Supporters of the measure say it would save the state thousands of dollars in Calhoun County every election year — and hundreds of thousands if adopted statewide. But the measure’s chief critic says there’s no need to change a system that so far has run without a hitch.
“Why would you want to fix something that’s not broken?” said Calhoun County Circuit Clerk Ted Hooks.
Under state law, Hooks acts as the county’s absentee ballot manager. His office is responsible for processing absentee ballot requests, as well as the completed ballots as they come in.
He’s also paid for his work. Different counties offer different levels of pay for clerks acting as ballot managers, but in Calhoun County the pay is $175 per day. With absentee ballots going out 45 days before the election, and every day until the election counting as a day of work, that’s about $8,000 in extra pay for the average election.
The amendment on the Calhoun County ballot would change that, taking responsibility for absentee ballots out of the circuit clerk’s office and giving the job to the Calhoun County Commission.
According to the website of the Alabama Secretary of State, the circuit clerk is usually the designated absentee ballot manager for his or her county.
Calhoun County Administrator Ken Joiner said the system needs to change.
“We’ve continued to look past things like this that are absolutely wrong, while we’re cutting programs that are needed,” he said. “We need money for law enforcement and for mental health.”
Joiner said state officials have estimated that ballot-counting costs add up to $300,000 statewide per election, with the state paying for four elections this year.
Hooks said it isn’t about the cost per vote counted. He said it’s about making the absentee ballot accessible, and about giving one person the responsibility for making sure that ballot gets counted.
“This is a highly controversial voting issue,” he said of absentee voting. “It seems to make headlines every year. I’m proud to say that we’ve never had a problem.”
Hooks is quick to point out that the vote won’t affect him personally. He has announced that he will retire at the end of his current term.
Both candidates for his seat say they’d like to do away with the clerk’s position as manager of absentee ballots.
“I think it should be transferred to the County Commission or the sheriff,” said Democratic candidate Missy Hall, a legal assistant from Oxford. She said that staff in the clerk’s office, who do most of the processing, are overtasked due to budget cuts and don’t need the job of processing ballots.
“As far as the law is concerned, we’re probably one of the most backward states,” said Republican candidate Eli Henderson, who now serves as a member of the Calhoun County Commission. Henderson said the appointment of the circuit clerk may have made sense when the constitution was written, but now the job could be done more cheaply, or for free, by the commission.
Both Henderson and Joiner said the county does not yet have a system in place for processing absentee ballots. Both said the job could likely be done by a temporary worker or volunteer.
Hooks said, though, there’s more to the job than most people know — including issues with military ballots, college students’ ballots and other situations. He said it also takes a great deal of time as deadlines approach, leading to workdays that run as long as 9:30 p.m. He said the amendment was flawed because it leaves the circuit clerk on other election-related boards, and because it doesn’t specify a single person to be responsible for the ballot.
Joiner said he has seen the ballot-processing operation first-hand. When the circuit clerk is up for election himself, he must appoint someone else to manage the counting of the ballots. One year, Joiner said, Hooks chose someone in Joiner’s office.
“It takes about 15 minutes per ballot,” he said. “It’s not all that difficult.”
The amendment is a local amendment, which means that even though it’s a change to the state constitution, only Calhoun County voters will get to weigh in on the measure. But the amendment’s supporters say that if the measure passes, other counties may follow suit.
“I think there will be a domino effect,” Joiner said.
Capitol and statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter: TLockette_Star.