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A Jefferson County Elections Manager Alleges Voter Suppression

Bessemer absentee voting clerk Karen Dunn Burks outside the Bessemer Criminal Justice Center. (Ryan Michaels, The Birmingham Times)
By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times

Bessemer absentee voting clerk Karen Dunn Burks alleged Wednesday that Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens, a Republican, was engaging in “potential voter suppression tactic in the Bessemer division.”

Burks, a Democrat, surrounded by local officials, held a news conference outside the Bessemer Criminal Justice Center and said she was concerned about Stephens’s decision to “abruptly relocate the Absentee Office of the Bessemer Division to an area that’s not appropriate for voters or workers.” 

“This move places the absentee office and voters of the Bessemer division to be subjected to unfair conditions and accommodations is inhumane, especially when adequate areas/space exist,” Burks said in a statement.

At her press conference, Burks said, “We have elections coming up. We have a very, very serious election coming up in November. I do feel that it is voter suppression because [Republicans] do not want the absentees to be of a high number.” 

County officials immediately dismissed the accusations. 

“Jefferson County wants to be clear. There has been no voter suppression on behalf of the Commission President, the Jefferson County Commission, or any Jefferson County staff member,” said the county in a statement.

County officials also said, “Commissioner Stephens has had no conversations with Burks about her space.”

Though the absentee voting location has moved around numerous times, Burks said Stephens demanded an immediate shift of the location from the basement level ceremonial courtroom in the Bessemer Criminal Justice Center to a maintenance room. This happened she said a little over a month before the May 24 primary runoff elections where the governor, district court judges and state representatives, among other offices, were on the ballot.

Burks said she was told the County Commission needed the space in the Ceremonial Courtroom for a meeting. The Commission meets in Bessemer once a quarter.

Burks said the location where she was moved is inadequate. “There’s no infrastructure, meaning there’s no Wi-Fi downstairs. There are no ceilings…The elevator shaft is housed inside of this room. There’s never been a number of workstations that could be detected,” said Burks, who added she simply wants a place on the second floor of the Bessemer Criminal Justice Center.

“I’m not asking, ‘Please let us build a building.’ This is to move to a vacant space that’s been vacant forever,” she said.

There are five vacant courtrooms in the Bessemer Criminal Justice Center, Burks said.

Jefferson County Manager and CEO Cal Markert said the county is in the process of building a larger space for Burks and her staff.  

“Understanding that the absentee voter office needed more space, the Commission approved a build out of a larger and more convenient space than the ceremonial courtroom [1,936 square ft that cost $27,449.50] and those plans were reviewed by the Secretary of State,” Markert said. “The space includes a secure storage closet for the safe storage of ballots.”

He also said the County Commission has historically held its meetings in the ceremonial courtroom.

“Due to the World Games (July 7-17) and access to the downtown courthouse being restricted, the Commission voted on June 9 to hold the July 12 and 14 meetings at the Bessemer Justice Center, in the basement level ceremonial courtroom,” he said. “This space has served as the meeting location since 2010, when the Justice Center opened, because it is the least frequently used space in the building.”