‘Discord at the highest level’: Elections board, staff clash in DeKalb

A woman walks into the Dekalb County Voter Registration & Elections Office to vote in Decatur Saturday, May 30, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
A woman walks into the Dekalb County Voter Registration & Elections Office to vote in Decatur Saturday, May 30, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

A consultant recently hired to help the DeKalb County elections office communicate with voters was on the verge of resigning Friday, saying county staff haven’t provided enough support for him to do his job effectively.

The tumult comes days after a nonprofit brought in to help DeKalb with processing absentee ballots lodged similar complaints and had to be coaxed back into the fold.

It is just the latest issue that has elections board members concerned about the county’s ability to run a smooth election in November.

“I am angry to the point of a pyroclastic flow that we have been offered help and I don’t see the follow through," board member Susan Motter said, comparing herself to a volcano.

“If you asked me right now whether or not I am confident we are ready, my answer is no."

During Friday morning’s special-called meeting, the elections board approved a dozen early voting locations for November’s election. See the list below.

The agenda for the meeting — which was not posted online until Friday morning — also suggested the board would approve a list of Election Day voting precincts. It did not do so because, less than 40 days before the election, board members hadn’t actually seen such a list.

That would turn out to be the least contentious item of the meeting, which ended with county commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson declaring there to be “discord at the highest level" within the elections office.

“It feels as if we’re not all playing on the same team here,” she said.

Early on, elections board member Dele Lowman Smith revealed that Erik Burton, the communications consultant hired just a few weeks ago, was considering stepping aside.

“Unfortunately, he and his team have not been able to execute all of the various activities that we have asked them to, because they are not getting the support and the cooperation that they require in order to be able to do that effectively," Smith said.

Burton is a veteran communications professional who has previously worked for DeKalb County and MARTA. His firm, Profile Marketing and Public Relations, was hired after a review of the elections office’s operations suggested bringing someone in to improve its public outreach and communication with the media.

Burton — who is working without a contract because the county hasn’t yet put one together — told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday that he and his team hadn’t resigned. But he said he planned on “speaking with leadership ... on ways to enhance our internal communication to ensure that our services yield the best results for DeKalb voters.”

Elections director Erica Hamilton, whose job performance has been regularly questioned by some members of the elections board and county commission, said during Friday’s meeting that she was committed to ironing things out.

The elections office has been under fire since a tumultuous 2018 election cycle, and scrutiny of their operations only increased after a June primary that was filled with technical problems, long lines and lengthy delays in processing absentee ballots.

Hamilton and elections board chairman Samuel Tillman have often been defensive amid questions about the office’s preparedness for November’s closely watched election, and its willingness to accept help that’s being offered.

County commissioners, who have no direct oversight of elections but allocate funding, have repeatedly said they’ll fund anything they’re asked for. Elections board members like Smith, Motter and Baoky Vu have also pushed Hamilton to take advantage of new opportunities to make her life — and the lives of voters — easier.

Smith expressed frustration Friday that Hamilton and her staff have not followed through with initiatives approved by the board, saying votes “seem to have gone ignored.”

Such initiatives included bringing in the National Vote at Home Institute to help evaluate and optimize the county’s absentee ballot process. Representatives from the nonprofit recently said they had disengaged with the elections office because, like Burton, they weren’t getting the information or access they needed to do their job.

Vote at Home representatives were back in town to try again Friday afternoon, two days after county commissioners convened a meeting to encourage elections officials to put forth more of an effort.

Hamilton defended her previous interactions with the nonprofit, saying she had directed staff members to deal with their representatives.

“I didn’t have time to sit down and speak with those individuals and walk them through that process,” Hamilton said. “You’ve hired me for a job, to conduct this election, and that’s what I want to do.”

The statement did not sit well with Smith.

“We don’t throw staff members under the bus for something that we are responsible for ensuring happens,” she said. “Especially when we have people who are throwing themselves and their time at the department, who are willing to pull out all of the stops to be able to help.”

DeKalb County's early voting locations and schedule ahead of November's general election.
DeKalb County's early voting locations and schedule ahead of November's general election.

Credit: DEKALB COUNTY

Credit: DEKALB COUNTY

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