After the New Year’s Eve meeting, County Judge Dean Fowler told The Mirror the matter would be on a future agenda of the court if a commissioner requests it.
Four of the Election Commission of Upshur County’s five members had said or indicated at a Dec. 3 meeting they favored creating the post. They included County Clerk Barbara Winchester, County Tax Assessor-Collector Sherron Laminack, Upshur County Republican Party Chairman Cynthia Ridgeway, and county Democratic Party Chairman Dan Miles Jr.
The commission’s chairman, Fowler, has not indicated whether he supports the proposal. Commissioners Court would create the position, but the election commission would choose the administrator.
Mrs. Laminack, whose office handles voter registration, has complained that it interferes with the office’s other duties. She also indicated that some persons objected to elected officials handling elections.
And Mrs. Winchester told the two party chairmen at the Dec. 3 meeting her office would not contract with them to hold their respective March 4 primary elections for financial reasons, and because her office’s workers are already “stretched.” (Her office will still handle early voting, mail-in ballots, and military ballots, however.)
The proposal to have an Election Administrator has drawn fire from Upshur County Libertarian Party Chairman Vance Lowry, who objects to the expense, and Libertarian candidate for County Clerk Peggy LaGrone, who says such an office would be useless.
And at Tuesday’s meeting of the court, two of the four Republican court members present (Pct. 1 Comm. Paula Gentry was absent due to her father’s death) expressed reservations about creating the post.
The commissioners reacted as Gilmer ISD Secretary Judy Moore, Mrs. Ridgeway and Miles appeared before the court to urge creating the position. Another citizen, John Melvin Dodd, asked the court to find an effective way to handle elections that is the least expensive option.
Mrs. Moore, who has handled some or all early voting in school-related elections for many years, told the court “we need an Election Administrator” for “voter confidence.”
“They want to know where to vote, who to talk to...(and) trust,” she said. “That’s what you have to consider, is the voter.”
Mrs. Ridgeway, standing beside Miles, said they had agreed to jointly request creating the position, based on information from the Dec. 3 meeting. While there has been talk that such a post could cost $80,000, she said, a salary “more comparable” to the current voter registrar’s would suffice.
In two counties comparable to Upshur which have Election Administrators, she said, the highest-paid EA earned just under $31,000 and had only two temporary workers.
Mrs. Ridgeway also said that under the Texas Election Code, the County Clerk can choose whether to contract with a political party, or subdivisions like schools, to help hold their elections—but an Election Administrator must contract with them when asked to.
The GOP chairman argued that the latter would provide better “forecasting” of election expenses for parties and subdivisions. In addition, Mrs. Ridgeway said she and Miles were also trying to remove an elected official from tabulating results of elections in which the official is a candidate.
Moving the voter registrar from the Tax Office to the County Clerk’s Office would “fail to address” that concern, she said.
Pct. 2 Comm. Cole Hefner told Mrs. Ridgeway he saw her point, but “I don’t see where the political problem” is resolved by creating the EA because he or she would tabulate votes for the five elected officials on the Election Commission (which appoints the administrator). The commission consists of three elected county officials—and the two party chairmen, who are also elected in their respective primary elections.
Pct. 3 Comm. Frank Berka joined Hefner in expressing concerns about having an EA. To fire an administrator would require the votes of four of the five commission members, and a majority of the Commissioners Court’s five members, he said.
Later in the discussion, alluding again to the difficulty of firing an administrator, he said having an EA appointed by elected officials and two party chairmen might cause a lack of “integrity.” In addition, Berka argued, “All you’re doing (by establishing the post) is adding another layer of government.”
Berka said that “We’ve already been told the integrity (with which the county currently holds elections) is unmatched.”
But Mrs. Ridgeway replied there had been “problems” with the last GOP runoff election; that it had nearly resulted in an election contest in court; and that such a contest would cost three times as much as paying an Election Administrator, who could be held liable. Currently, the county is risking a lawsuit, she contended.
However, Berka responded that if an EA became ill in the middle of an election, or ran for office, “all of a sudden, we’re shut down” since the administrator can’t seek assistance from the Tax Office.
After Mrs. Ridgeway and Berka agreed the office couldn’t be established in time for March’s party primary elections, she said she was requesting the court approve it for the November general election. She added that the court need not do so right away.
But Hefner said he had a problem creating the office “when we don’t know” what the county’s financial situation will be. And Berka said establishing the post would require more office space, more computers, more hired help, and create liability for transporting election materials to schools.
Berka also said that in one unnamed county, the EA office’s annual budget had swelled from $158,000 to $191,000 in four years, and that office wants more. Too, he said, the County Clerk’s Office “can outsource” (contract out) some election-related work
Mrs. Ridgeway then suggested the court “perhaps put this (voting on the EA matter) off” until January, and “dig into this.”
In another election-related matter, the court Tuesday approved limiting early voting for the March 4 primaries to the County Courthouse from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Feb. 18-28, excluding Sunday, Feb. 22.
Miles proposed having both branch early voting and such voting at the courthouse, but Berka argued that “it’s non-confusing if you just have the one place” for it.
Fowler said Ore City and Gladewater residents liked having early voting “in their own location,” but Berka said that would omit having such voting in Big Sandy. Pct. 4 Comm. Mike Spencer said he favored using only one location, leaving Fowler to comment that “I’m in the minority,” but that he liked voting in precincts.
Before approving the early voting arrangements, the court also took no action on election contracts after hearing from Mrs. Ridgeway that she and Miles wanted to hold a shared primary election (in which both parties would use the same polling places), but not a joint one (in which there would be only one table of election judges.)
She said they were asking to use all the county’s election equipment, and its central counting room. Fowler said the court would have to vote Jan. 15 on whether to allow the parties to use the equipment.
Mrs. Ridgeway also asked that the county deliver election equipment to polling places, and employ constables to do so for the primary and, if necessary, runoff elections.
She said this was better than contracting out that task, or having “overburdened” Road and Bridge Department employees handle it unless the constables lacked vehicles large enough to hold the equipment.
Fowler said constables would have to agree to deliver the goods.
Mrs. Ridgeway said having election judges deliver the equipment subjected them to questioning. And Ann Glenn, a veteran election judge, said “a lot of us (election judges) are old women,” and that it was hard to “manhandle” a heavy election machine.
Mrs. Ridgeway had opened the discussion on election contracts by asking the court to approve a document titled “Resolution for Honest, Transparent and Accountable Elections in Upshur County,” signed by her, Miles, and Lowry. However, Fowler noted the matter wasn’t on the agenda (meaning that under the Texas Open Meetings Act, the court couldn’t vote on it).
The judge told Mrs. Ridgeway she could request the resolution be placed on the agenda for the court’s next meeting, scheduled Jan. 15.
Mrs. Ridgeway said the party chairmen wanted the court to agree to “follow all the checks and balances” outlined in the state Election Code. The proposed resolution details how election returns would be prepared, delivered and canvassed.