By Ameera Steward
For the Birmingham Times
What’s it like to be at the center of an unprecedented surge of in-person absentee voting in Alabama’s most populous county during a pandemic in a presidential election year?
“I’m flying an airplane, and I’m building it while I’m flying it, and I’ve got engine trouble,” said Jefferson County Circuit Clerk Jackie Anderson-Smith, whose responsibilities include oversight of voter registration. “That’s the way it feels.”
Anderson-Smith is in charge of absentee balloting, which has surged to levels no one has ever seen. The “deluge” of in-person absentee voters this month has led to complaints and lines stretching from inside the downtown Birmingham courthouse to nearby Linn Park.
The last day for people to walk in and vote by absentee is October 29.
“We did not anticipate this groundswell,” said Anderson-Smith, who also serves on the Jefferson County Election Commission with Probate Court Judge James P. Naftel II and Sheriff Mark Pettway.
“We did not foresee COVID-19. We did not foresee that people would start coming here rather than going to the 170 polling places [throughout Jefferson County],” she said.
It’s been nearly impossible to plan for recent events, explained Anderson-Smith, who was just elected to a six-year term in 2018.
“We may think 200 [absentee voters] are coming, and then 900 [show up],” she said. “We think we’re getting a handle on this, and then there’s a surge we cannot predict. This is unprecedented.”
That doesn’t include court rulings that some absentee ballots may be defective and those voters have to contact Anderson-Smith to correct the deficiencies.
In the 2016 presidential election, Jefferson County received and processed about 10,000 absentee ballots, which were placed in a secure ballot box until after the election. Today, that number has already surpassed 20,000 and, Anderson-Smith said, “If we get more than 50,000, I will need additional computers.”
Even with extra equipment, supplies, and manpower, Anderson-Smith has struggled to keep up with the volume.
“One day we almost ran out of envelopes,” she said. “We had to pick up 6,000 more envelopes.”
In addition to the increased number of in-person absentee voters, there is also a backlog of mailed-in absentee ballots, which has raised concern ahead of the November 3 general election.
Anderson-Smith now has 34 people in her office, up from eight, and has been authorized to hire another 25.
“We were caught off guard. I was looking for a [rainstorm], but I got a deluge, [so] I have the ability to hire more people,” she said, noting that 14 phones lines will be available for those who choose to call in rather than come in person to get an absentee ballot. (Today, October 29, is the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot in Alabama.)
The downtown and Bessemer courthouses were opened on two Saturdays this month—October 17 and 24 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.—to help with in-person absentee voters. Even before absentee voting swelled, Anderson-Smith turned a small absentee-voting room into a much larger space on the fifth floor of the Jefferson County Courthouse to accommodate voters with disabilities. Four people can vote at one time in booths, or cubicles, now available in the newly modified space.
When that ran space proved too compact county officials began gathering information in Linn Park outside the downtown courthouse.
The Art of Educating
Anderson-Smith was born and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, and traveled to Birmingham after marrying her then-husband. She attended Alabama Agriculture and Mechanical University (AAMU) in Huntsville, moved to Birmingham in 1969, and graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in 1972 with a degree in secondary education with concentrations in English and art. She chose to stay in Birmingham while raising her two children—her son, who has twin sons, now lives in Hawaii; and her daughter, who has a daughter, now lives in Huntsville.
“They grew up here and … went to Ramsay [High School]. [Also], Birmingham has a host of opportunities, and I was employed here,” said Anderson-Smith, who taught economics, English, and art at Huffman and Wenonah high schools.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she added. “I just knew my mom was a teacher, her mom was a teacher, and her mom was a teacher.”
In 1985, Anderson-Smith was elected to her first term on the Jefferson County Board of Education. She was re-elected six times and for many years was the only African American elected to the board; others were appointed. During her tenure, she served as a member, president, and vice president on the board, helping with construction projects for the county’s schools by serving on the finance committee and the committee of architects and engineers, which supported building and renovation efforts—all of which prepared her for her current position as circuit clerk, she said.
In 2019, Anderson-Smith realized she had done as much as she could on the board and stepped down.
“During that time on the school board, I feel like I … not only accomplished something with educational training and opportunities [for young people] but also improved their surroundings,” said Anderson-Smith, who has shared her accomplishments with her grandchildren.
When her three grandchildren asked what she achieved, Anderson-Smith took them to different schools she’s done work on. They didn’t know what a board member did, so she took them on a tour, during which she pointed out that she was involved in the construction of 32 schools (more than $3 billion in expansions and renovations) and her name is on the plaques in front of those schools.
Beyond her work for Jefferson County, Anderson-Smith is also an artist. She has been drawing since she can remember and continues to paint to get away from her everyday duties—something she hasn’t had time for during the current run-up to the elections.
“One medium I like is charcoal,” she said. “You can do something in oil, come back two days later, and change it. … With charcoal and pen-and-ink, you can’t change what you’ve done. It’s more exact, … so I kind of waver between those two.”
Anderson-Smith has also become interested in photography and wants to learn how to use a professional digital single-lens reflex (DLSR) camera, which uses a digital sensor to record high-quality images.
“If I’m somewhere, I’ll take a picture with my phone and sometimes download the image and sketch it,” she said.
She recently saw an aardvark and a white herring while driving and pulled over to take pictures. Though she doesn’t have much time to take photos or draw now, she still likes to pay attention to things she sees.
Before assuming her current role, Anderson-Smith, who is a cancer survivor, “retired” from her many duties, which have included serving on the board of directors for Alamerica Bank, as well as holding a position in the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. When she ran for circuit clerk, her son asked, “Are you really retired?”
Anderson-Smith decided to run for the seat after hearing that then-officeholder Anne-Marie Adams was retiring after serving from 2000 to 2018.
“I thought, ‘Well, she had such a legacy of positive performance,’ and I wanted to continue doing the work that she had done,” said Anderson-Smith, who is described as a “doer” by her daughter—and that’s why she always stays involved in various activities.
“If I’m working with a project, I figure out what’s needed, study, come up with a plan, and then start implementing the plan,” said Anderson-Smith. “I also establish a timeline because I don’t do anything hastily. … I usually plan for when we can do [things].”
With everything going on in the lead-up to the November 3 general election, Anderson-Smith plans to remain focused.
“My daddy’s name was Nehemiah,” she said. “In the Bible, Nehemiah was building a wall, and people kept trying to distract him and keep him from doing it. … People are trying to vote, and that’s what I’m trying to let them do.”
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