ACLU latest group feeling jilted after offering DeKalb elections help

The ACLU of Georgia will not move forward with a plan to assist DeKalb County on Election Day, becoming the latest group to say local elections officials are difficult to work with and not receptive to help.

Just last week, the DeKalb County elections board voted 3-2 to join a program allowing local lawyers and other volunteers from the ACLU to become “deputy registrars” and assist with cancelling the absentee ballots of folks who show up to vote in-person instead. Board chair Sam Tillman was one of the no votes.

The goal of the program, which was also adopted by neighboring Fulton County, is to reduce the workload of poll workers and shorten wait times for voters. And as recently as Wednesday, DeKalb elections director Erica Hamilton said her staff was “ready and willing to do whatever we can to make this work.”

ExploreSome of DeKalb's Election Day polling places have relocated

But a day later, local news site Decaturish broke the news that the ACLU had actually decided to disengage, quoting Georgia political director Christopher Bruce as saying elections officials were “being difficult.” Bruce was more diplomatic in a statement later provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but said the deputy registrar program was “no longer feasible” in DeKalb.

“We hope that DeKalb will continue to execute systems to increase the efficiency of the phone calls that poll managers will place to cancel absentee ballots," Bruce said.

In a statement issued through a spokeswoman, Hamilton said she was hopeful her office and the ACLU could still meet and “discuss a way to continue our partnership and support this historic election.”

“While the board is disappointed that the ACLU won’t b assisting the county on Nov. 3," she said, “the lines of communication will be kept open and the ACLU is welcome to support DeKalb voters on Election Day.”

Sentiments like those expressed by the ACLU, however, have become commonplace.

Last month, representatives from the National Vote at Home Institute — a nonprofit brought in to help DeKalb optimize its absentee ballot processing — backed out of the arrangement, saying county elections staff weren’t providing the access, information or cooperation they needed to do their job.

Vote at Home was eventually coaxed back in and, on Wednesday, a representative said she felt things were on the right track.

A communications consultant brought in to help DeKalb’s elections office improve outreach to voters and the media went through a similar journey. County commissioners and some elections board members have repeatedly questioned the leadership of Tillman and Hamilton -- and while raising concerns about the county’s ability to conduct a smooth election.

ExploreDeKalb offers voting info in Korean, Spanish

DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson chairs the commission’s operations committee, which deals with elections-related issues. He said Thursday he was “very very very” disappointed in the latest developments and quoted an old adage about leading a horse to water.

The county commission allocates funding for elections but has no direct oversight.

DeKalb Democrats chairman John Jackson, who recently called for Hamilton and Tillman to resign, said state legislators should intervene and get the ACLU back in the fold.

“It’s not Nov. 3 yet, we can bring them back to the table,” Jackson said. “And we have to bring them back to the table to mitigate the risk that we are facing on Election Day.”

As Jackson and others see it, the risk is long lines, confusion and disenfranchised voters during one of the most contentious election cycles in history. DeKalb County is Georgia’s deepest reservoir of Democratic voters, and local turnout could play a direct role in presidential and congressional races.

The concerns with DeKalb’s elections office, though, go beyond party lines and political interests. DeKalb GOP chairman Lane Flynn has also expressed worries about how things are being handled.

Elections board member Dele Lowman Smith said Thursday she was disappointed things didn’t work out with the ACLU, “especially considering the pattern of difficulties our department has demonstrated in communicating and collaborating with external partners.”

“Not being able to execute this program is a real missed opportunity,” she said, “but we will continue to fight to ensure that DeKalb voters have the best experience possible on Election Day.”