Upcoming elections are weighing on the minds of Bartow residents as the race begins for local, state and federal offices. On a local level, Bartow's Elections office is continuously working whether a major election is on tap for the year or not.
"We handle everything relating to voter registration and elections for Bartow County, which includes any time someone registers to vote in Bartow County, any time someone moves out of the state and needs to be removed, any time there's a felony conviction and you lose your voting rights, when someone is declared mentally incompetent -- all those different things that have you removed from the list, we handle all that," Joseph Kirk, elections supervisor, said. "On the elections side, we're constantly preparing for the upcoming election. We conduct every county-level election, which includes the state offices, and then we conduct elections for Adairsville, Emerson and the city of Cartersville but provide the voting system for the other municipalities and we try to assist the process. We qualify some candidates and assist them through that process. There's a lot of stuff we do -- constant legal research, training of the staff, training of the public, and making sure everything goes smooth."
Working on an increased overall budget in preparation for a busy election year, the department has $525,200 for the year, compared to the $311,700 in 2011. Four full-time and one part-time employee require $175,000 for salaries out of the total. Temporary employees are expected to be hired during the election season to assist with filing, early voting or other processes surrounding the election such as working at the civic center that week or working at the polls. Volunteers are currently not accepted.
As the department moves forward, public education and reaching people has been a hurdle that the office looks to overcome.
"We try to give them as much information as they need and let them know what their options are," Kirk said. "It's a continual process of updating the website and making sure that's current, and we're also looking into expanding into social media. The training of the public is a big problem for us because it's hard to get in touch with them. Really the only time that we know we're going to see them is when they come to vote."
Internally, the office is looking at means of simplifying their intense filing system, which includes every voter registration form and more.
"We're trying to go more to a paperless format," Kirk said. "If you request an absentee ballot [or] if you sign a petition, that signature has to be compared to the signature on file. That's a lot of files. So, what we've done is we've scanned in every voter registration we have and indexed them to the voter registration numbers. Everything is stored [electronically] and it it takes it from having to hire two or three temporary employees in a big election just for filing to you don't have to get up from your desk. Once you start looking at digital files and paper files you get more opportunities for documentation, for auditing capabilities and more chances to make sure everything is going the way it needs to go."
Aside from salaries, the department's largest line item is for printing and binding at $45,000.
"The cost associated with printing ballots is astronomical," Kirk said. "In a normal election, it's 35 cents for each ballot. ... I have to order the ballots 60 days in front of the election. So, 60 days out, I've got to predict what the turnout is going to be and how many folks are going to want a ballot from each precinct. When you look at historical data and say we had this much turnout in this election and you look at the campaigns a little bit, we end up with tons and tons of ballots because we have to pad it and make sure we don't run out. It's a week turnaround to get more and you really don't want to run out of ballots [but] we only use a fraction of [those ballots]."
Looking to the future, technology may become available to help ease the burden for the cost of printing.
"There are some technologies out there that should help with this [cost]," Kirk said. "It's been a problem for years. There's very specific instructions on how these have to be printed so the tick marks are lined up correctly and the scanner sees it almost as a grid. If those lines are off [it knocks the vote off] and that's why we do the testing to make sure none of that kind of stuff has happened.
"[The state is] going to certify a ballot-on-demand printer so we can print a ballot as we need a ballot. There's a significant cost associated with it, and with the math I've done so far, we'd still come out cheaper in the end but that hasn't been certified at the state level for use."
Other items the department prints fall under the voter registration side as well as educational materials for employees and the public.
As laws and methods for elections change, the office and its staff must stay on top of those alterations. In the budget, $2,500 is set aside for educational purposes and $6,000 is designated for travel to those training sessions.
"There are two training conferences that we attend every year. There are professional organizations for what we do so each year there's two different conferences, one geared toward the voter registration side and one for elections and either have them in Savannah, Macon," Kirk said. "That's where our education and travel come in. [We have] training on equipment [and other] things we have to do our job."
Legal fees are another line allotted for the office with $5,000 for 2012.
"It's for questions to our attorney, getting draft documents [and] getting things cleared through the Department of Justice," Kirk said. "We're still under the Department of Justice. They have to approve any change in voting practice, if a form changes, if the method of voting changes, anything like that they have to sign off on and those submissions go through the attorney's office. On the other side of it there's some contradictory stuff that covers elections which doesn't go hand-in-hand with the federal laws or local ordinances. We have to use the attorney heavily to see which one takes precedence and how we should handle the situation and the way this department functions with its board."
Regardless of whether or not a major election is scheduled for the year, the office continuously prepares for any special need that may arise.
"I can't remember the last non-election year," Kirk said. "Maybe [it's] not a scheduled [election] the way you think of it at the end of the year but some special election comes up, some vacancy, and even if we didn't conduct elections for any city in Bartow County, we still have to prepare the equipment for them, get it out there and assist with that process."
Early voting starts the fourth Monday prior to each election, which effectively makes it three weeks. The elections office begins sending out ballots in the mail 45 days prior and to vote in the office early voting will begin 22 days prior. Early voting for the July primary will begin July 9.