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Few alternatives to Princeton Arts early voting site, election official says

Zach Vance • Nov 5, 2018 at 8:26 PM

One of the four members of the Washington County Election Commission said his office is aware of “some of the shortcomings” regarding early voting at Princeton Arts Center on Oakland Avenue in Johnson City, but there are few other alternatives. 

Jon Ruetz, one of two Republicans serving on the commission, gave some insight into early voting for the general election while speaking to the Washington County Federated Republican Women’s Club on Monday at the Carnegie Hotel. 

Earlier this year, the Washington County Election Commission had to move one of its early voting sites from the Washington County Health Department to the Princeton Arts Center. Ruetz told Republican members the move was not optional, but necessary due to renovations occurring to the health department building. 

Considering the unprecedented turnout for the midterm election, many voters reported extremely long lines and full parking lots when they attempted to cast early ballots at Princeton Arts Center during the latest early voting period. 

“We know there are long lines (at Princeton) and long lines elsewhere. We’re aware of the shortcomings, but we have to work with what we have,” Ruetz said. 

“If you will drive up and down the roads in your mind with us, you will see there are precious few alternatives here. There is no civic auditorium located in the downtown area with parking right up against it that we could get into and have handicap accessibility.” 

Ruetz said the state is not “enthusiastic” about using churches as polling places, but since 11 of the county’s 35 precincts are inside churches or fellowship halls, he said sometimes that’s all they have to work with. 

During his decade-long tenure on the Election Commission, Ruetz recalled having some early voting sites that lacked bathrooms or running water. 

“We hauled in cases of bottled water. We rented the portable facilities. We’ve taken air conditioners and installed in the windows of hot rooms, and we’ve carried heaters to cold ones. We have no way of knowing some of those things. We have to do the best we can,” Ruetz said. 

Ruetz said turnout this early voting period has more than doubled, from 10,499 during the last midterm in 2014 to 26,069 this year. 

“It’s impossible to forecast turnout, and sometimes we miss it. We, like you, knew there was an interest in the election this year, but we were greatly surprised,” Ruetz said. 

He estimated the cost to operate early voting to be between $25,000 and $26,000. 

“It’s very difficult for us to give you an exact figure. We try to plan for possibilities. We budget money — not so we can spend all of it — but so we will have some in case we have problems,” Ruetz said. 

“We’ve had to buy extra computers, printers, and we’ve shoehorned everybody we could into our early voting locations because it’s what we had to work with. All the excess money we have at the end of the budget year goes back to the general fund. Every penny of it.

“26,069 voters for $25,000 or $26,000 works out to about a dollar a vote. Sounds like a pretty good bargain to me.” 

An estimated 300 people will be working the polls this Election Day, considering state law mandates at least four people be in each precinct. 

“They make a whopping $100 per day. It’s the same wage paid in 1966. So this year, we’ve had three elections. That’s $90,000 through Election Day, and $75,000 to $78,000 to do early voting,” he said. 

“We count on these wonderful folks. They will keep your election safe, secret and secure. I’m very proud of them and our entire team.”

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