Handicapped access is a challenge at new Macon Mall election office. What we know

Monday’s early voters at the new Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections found out just how far it is to walk to the office from the Macon Mall parking lot — about 175 yards from the nearest handicapped space.

Elections staff set up two voting machines closer to the indoor entrance of the old Sears, but that only shortened the walk by about 50 paces.

Benches are now in place for people to rest along the corridor, but it’s still a long walk.

“Especially for someone with a walker,” said Mike Barron, who will guide voters as they enter from the Mercer University Drive side entrance.

At last week’s Board of Elections meeting, at-large member Mike Kaplan repeated accessibility concerns that were first raised about a year ago.

“There are no handicapped accessible doors,” Kaplan said. “We need some more handicapped spaces in front of our building.”

While automatic sliding doors are supposed to arrive any day, for now Barron can assist those who need a hand opening the doors.

Elections Supervisor Tom Gillon recommends anyone with mobility challenges should consider voting at the Elaine Lucas Senior Center at Carolyn Crayton Park near downtown or Theron Ussery Park off Wimbish Road.

“As far as convenience of a short walk there, their walks are much shorter,” Gillon said. “And so, we always like to see people here at the office, but we certainly understand if they want to go to one of the other places for their own convenience.”

Handicapped spaces are a very short walk from the senior center entrance.

Large flags directing folks to “vote here” were in place Monday morning outside those two other early voting locations, but the mall only had small red signs stuck in the ground around the perimeter.

Directional signs eventually will go up throughout the mall in case someone comes in at another entrance, but they weren’t ready Monday.

“That’s in the works, but for this election, we’re still figuring it out,” Gillon said.

Near the closest entrance to the Board of Elections, county offices for the Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission, SAFEbuilt building services, the Literacy Alliance and a library branch are still under construction.

By the November election Gillon and the board hope to shift a couple of the voting booths to the library, which is next to the mall entrance and could provide greater accessibly.

By law, the absentee ballot drop box must be in a secure indoor location, which for now is the Board of Elections office. The board is exploring the possibility of moving it to the library, too.

But for now, the Presidential Preference Primary is kind of a “soft opening” for the elections staff.

Aside from a few voting machines not coming online right away, things were running smoothly Monday, Gillon said.

A team of poll workers far outnumbered voters at Macon Mall. Near the center corridor of the mall, Faye Butts kept vigil at a folding table with a handful of sample ballots, absentee ballot applications and to answer general questions about the election.

“Are you here to vote?” Butts asked a couple of ladies as they approached.

“We’re here to walk,” one of them replied. “What are we voting for today, anyway?”

Gillon said turnout for a Presidential Preference Primary won’t ever eclipse the General Election or this year’s Nonpartisan Election for mayor and sheriff, but this year is a bigger challenge.

“Some people think that it’s already been settled, how it’s going to go, but that’s not necessarily the case,” Gillon said.

Although a number of Republican presidential candidates suspended their campaigns, they did not withdraw, so their names are still on the ballot, he said.

After only a few voters trickled in during Monday’s first hour of voting, Gillon said that was expected.

“We’re off to a slow start. Just not had any large numbers show up yet. But that’s typical for any election for early voting. The first week is the slowest. The first day of the first week is almost always the slowest,” Gillon said.

Early voting runs weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. through March 8. Presidential preference advanced voters can cast ballots on two Saturdays, Feb. 24 and March 2, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. The deadline to request an absentee ballot by mail is March 1 and the signed ballots must be returned by 7 p.m. on the date of the March 12 primary.

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government. She can be reached at fabian_lj@mercer.edu or 478-301-2976.