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Up to Jeffco Commission whether courthouse open for absentee voting on Saturdays

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From left: Jefferson County Commissioners Joe Knight; Lashunda Scales (Pro Tem); Jimmie Stephens (President); Sheila Tyson; Steve Ammons. (FILE)
By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times 

The decision whether to open the Birmingham and Bessemer Courthouses for in-person absentee voting on Saturdays is now in the hands of the Jefferson County Commission.    

The five-member body will meet today at noon to consider opening the courthouses Saturdays, Oct. 17 and 24 to accommodate “in-person” absentee voting for the Nov. 3 general election. 

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 in an interview with The Birmingham Times. “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.”

Coleman pointed out that Mobile County sent out a joint press release earlier this month circulated by its bipartisan legislative delegation announcing Saturday voting during the first three weeks of October in that county.

“What bothered me in Jefferson County is that we collectively as Democrats and Republicans . . . couldn’t come together and say here’s an opportunity for all people to have the chance to go out and vote early so you don’t have to risk yourself on Nov. 3, if that is a fear of yours,” Coleman said.

On Monday, Alabama State Rep. Rolanda Hollis and Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson announced the Birmingham courthouse will open on Saturdays Oct. 17 and Oct. 24 for those who want to apply for absentee ballots and vote.

Two days later, Jefferson County Probate Court Judge James P. Naftel II, who is also head of the Jefferson County Election Commission, said that absentee election manager offices “are open Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.” and not on the weekend.

Naftel said a press release, “Any other special voting dates or times are subject to approval by both the Secretary of State and the County Commission.”

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. 

“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.

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.

Citizens are encouraged to call the clerk’s office at 205-325-5313 to have applications mailed.