published Friday, October 11th, 2013

Hamilton County's elections chief to step down

  • photo
    Charlotte Mullis-Morgan, elections administrator for Hamilton County
    Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NEW VOTING MACHINES

Hamilton County voters will cast their ballots on new voting machines next year, the first update in how ballots are cast in 15 years.

"The ones we have now are absolutely worn out," said Charlotte Mullis-Morgan, Hamilton County Elections administrator. "We just needed to replace them. We prayed them through last November. Fortunately we got through without any problems."

The election commission chose to purchase the $1.2 million machines from a Canadian-based company called Dominion Voting. They will be paid for by federal money through the Help America Vote Act.

"They are very much like the ones we've got," said assistant administrator Scott Allen. "The voters shouldn't have too much of a learning curve."

The machines should be up and running in time for the May 2014 elections.

With more than 80 government seats up for grabs in Hamilton County's 2014 elections, the county's elections administrator will have plenty of early mornings, late nights and headaches.

But next time around, Hamilton County elections Administrator Charlotte Mullis-Morgan says, they won't be hers.

Mullis-Morgan announced this week she will step down from overseeing local elections early next year -- though she plans to remain on the commission's staff.

"I've been working here 32 years. It's time to let somebody else have their turn," she said. "Next year will be an extremely busy year."

Mullis-Morgan said her last day as administrator will be Feb. 4, but she will stay on to help with next year's elections.

On Thursday, election commission Chairman Mike Walden said the panel will soon start to look for Mullis-Morgan's replacement.

"Our attorney is studying state regulations and will be drawing up a job description," he said.

Among other things, the elections administrator oversees all local elections, maintains voter registration records, secures polling locations, trains poll workers and must be well-versed in elections laws, state law says.

While the commission will consider hiring someone from within the office -- as Mullis-Morgan was -- it also will look externally, Walden said.

Scott Allen, Mullis-Morgan's top assistant and grandson of the late Bud Knowles, who was elections administrator for five years, said Thursday he is not interested in the post.

"I'm satisfied in the position I am now," he said. "And I think I'm better utilized in this position."

The new appointment must be made with a majority vote of the five-member commission at a public meeting.

Other than that -- and a rule preventing election commissioners from appointing themselves or family members to the job -- the Tennessee statute governing counties' top elections officials has few guidelines for the appointment process.

That will ultimately be in the hands of the commission, and of the commission's chairman, said Blake Fontenay, state spokesman for the Tennessee Election Commission.

Walden said he expects to follow closely the same procedure that was used to hire Mullis-Morgan in 2010.

"Still, everybody should have the opportunity to apply," he said. "We're going to try to make sure we follow the proper policies. It will be a fair process."

Jerry Summers, a Democrat commission member, said the most recent administrators have been hired based on their qualifications, not on politics -- though it hasn't always been that way in the past.

"I assume we will accept applications and make a decision together," Summers said. "I hope it will be based on ability and professionalism rather than on politics, but that remains to be seen."

State law does nothing to bar elected officials from becoming involved in the selection process, Fontenay said, but the commission makes the final call.

Once appointed, the elections administrator will need to be certified through the state, Fontenay said.

The election administrator's salary now is $95,414, according to county officials.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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