going to the polls on Nov. 3 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “That’s why the weekend, in-person absentee voting is so important to give people an opportunity who may not want to go [on Nov. 3] for fear of being exposed to COVID or being around crowds.”
For the past two weeks, the in-person absentee voting in Jefferson County has caused complaints and lines that had stretched from the courthouse outside to nearby Linn Park and some officials pushed for the additional days.
“We did not anticipate this groundswell . . . We did not see COVID-19, we did not foresee that people would start coming here rather than going to the 170 polling places” throughout Jefferson County, said Circuit Clerk Jacqueline Anderson-Smith in an interview last week.
In addition to the increased number of in-person absentee voters there is also a backlog of mailed-in absentee ballots that has raised concern ahead of the Nov. 3 general election.
Nearly 21 million Americans have already cast ballots nationwide in the 2020 election, a record-shattering avalanche of early votes driven both by Democratic enthusiasm and a pandemic that has transformed the way the nation votes.
In Alabama, Monday, Oct. 19 is the last day to register to vote for the Nov. 3 general election, according to the Alabama secretary of state’s office. Thursday, Oct. 29 is the last day to apply for an absentee ballot for the general election. Monday, Nov. 2 is the last day an absentee ballot being returned by mail to the absentee election manager can be postmarked. Absentee ballots must be received by the absentee election manager no later than noon on Election Day, which is Nov. 3.
To register to vote online visit alabamavotes.gov.