JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) – Candidates, officials and new legislators — who hold its fate in their hands — say the Washington County Election Commission needs to improve its performance after a two-hour delay in releasing any results of Tuesday night’s election.
“Everywhere I stopped in Washington County this morning folks was wanting to know what happened last night,” newly elected Tennessee Sixth District Representative Tim Hicks told News Channel 11 Wednesday.
Indeed, that delay frustrated multiple candidates Tuesday night and left area media unable to report on a county with a larger slate of races than most.
Counties around Tennessee, including neighboring and slightly larger Sullivan, released early and absentee results within minutes after polls closed at 8 p.m.
Washington County first released any results at 10:09 p.m. Definitive results weren’t provided until around 11 p.m.
Washington County Election Administrator Maybell Stewart Tuesday night blamed short staffing due to COVID-19 and the need to count 6,000 absentee ballots (the number according to the state was actually 5,462). Stewart delivered those comments via statement after declining interview requests.
The delay meant uncertainty for many races, including Johnson City Commission and Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Alderman.
Hicks mentioned Sullivan County Tuesday night and said it was “very frustrating” to wait as long as he had.
“This is not the first issue that we’ve seen, so it’s pretty frustrating to sit here and go through this.”
COVID and Sullivan County’s response
Sullivan County Election Administrator Jason Booher, whose office processed 5,758 absentee ballots, said his team approached the expected uptick methodically. In March, “we became part of a working group across the state to develop the structure and identify the resources needed to handle that increase,” Booher said Wednesday.
They went from one to 10 scanners and assigned 20 workers to help the usual four who typically oversee absentee ballot counting.
“We looked at the accuracy component and made sure we had that buttoned down and then we looked at how we could move the needle with respect to efficiency,” Booher said.
Counties had help. The state of Tennessee allocated 50 cents per registered voter for the primaries and another $1 per voter for the general election in federal CARES Act funds.
That process included learning just how long it took to scan an individual ballot, open an envelope, and accounted for the time-consuming anomalies of mismarked or otherwise troublesome ballots. Dealing with those and other accuracy elements was key, Booher said.
As it happened, Sullivan County had completed counting its 2,700 August primary absentee ballots by 7:30 p.m. — 30 minutes before polls closed.
“We used August as a launchpad for November, and the differences in what we did in August and November are substantial based on our experience in August and our forethought,” Booher said.
The additional work allowed the Sullivan County team — which operates on roughly the same amount of county funding as Washington County despite serving about 20 percent more voters — to match the 7:30 p.m. completion time Nov. 3.
What’s next in Washington County?
Hicks who now represents Tennessee’s Sixth House District after his victory Tuesday night. He said Wednesday the next steps are to learn more about whether and how Washington County could have performed better and to determine the role he might play in effecting change.
“There could be many things that contribute to what happened last night,” Hicks said. “There could be a computer issue, there could be software that we could add that would make things a whole lot simpler, so those are kind of things that we really need to work on.”
But those changes, if needed, may come along with a changing of the guard at the election commission.
“There has been some talk that maybe there needs to be some replacements in the election commission,” Hicks said. “That is something that the three representatives of this area, we’ll be setting down once we start session and sort of try to figure out and talk about
Election administrators like Booher and Stewart serve at the pleasure of each county’s five-member election commission. Those members include three from the party with the majority in the General Assembly and two from the minority party.
They are appointed to two-year terms every odd year by the seven-member state election commission, which is chosen by the General Assembly as a whole.
However, standard practice is for those commissioners to appoint whoever the local state representatives and senator recommend on the majority party side and the local party on the minority party side.
For close to a decade, that’s been Matthew Hill, Micah Van Huss (seventh and sixth district reps) and State Senator Rusty Crowe when it comes to selecting the commission’s three Republicans.
The current Republican election commissioners are Chair Janet McKee, Patti Jarrett and Jon Ruetz. Democratic appointees are Secretary Margaret Davis and C.B. Kinch.
Now it will be Hicks, who defeated Van Huss in August’s primary, Rebecca Alexander, who defeated Hill, and Crowe. The state election commission is scheduled to make its next local commission appointments in April 2021.
Hicks said people were clamoring for some kind of an answer as he drove around his district picking up election signs Wednesday morning.
“Everywhere I stopped in Washington County this morning, folks was wanting to know what happened last night,” Hicks said.
“When you start hearing that, it is our job, that is why we are duly elected is to take care of issues like this, so we will get to the bottom of what happened and make sure on the next election cycle that this doesn’t happen again, and I think that’s our job and that’s what the people of Washington County expect and I believe that’s what they want.”
“Although we have several hard working people in the Washington County election office, our county was one of the last in the state to report their election results,” she said.
That leaves her, Hicks and Crowe responsible for getting “to the bottom of the problem.
“Rest assured, we will work tirelessly to ensure our election office runs smoothly and efficiently,” Alexander said. “The citizens of this county deserve nothing less.”
Not just slow — expensive
Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy leads the county budget committee that approves the election commission’s annual budget. He’s also been a candidate several times after first winning a county commission seat in 2010 and said the commission has been beset by numerous problems in executing elections over the years.
“We are paying more per voter than surrounding counties and getting much lower performance, so I feel like that needs to be corrected,” Grandy said.
A check of budgets supported Grandy’s contention.
Washington County’s local election commission budget for this fiscal year — including about $32,000 for a five-month lease of the former Ace Hardware in Jonesborough for a polling site — is $784,882. Sullivan County’s is $786,942.
Using 2020 general election presidential numbers as an example, Sullivan County, Sullivan County processed about 74,000 votes to Washington County’s approximately 59,000. That’s 25 percent more votes processed by Sullivan County for essentially the same cost to county taxpayers.