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Amid record-high interest, Hamilton county election commissioners address voter concerns

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The fight over voting rights is intensifying across this country and it's taking center stage in our area.

Since the contentious 20-20 presidential election, Hamilton County voters have demanded more transparency and more election security.

Now, Hamilton County election commissioners say they are listening.

There were more people than seats at Wednesday's Hamilton county election commission meeting.

"I think we may be looking at what the new normal is for voter engagement and elections. And honestly, I find it very encouraging," said Nathan Foster, Hamilton County's Assistant Administrator of Elections.

The commission continued discussing the consequences of redistricting.

The voting precinct map shows the county will be going from 135 precincts to 88 voting precincts, but the number of polling places will ultimately increase.

The county plans on adding 8 new election day polling places, bringing the total of polling places from 72 to 80.

A packed room of voters expressed concerns about how these changes will be conveyed and whether voters will be sufficiently educated about where they need to vote ahead of election day.

"If voters are educated, they're motivated to get registered, and to vote actually cast the ballot," said Dr. Everlena Holmes the founder of Hamilton County's Voter Coalition.

The commissioners say they are ramping up their social media presence, website design, and media outreach to help with the process.

They also plan on mailing out voter notification cards in mid-march, after the state confirms redistricting changes.

"We are going to mail every voter, every active voter in the county, a notice to the address that we know them to live at, to let them know what their new polling place is, what their new district is, what their new precinct name is," said Foster.

Others in attendance at Wednesday's meeting expressed worries about election integrity

"My concern has been with the box the purity of the ballot box," said Hamilton County resident Brett Hale.

Election officials explained during Wednesday's meeting that a new state law means beginning in the upcoming May election, every Hamilton County voter who receives an absentee ballot will notice a new state watermark on it.

The watermark hasn’t been finalized yet but will not be able to be reproduced and election officials say that watermark will need to be verified before ballots are counted.

Nate Foster said this new measure is in addition to a very strict signature verification process that is already in place.

"We already have checks and balances in place where someone has to authenticate their identity through a signature. We do signature comparison, but they [state legislators] wanted to take it a step further to alleviate concerns," said Foster.

In last month's meeting the public asked for a more transparent and welcoming voting process and the commission promised changes.

Ahead of this month's meeting, the commission invested in new equipment including speakers and mics, they also reiterated their promised to continue increasing transparency and their presence online

"Spend some money and get some more chairs, because the public is going to be involved from now on in the Hamilton County Election Commission meetings," said Holmes.

Hamilton County's election commission also decided Wednesday that they will not add another early voting location.

The election commission had been considering a third new early voting site at South Chattanooga Recreation Center or the John A. Patton Recreation Center.

But the commission says they reviewed data that measures drive times, population, and voter turnout.

They say it indicates an additional location is not needed at this time, especially given the cost to operate a new site.

However, the founder of the voter's coalition disagrees.

"Now the voters will have to come here. and how are they gonna get here? ya know. lookout valley is gonna have to come here. southside will have to come here. to me that was not a valid reason," said Holmes.

The election commission has already locked in new early polling locations in Soddy Daisy and Ooltewah.

The other three early voting sites are the election commission, Hixson Community Center and Brainerd Y-F-D Center.

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The commission says based on data they’ve used for years which measures drive time and population, a third early voting location is not needed at this time.

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