Updated results suggest new candidates for DeKalb commission runoff

DeKalb County commission candidates, from left, Marshall Orson, Lauren Alexander and Michelle Long Spears.

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DeKalb County commission candidates, from left, Marshall Orson, Lauren Alexander and Michelle Long Spears.

Newly released results from the hand count of a DeKalb County commission race suggest a significant change in outcome.

The results announced Wednesday evening — more than a week after election day and two days after the manual count was completed — showed Michelle Long Spears leading the way in the race for the District 2 commission seat, with Lauren Alexander finishing second.

If the results stand, those two would be in a runoff later this month.

Marshall Orson, a longtime DeKalb school board member looking make the transition to county government, would be in third place and out of the running.

That would be a dramatic departure from the preliminary results first reported in the race to represent the district that covers parts of the Decatur, Brookhaven and Atlanta areas in northwest DeKalb.

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Results posted the morning after the May 24 Democratic primary showed that none of the candidates had eclipsed the 50% mark to avoid a June 21 runoff election. Orson and Alexander were at the time reported as the top two vote-getters, with Spears on the outside looking in.

Spears and supporters soon discovered, however, that results showed her receiving zero election day votes at all but a few precincts.

County officials initially suggested that was the result of a simple “display error.” The secretary of state’s office later confirmed that a series of programming changes to voting touchscreens and scanners contributed to an erroneous count.

Ultimately, state elections workers created a situation where most election day ballot scanners were programmed to expect votes for four candidates in the District 2 race when there were only three displayed on ballots. That inconsistency prevented votes for Spears from being counted properly, officials said.

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Election officials give directions to poll workers during the recount of the ballots at DeKalb County Voter Registration and Election office headquarters on Sunday, May 29. 2022. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Election officials give directions to poll workers during the recount of the ballots at DeKalb County Voter Registration and Election office headquarters on Sunday, May 29. 2022.  Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Election officials give directions to poll workers during the recount of the ballots at DeKalb County Voter Registration and Election office headquarters on Sunday, May 29. 2022. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The issues also made the county elections office’s attempt at rescanning ballots a largely fruitless effort. They instead launched a hand count of the ballots cast at the more than three dozen polling places in District 2.

That tally took place over Memorial Day weekend, with three-member teams sifting through paper ballots and confirming voter selections. Counting finished up around midnight Monday.

Elections director Keisha Smith raised some eyebrows during the Tuesday afternoon meeting in which certification of the results was postponed until later this week, saying she wasn’t yet confident in the District 2 vote count and preliminary results wouldn’t be released.

Dele Lowman Smith, chair of the elections board, clarified early Wednesday that officials had a “high degree of confidence” that the hand count in that race was conducted appropriately. But they were taking extra time to double- and triple-check that the results were accurately entered into a spreadsheet and totaled.

“We’re a little gun-shy,” Lowman Smith said. “You put out one thing and to try to be transparent and respond urgently, and if it’s not 100% accurate then we’re accused of being dishonest. And then if you wait to try and get it right then we’re accused of hiding things.

“We just want to get it right.”

All results are considered unofficial until certified by the county elections board, and the Wednesday evening press release announcing the new totals said final results were still being tabulated and reconciled.

Orson, who would be out of the runoff if the updated results stand, said he and his team were reviewing the new data but there were “serious questions as to the administration of the election and the administration of the results.”

“The idea that problems related to the programming of the voting machines and the calculation of votes could not ultimately taint every aspect of the process, including the production of paper ballots, defies belief,” he said in a statement provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We will continue to review our options, keeping at the forefront that any decision should work to foster the integrity and trustworthiness of our electoral process.”

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Alexander also said she would continue to monitor the situation: “It remains important to me that every vote is counted with accuracy and reflects the voters’ will. Due to the limited time between now and the runoff election date, I need to continue to be prepared for the runoff as we await certification.”

And Spears, who was endorsed by outgoing District 2 commission Jeff Rader and led her opponents in fundraising and early voting before the apparent election day snafus, said she was “thrilled” to be positioned for the runoff.

“Since my opponent has been in the runoff for over a week now,” she said, “we are already at a critical disadvantage of informing voters that I led the race in the Democratic primary with over 43% of the voters — and now it is important to focus on getting voters back to the polls to elect me as their next D2 commissioner.”

DeKalb’s elections board is currently scheduled to certify the results of the District 2 primary — and all other races — during a special called meeting at 5 p.m. Friday.

Comparing the DeKalb County District 2 vote counts

The votes in District 2 were hand counted beginning Saturday May 28. The hand recount was announced Wednesday and is reported here. DeKalb election officials will release another final count. All results are unofficial and may be incomplete until certified.

The original count reported 5/25. Note results are unofficial and may be incomplete.