Public speaks about possible precinct changes

Jean Hessing talks about the proposal to consolidate voting precincts in Henry County during an Election Commission meeting Monday.

Ten voting precincts rather than the current 13. That appears to be a possible future for elections in Henry County, with the concept of “voting centers” still at least three years away.

The county’s Election Commission met Monday afternoon in front of about 30 people at the county 911 offices on North Brewer Street. Several of the citizens voiced concerns about the county’s plans to try consolidating precincts here and to set up a voting center format in the future.

The commission has been discussing the idea for several months, with DeLaina Green, county administrator of elections, sketching out a plan to eventually implement voting centers here — a process in which voters could vote anywhere in the county regardless of what precinct they were assigned to.

“Why eliminate precincts and limit access?” asked Dianne Carlisle, chairman of the county Democratic Party. “Rural and older voters would be hurt by this.”

“I’m concerned about the areas like Cottage Grove, Springville, Buchanan and Mansfield,” said Jean Hessing of Paris. “Everyone has the right to vote and this would make for some longer drives, and that can be hard on older people.”

John Weiher III, vice mayor of Cottage Grove, and Charles Steer, who also lives in that area, both expressed concern that their city might not have a precinct under the new plan.

“We’ve been left out of this process,” said Weiher. “And we’re the only municipality being omitted. We have municipal elections and it appears you’re going to ask us to drive to Puryear to vote in our own city elections.”

“It gives you a good feeling when you can go to your local community and vote. We ought not make it more burdensome on people,” said Steer.

SOME PROBLEMS SOLVED

Green answered a few of the comments and concerns.

“Thirteen precincts are too many for Henry County, based on the number of people who vote in person on Election Day,” she said.

She said one goal is to eliminate volunteer fire departments and small buildings as polling places. There’s a concern that voting would be disrupted at fire departments if a fire call comes in while the public is there voting.

Green also said precincts need to be hard-wired with computer and internet access — “not wi-fi,” she said.

Two issues may have already been resolved. Green said Cottage Grove Baptist Church officials have told her they’re willing to have their building hard-wired in order to serve as a precinct there. And, at Paris Landing, the community center there would be hard-wired because the volunteer fire department is willing to share its hard-wire with the center.

The situation is still very fluid as far as determining where precincts would be in the future. Green clarified that the current focus is on precinct consolidation and that depends upon results of the redistricting process.

“We’ve gone as far as we can with setting up a (tentative) map until the county makes its decisions on redistricting,” she said.

County Mayor John Penn Ridgeway has said he expects population numbers from the U.S. Census to come in by August or September, and a county committee will then study the redistricting process and formalize a plan by the end of the year.

TWO PRECINCTS PER DISTRICT

Green had placed a map behind the commissioners during Monday’s meeting which showed the possible location of precincts after consolidation.

This list is not final by any means, but here’s what was shown on the map:

• 1st District — Cottage Grove, Puryear.

• 2nd District — Henry, New Harmony Baptist Church.

• 3rd District — Lakewood School, Paris Landing Community Center.

• 4th District — Central Community Service Center, Grove School.

• 5th District — Henry County High School, Tennessee College of Applied Technology.

That would leave each of the county’s five voting districts with two precincts apiece. Some districts currently have three precincts.

The concept of voting centers, which seemed to be the draw for many of those attending Monday’s meeting, is still a ways off. The 2022 elections here cannot be done using that format because the state Legislature never voted to allow it, but Green estimated that system might be in place by 2024.

“This is still fluid,” Stephen Goggans, commission chairman, said while looking at the map.

“We could approve this and it could still get rejected by the County Commission, or rejected by the state. So there’s still a long way to go on this.

“We’re kind of low on the totem pole,” he laughed.

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